Why exactly was Christopher Nolan lobbying Warner Bros to release his new film Tenet to theatres in the middle of a pandemic, when cinemas around the world are operating at a sharply reduced capacity, if not entirely closed? That’s a conundrum only rivaled in convolution by the film’s plot. Nolan still got it done, and the film is the first blockbuster to reach the silver screens since March. But for all the confidence the Dunkirk director seems to have in his most recent work, there is little in the 150-minute film to back it up.
A terrific trailer released back in January prompted initial excitement over Tenet, starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse, Good Time). Nolan’s name alone was enough to perk some ears, considering his impressive directorial run over the last decade. For viewers expecting a mindbender à la Inception, however, buckle up, because Tenet is trippy and complicated to an almost insulting degree.
Putting aside the fact that there were a dozen people in the theatre room–which, given the pandemic, will probably be the norm for a while–and that the dialogue was so indistinguishable that I thought the cinema’s speakers had become faulty from underuse (turns out that this is an issue with the film), Tenent is a reminder that you can only be so overwhelmed before reverting to jadedness. Yes, Interstellar was complicated, but a crash course in astronomy and a Google search on the theory of general relativity could clear most viewers’ confusion. Inception may have left the viewer with voluntarily unanswered questions, but at least they were intriguing enough to incite an enjoyable re-watch.But while the aforementioned leave you wanting to know more, Tenent leaves you with the desire to simply comprehend the basics. It’s as if Nolan looked at the challenged but enthused audience of his previous works and said: “You liked that? Well, watch this” with a cheeky smirk on his face.
Though he’s accomplished something quite brilliant here by making a full loop out of the movie’s timeline (the film’s ending is set before the beginning’s events), one wishes he’d hold our hands a bit longer as the audience experiences it. Essentially, the protagonists–secret service agents fighting Eastern European arms dealers–try to stop the enemy from destroying the world. Sounds simple thus far. The technology with which the antagonists want to destroy the world is one that allows whatever goes through an ‘inverting’ machine to function backwards through time. French actress Clemence Poesy’s only scene in the film shows her as a scientist initiating the nameless protagonist to this time-bending concept. She hands him an empty gun with a bullet beside it; when he pulls the trigger, the projectile re-enters the pistol. There’s little further explanation on the whole affair, and the film never slows down to properly expound the phenomenon. So, here’s your correspondent’s best and most concise synthesis so far: it’s like time travel, but it isn’t time travel, it’s just people and objects being ‘inverted’ (basically ‘in reverse,’ timewise) as time carries on as usual. Simple, right?
If you think it’s one of those concepts you’ll fully understand once you see it on screen, you’re sadly in the wrong. The most frustrating moment in the film happens about two-thirds in, when Robert Pattinson’s character sits down beside the antagonist’s wife to brief her on the ‘invertedness’ she just experienced. But just as he begins, the scene cuts and transitions. Barring the fact that one should, by that point in the movie, already know what the hell is going on, it’s utterly mind boggling that the explanation was cut–viewers could have used it! Pattinson’s character is the most charismatic in the film; if only he crouched by each moviegoer’s side to give them a rundown, maybe then its events would seem more coherent.
Despite all its drawbacks, Tenet is still a Nolan film, meaning its strong points are quite substantial. The script, or at least what can be distinguished of it, is sharp. There’s no dilly-dallying in the film, and the dialogue is quite fast-paced, so it often feels like a very clever exchange of ideas. A smart and concise appearance by Michael Caine makes the film’s most charming scene, and Washington and Pattinson have brilliant on-screen synergy. The opening sequence’s visuals are Nolanesque, what with a sombre tone and impactful, base-heavy audio. The score is also awesome, and suits the whole movie very well, as is to be expected from Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson.
If Tenet was to be judged purely on style, this review would have been far more positive. It’s a very cool film, and one can only hope it makes John David Washington a regular occurrence on the big screen. But its sharp performances and visuals are dulled by the dizzying and unmanageable plot, which intrinsically undermines the characters’ depth–and the viewers’ appreciation of them.
For avid moviegoers anxious to sit in the cinema again, Tenet is worthwhile. Some are already calling it a masterpiece. For anyone else just wanting to see a polished action flick with flair, the next Bond film is set for November, so you might as well just wait.
It’s a very cool film, and one can only hope it makes John David Washington a regular occurrence on the big screen. But its sharp performances and visuals are dulled by the dizzying and unmanageable plot.