Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was certainly one of the most talked-about films of the year, and rightfully so. Aside from the film being another mysterious and ambitious narrative by the celebrated auteur, featuring a talented list of actors like John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, Tenet was also the industry’s hope of reviving the cinema-going experience. Although it didn’t succeed in achieving that goal, the action-thriller’s content has justifiably become a hot topic of conversation, as Nolan has delivered a perplexing visual treat with his latest venture.
Tenet tells the story of The Protagonist (Washington), a uniquely named special agent, who is given one word (“Tenet”) as a weapon in his travels through time and a world of international espionage, as he looks to stop World War III. It’s a truly Nolan Esq. narrative, and it opens in a spectacular way, again, just as one would expect from a Nolan epic. The opening sequence sees The Protagonist embroiled in an explosive undercover mission at a theatre. It’s an eye-catching and engaging opening sequence that uses the crowded setting of a theatre to great effect with visuals such as the large crowd simultaneously falling unconscious. It also does a nice job of teasing the time-bending world the audience and The Protagonist are about to enter. In addition to setting up the world and our hero, it successfully whets the appetite for more stunning action sequences.
Film is a visual medium, and arguably no filmmaker better utilises the visual element in Hollywood than Nolan, and Tenet is a prime example of that. The greatest strength of this film is undoubtedly its stunning visuals, as the concept of the future returning to the past and “inverted” attacks are brought to life with one dazzling sequence after another. Whether it’s the much-spotlighted car chase scene, interlinking scenes that shall not be revealed, or the captivating climax, the film rarely leaves you without your eyes being wide open in amazement. Also, when you realise the majority of action sequences are shot practically, with little CGI, your appreciation doubles for the work of Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.
The visual spectacle unfolding before our eyes is enough to capture our attention, but what makes each sequence so engaging and effective is the fact it’s not always spectacle for the sake of spectacle. It intelligently incorporates visual elements to remind us of the concept of “inverted” attacks. So when a mirror with a gunshot mark is seen, a sense of anticipation and drama builds as audiences sit on the edge of their seats, wondering where their heroes will end up next in this chaotic and puzzling world of time travel.
The film also has the luxury of a stellar cast who all deliver compelling performances. Washington drips with James Bond-like charisma, while Pattinson elevates every scene with a subtle and delightfully charming performance. However, Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal of Katherine Barton arguably stands out as the most important performance. Not only does Debicki do an excellent job of bringing forth a relatable and sympathetic character, but in doing so, provides the only real emotional pull of this unfortunately weak script.
Tenet by no means lacks imagination, and it successfully pulls off many of its very daring ideas. However, where it fails is linking its ideas together to create a coherent and enjoyable story. Although Nolan enjoys making audiences think and creating intricate storylines, this time around, he simply creates chaos. But while the visual chaos is fun, the chaotic story is not, as we’re often left wondering what the goal of our hero is. Also, as the narrative enters the final stages, our confusion is only heightened by an influx of more complex storyline details. It’s too much, too messy, and you soon switch off by just embracing the spectacle and little else.
The film’s lead characters also lack emotional depth, and except for Debicki’s Katherine, it’s difficult to connect with any of the characters on an emotional level, especially our ‘protagonist’. Audiences will no doubt take great joy in watching Washington as this supremely talented and composed secret agent, but unfortunately, few if any can relate to such a character without knowing much about his back-story. The generic “save the world” goal is not enough to make people invest in the hero emotionally.
Nolan’s latest project feels like it cheats the system because, despite its convoluted narrative, the film is undeniably engaging and exciting throughout its over two-hour runtime. After watching this time-travelling tale, one can understand why the director was insistent it was released in cinemas, as it’s truly a cinematic experience. Unfortunately, despite the spectacle, it will likely be viewed as one of Nolan’s weakest films. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it” is a dialogue from the film, and ironically, it perfectly sums up the experience that is Tenet.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Scr: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine.
Prd: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
DoP: Hoyte van Hoytema
Tenet is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.