Released 2020. Director: Christopher Nolan
WATCHING TENET FELT AT TIMES LIKE attending a lecture on theoretical physics, as I struggled to keep up with Professor Nolan's absolutely out-of-this-world hypothesis that's turning my brain into wobbly jelly. I tried hard to follow his convoluted ideas but I became lost and left behind. So I went back and watched the movie a second time and I wasn't any more enlightened than before. Come exam time and Prof. Nolan would grade me a D-.
Tenet is bewildering and almost impossible to engage with. The master manipulator of timeline, Christopher Nolan has reversed, jumbled, folded, stacked, bent and compressed the concept of time like origami in movies such as Memento, Dunkirk, Interstelar and Inception, to great effect. The flow of time is integral to his narrative architecture. Tenet is no different in this regard, an ambitious endeavour for a blockbuster action sci-fi which, uncharacteristically for Nolan this time, rings hollow.
The complex and tortuous plot involves our nameless protagonist teaming up with another secret agent to save the world before a Russian arms dealer unleashes a device that alters the flow of time. Sounds direct enough, but it’s actually a lot more complicated than my simple synopsis.
The device reverses the flow of time, which means we see action happening backwards. This provides Nolan with a visual jackpot to stage eye-popping set-ups like people fighting, tumbling and falling in rewind motion, bullets originating from their targets, whether it’s shattered glass or a wall, shot back into the weapons. Cars in high-speed chase reversing like crazy weaving through highway traffic, even flipping occasionally and then righting themselves upright, rather impossibly but gobsmacking cinematically. Mirroring its palindrome title, the action goes forward and backwards, sometimes simultaneously.
All these visual stunts overtake the weak and knotty story where real people are involved. We know next to nothing about the protagonist, except he’s an unusually capable ex-CIA agent. Some might say that’s the point, that the only thing we need to know about this man is he’s capable of doing his job. I say a little personal history always enriches the story because a vacuum around the protagonist results in an inability to connect or invest, and it creates an empty space between audience and proxy.
It is unlike Nolan to not give sufficient attention to building his main character. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was given prime attention to carve out his emotional landscape in Inception. Guy Pearce’s troubled inner world is the mystery that drives Memento. Matthew McConaughey’s personal sacrifice looms large over his mission in Interstellar. The blank slate on which the protagonist in Tenet operates makes his character as anonymous as a stranger you pass on the street.
John David Washington can play intense suited to the action-thriller genre but it’s all very superficial and distant. Robert Pattinson’s role as his sidekick is necessary to move things along but hardly memorable. Elizabeth Debicki as a statuesque Venus in distress is a rehash of her role in the TV series The Night Manager. Kenneth Branagh, so effective in an understated supporting role in Dunkirk, goes full hammy here to channel outdated villains in Bond movies of the last century when megalomania ruled. I’m surprised I care so little about any of them, or what’s going on between them, even though it’s high stake and the world might end, or something disastrous like that.
Technically the movie deserves top marks and not enough credit is given to the stuntmen and women and fearless drivers for the impressive work they do. The thrill ride they work so hard to put on screen makes for extended action-packed sequences searching for dots to join the parts of an inexplicable plot together.
Tenet is super-polished, big scale, a blend of espionage and fantasy featuring unworldly technology. People are fighting to save the world from a fate worse than nuclear holocaust – how exactly, I’m not entirely sure. Best if you just let the action rush along even if it doesn’t appear to make sense. If you can explain every detail you deserve some kind of academic certificate and should donate your brain to science.
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