Synopsis: An ex-CIA agent only known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is roped into a secretive organisation that aims to stop a global catastrophe resulting from the ability to reverse time.
1. Uh … it’s not good. It’s not bad per se, but it’s certainly not good.
2. Fine, I’ll start over. Ahem. With Tenet, Christopher Nolan appears to have transformed into the parody version of himself that certain corners of the Internet paint him as. Needlessly convoluted plot? Check. Pseudo-intellectual pontification of weighty ideas? Check. A flashy temporal mechanic primarily used to spice up action scenes? Check. Mountains of exposition? Check. A dead wife? Che – well, not really, but given how paper-thin the character is, she might as well be. This version of Nolan – the frigid pseud who makes dumb popcorn movies that pretend to be deep – is not one I agree with … until now. Tenet is comfortably the worst entry in the Nolan oeuvre, a film that amplifies his worst traits (1) and downplays his best ones. (2)
3. The first issue I have with Tenet is a massive one. Its central mechanic (or gimmick, if you want to be unkind) is boring. It is uninteresting not only as a theme or motif, but fails to be even an entertaining narrative or filmmaking device. This is an unfortunate first from a director who had so skilfully deployed similar time-bending gimmicks in Memento, Inception and Dunkirk. Tenet‘s much touted action scenes, which feature one party moving forward in time with the other moving backwards, look less like a masterfully choreographed ballet and more like two drunks in the street at 3am unsuccessfully grappling with each other to maintain their balance. This is a general problem throughout Tenet – its straightforward action scenes are superb, with the best of the lot being a close quarters kitchen brawl that resembles a less caffeinated Bourne movie. However, said action sequences (such as an art vault heist and a heavy vehicles chase), after chugging along nicely, get completely derailed by the timey-wimey nonsense that Nolan deludes himself into thinking is the core of this movie. This all culminates in the climax, which is one of the dullest, grayest moments that the director has ever put onscreen, involving literal faceless figures in green facing off against other faceless figures in blue in a setting that can be best described as boilerplate urban ruin. It is a shockingly pedestrian effort from a filmmaker who made his name on bombastic action scenes, utterly lacking in coherence, visual pleasure, or meaning.
4. And speaking of meaning, is Tenet ever lacking in that department. Nolan’s reach has always exceeded his grasp, with a certain too-many-blunts-in-the-dorm-room-at-3am-faux-profundity to his ideas. Oddly enough, this is also the nexus of his mass appeal, as his movies are challenging enough to make the viewer feel clever, but not to the extent where they become alienating. The reason behind this faux-profundity lies in the fact that Nolan deals almost purely in abstraction – capital-letter themes like Love or War or Time or Memory that seem epic and grandiose, but hold very little concrete or specific weight. A Nolan movie is a parade float – a colossal beast with little under the surface but air. Don’t get me wrong here – this is not a criticism, purely an observation. This abstraction is what posits Nolan as the closest heir to Spielberg or Lucas, the OG blockbuster titans who threaded the needle perfectly between disposable entertainment and pop-art. Tenet, however, is nothing but hot air, entirely absent of any sense of depth. The saddest thing about this superficiality is how goddamn hard Nolan is straining to make Tenet mean something to absolutely no avail. Characters seemingly speak in nothing but Zen koans about time and free will and predestination and yet at its core, the movie has little to say about any of these concepts. The most laughable part of the whole enterprise is how, approximately fifteen minutes before the end of the movie, Tenet decides to throw in a climate-change related motivation for its (unseen) antagonists, and it is just so underdeveloped and sudden that it feels like a bad joke. For a movie all about time, what the hell does Tenet have to say about it other than … uh … it’s kinda hard to take control of it?
5. The emptiness of this film is further compounded by its characters, or lack thereof. John David Washington, fresh off his fabulous star turn in BlacKkKlansman, is given a grand total of nothing to work with. Washington is charismatic enough to remain a watchable screen presence, but the fact remains that his character is nothing more than a blank slate. Oh yeah, I have not even mentioned that his name is literally The Protagonist, as though it could not be more obvious that Christopher Nolan has zero interest in creating an actual character for the lead. Future Batman Robert Pattinson is very much in the same boat, bringing his usual weirdo-louche energy to another cardboard cutout character and doing whatever he can to try to weave a personality out of the loose threads the screenplay provides. Elizabeth Debicki tries her damndest to be the emotional core of the movie in a battered wife role far inferior to her last one, but Christopher Nolan is famously terrible at writing female characters, and he sure as hell didn’t improve on that in this movie. Special mention though, must go to Kenneth Branagh for a performance that can only be described as embarrassing. Wielding a terrible Russian accent with the grace of a concussion victim, Branagh’s scenery chewing is only outmatched in awkwardness by his sad attempt to inject some pathos into a character that can be best described as a slightly more absurd Dr. Evil. I mean … the dude played Henry V and Iago and fucking Hamlet! How did we end up here?
6. And yet, with all of that, I hesitate to call Tenet a bad film, because even with all its flaws, it’s still directed by Christopher Nolan, who is still (even at his very worst) a hell of a director. There are moments in Tenet that harken back to his best work, be it the awe-inspiring audacity to crash an actual bloody plane into a building, or how Ludwig Göransson’s score (which does so much heavy lifting in this movie) might be one of the best he’s ever had, or the moments where his camera movement and editing (3) dovetail together so beautifully (as it did in Dunkirk or Inception or The Dark Knight) to draw the viewer into the scene. Yet these are but moments, mere frustrating glimpses into what the good version of Tenet might have been – which is a fucking James Bond movie. Think about it. A charming, seemingly ice-cold secret agent with a hidden heart of gold jets all over the world in nice suits, using state-of-the-art technology to bring down an evil organisation led by a big bad Russian supervillain while romancing his beautiful blonde wife? Sure sounds like double-oh-seven to me. But, one gets the feeling that Nolan would have deemed a straightforward spy thriller beneath his attention, hence the timey-wimey bullshit and the empty philosophising and the plot that achieves the rare feat of being ludicrously simplistic and unbearably overcomplicated.
7. So is it worth watching Tenet? Probably, because after all, what the hell else is there to see in cinemas? In IMAX (which I saw this in), I have to admit that I was still blown away by its scale and scope, but it’s hard for me to distinguish how much this was due to the filmmaking craft on display and how much was just nostalgia for the before-times. Christopher Nolan still remains a good enough director to make Tenet watchable, but there is no denying that many of its deep flaws are a culmination of the weaknesses exhibited throughout his filmography. It is an overstuffed yet empty experience, featuring flat characters mechanically plodding their way from dull setpiece to dull setpiece, spouting empty platitudes and inaudible exposition as they yawn their way through the pretentious puffery camouflaging itself as a coherent story. To paraphrase a character that Branagh has played on the stage, Tenet is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. If this is supposed to be the post-COVID saviour of cinema, then we are in for some very dark times ahead.
- Choppy and rushed editing, important exposition and dialogue that gets lost in the sound mix, flat characters, a tone so chilly it’s practically sub-zero, and a screenplay that is at once overly simplistic and overly complicated.
- The visceral pulse of his action sequences, the narrative and structural cleverness of his stories, his penchant for drawing out great performances, the awe-inspiring scale of his mise-en-scene and practical effects, and his expressionistic cross-cutting editing style.
- Yes I know he breaks all the continuity editing rules, but I’m a pleb, and I can’t help but find his tricks extremely effective