Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s newest, mind-boggling film comes loaded with expectations not only in terms of it needing to deliver spectacle and entertainment, but also revitalising cinemas in the midst of a pandemic.
An unnamed man, only referred to as The Protagonist, is first seen assisting the CIA in an operation to retrieve an object. It all goes haywire and the man is captured but he bites down on a suicide pill only to wake up and find out he passed the test. He is given a word, Tenet, which will open the right doors as well as some wrong ones for him in his quest for… something.
From there, The Protagonist is thrown into a world of international espionage and time inversion, a concept which will have film fans talking and arguing about it for years to come. Tenet is undoubtedly smart, perhaps so smart it comes off a little smug, like that one kid in school who knew he was intelligent and rather insufferable for it. Nolan is no stranger to messing around with time and different timelines in his films, but Tenet is the first one that, despite a lot of big, flashy action sequences, doesn’t manage to convey its ideas cinematically.
The idea of inversion, objects moving through time backward, is so complex, it requires characters to constantly explain the plot for us to keep up. Tenet isn’t necessarily hard to follow as long as you accept what you’re being told at face value, but its pacing is surprisingly sluggish for a film that features a real airplane being crashed into a hangar. It’s easy to confuse a complex concept with brilliant storytelling and it brings me no pleasure to say Tenet might be Christopher Nolan’s worst script to date, particularly in terms of dialogue and a poor and awkward attempt at portraying domestic violence.
At first, Tenet feels like a film where Nolan attempts to right his wrongs and address the criticisms he has received over the years; I found myself laughing multiple times at the dry wit of both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, but the accusation that Nolan is humourless isn’t so much tied to the fact that his films lack comedy or jokes, but that he takes his own films and concepts so seriously, it often makes the films buckle down under their own weight.
Despite all the time-related confusion, Washington might be the most accessible protagonist in a Nolan film, mostly because he often seems as confused as we are. He and Pattinson have great chemistry and much of the film’s enjoyment comes from watching these two characters bounce off each other and engage in a battle of who looks more dashing in a well-tailored suit. Elizabeth Debicki feels somewhat wasted in a role that leaves her with the impression of agency, but actually gives her very little to do. Kenneth Branagh is delightfully weird and menacing in a hammy role with an even hammier accent.
When the big action sequences kick in, they are simply extraordinary and we never expected anything less from Nolan, who is clearly a director most comfortable directing action and while Tenet certainly challenges him in creating inverted action sequences and making them bigger and better, Tenet otherwise feels like a step back in terms of dialogue and character development. This is a narrative purely driven by the action and concept, but it lacks a human connection. There is nothing to grasp, nothing to identify with on-screen, no matter how charismatic the actors are. In that sense, Tenet feels like a disappointment, but it’s a must-see experience for film fans far and wide and another impressive film from the master of action.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Scr: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Prd: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Music: Ludwig Göransson
Country: UK / USA
Run time: 150 minutes
Tenet is in cinemas now.