DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan
CAST: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
There was a lot of hype surrounding Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet. The ambitious filmmaker has challenged us in the past with mind-bending epics like Inception and Interstellar, but this time he comes at us with a premise so far out and abstract that you can’t afford to look away. The drama surrounding its release back in September seems to have overshadowed the movie itself, with audiences frustrated that they wouldn’t be able to watch it due to Nolan’s strict no-streaming policy. Access to screeners for critics was also pretty air tight. However, this wasn’t the writer/ director’s middle finger to pandemic rules and restrictions in order to make some extra dough, but his insurance of our attention. He doesn’t want us texting or cooking or folding laundry while we watch this movie, because Tenet is difficult enough to understand even if you aren’t doing those things. Every frame is dense with crucial details that help in comprehending this massively lofty project with a scope that’s unlike most things we’ve ever seen. And unfortunately a high percentage of “I heard it wasn’t good” reviews are sourced from people who are passively watching something, and Nolan feels that if you’re not going to like it, at least you’re going to give it a fair shot.
A former CIA operative (John David Washington), known only as The Protagonist, fakes his death after a failed mission and gets recruited by a highly secret organization called Tenet. He learns about an entirely new technology of inverted bullets and time travel that is being misused by a Russian terrorist named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) in order to start World War III.
Along the way, The Protagonist joins forces with a handler named Neil (Robert Pattinson) who assembles a team to help take down Sator.
He also becomes somewhat romantically involved with Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
There’s a whole lot of plot to unpack here and you have to do a lot of rewinding in order to fully comprehend what’s happening. Once again, Nolan demands a level of trust from his audience.
The director uses that acceptance to his advantage, with the convolution serving as a sort of buffer. There are so many moving parts that plot holes almost can’t be found, and seemingly random characters are introduced without us feeling qualified enough to question the logic of why they’re there. The filmmaker has alienated us with confusion in small moments within his past films, but never for the amount of time that he does so here. By the one hour mark, we’re not even aware enough of the vast intricacies of this plot to be curious about the proceedings. The first half of the film is essentially an aggressive deluge of verbal exposition. Nolan is a master of snappy pace, even within sequential scenes of pure dialogue, but often never leaves room to breathe. In this case, we’re still trying to digest information from the last scene as he moves on to the next.
However, the real challenge early on isn’t necessarily figuring out the details of this time travel world, but how all of these seemingly unrelated sequences fit together. The plot deviates frequently early on as it tries to establish its footing, almost forcing itself into coherence.
The concept is totally Nolan-esque, dealing with temporal paradoxes and weaponized time travel. It’s easily the director’s most challenging film yet, but not given the same kind of fluid storytelling as his others. Think of that one scene in Inception where Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are sitting at that table and he’s teaching her about the mechanics of the dream world. In Tenet, there are multiple “table scenes.” In fact, the entire first half of the movie seems to consist of a never-ending string of table scenes and conversations. But whereas Inception uses one scene to explain the entire film, Tenet spends the entire film explaining one scene.
Tenet’s biggest flaw is not its story but how it’s told. The lack of visual storytelling in the first half is cumbersome. Fortunately the narrative opens up around the halfway mark and we can finally start to piece things together. In fact, the second half of this movie is both masterful and highly enjoyable (as long as you’ve been following along up to this point). Nolan actually repairs so much damage that I actually think I ended up loving this movie.
The director knows how to craft action sequences that are stubbornly inventive and composes them in a way that feels like we’re watching a ballet dance on screen. At times, our viewing experience just turns into an attempt to figure out how these scenes are actually filmed, and wrapping our head around what exactly is going on on a technical level. In that sense, it’s an enjoyable puzzle to solve, especially once we finally do.
For hardcore time travel buffs, Tenet will be a fun one to study. It poses an interesting, if not dangerous, way of traveling through time–moving literally rather than instantaneously. As people in the world move forward in time, they can watch others in the literal act of physically traveling backwards. At times the film almost feels too narrow within the confines of its premise, not really exploring the immensity of the world that’s been created as well as we would like it to, but Nolan has a vision here, and the payoff at the end is well worth it (again, as long as you’ve been following along).
Despite Nolan’s conviction, Tenet lacks a certain verisimilitude, not because of its obtuse content, but the absence of an emotional connection we have to it. As plausible as the events may seem within this world, the characters don’t. Nolan’s film proves to have some potentially deep and emotional moments, but the underdeveloped characters often feel like mere chess pieces that haven’t earned enough of our investment for us to care as much as we should.
Nolan actually repairs so much damage that I actually think I ended up loving this movie.
Despite a lack of weight, the film boasts some strong performances. Branagh, who seemingly spends half of the film with his jaw clenched, is a highlight as the insidious Sator, putting his Shakespearean background to work, fluctuating between highs and lows with complete control, yet total surrender. Pattinson shines once again with another effortlessly nuanced performance, totally embodying Neil as a fully lived-in character moving through his scenes with an impossible calmness and almost otherworldly demeanor as though he’s possibly only a figment of our protagonist’s imagination.
However, Washington as The Protagonist is an odd choice. While he definitely has enough screen presence to carry this film, it’s hard to feel that he’s right for the part. His delivery is never on the mark for the mood that Nolan is going for. When things are casual, he’s too intense. Then when things are serious, he plays it too cool. I love the actor in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, but here he recites lines like he’s reading cue ards. This wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan movie without its share of captivating, jaw dropping, and blissfully haunting twists. And he delivers them here more than ever. However, you might have to replay some scenes over (and over) again in order to get the full effect, but it’s a reward that’s well worth your time.
Nolan’s greatest achievement here is how he maintains his cinematic power in spite of his flaws. Tenet might very well be one of the greatest technical achievements ever displayed in cinematic history, but it’s more than just a big budget diversion. Able to have his cake and eat it too, the filmmaker assembles one of the most perplexing plots in existence, but also one of the most pleasingly mind-blowing. Things like perspective and logic become distorted, but Nolan treats his movie like time travel itself: by making it so abstract that you have to rely on some level of credence in the truth, even if you can’t fully understand why that’s so. It’s not an easy thing to do in a world where everything we watch needs to make sense, but somehow Nolan establishes an amount of ease over his ambiguities. It may just be too abstract for the casual viewer, but the director challenges us every step of the way for those who are willing to accept.