Warner Bros and director Christopher Nolan have spent over a year hyping the mystery of their latest film, Tenet. From the outset, the palindromic title and use of backwards footage in marketing suggested another one of Nolan’s trademark time-manipulation stories. Phrases like “reversing the flow of time” were dropped in trailers, and audiences wondered: what further secrets would 2020’s most-anticipated blockbuster hide?
The answer, dispiritingly, is “not many” – the mystery was all an exercise in hubris and marketing. At its heart, Tenet is a fairly straightforward sci-fi action film about a CIA operative (John David Washington) drawn into a “temporal cold war” between the forces of the present and those of a shady future, fought using technology that can reverse matter’s flow of time. That is the premise, as a character explains early on in the film – and as every other character continues to explain for the rest of the 150-minute runtime, without substantially expanding upon it. The plot, which boils down to preventing a bomb from going off, is presented in an unnecessarily obtuse manner, at the total expense of character, clarity, and ultimately enjoyment.
Arthur C Clarke famously said that sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Take a microwave oven back a couple centuries, and you’d be accused of witchcraft. It cuts the other way, too, in that we don’t need to know a microwave’s technical intricacies in order to understand it on a functional level. Nolan is selling us a microwave with Tenet, but he is ranting about cavity magnetrons and polar molecules when all he needs to tell us is that it makes food hot. Presented with this much make-work exposition, we feel like we have to hold it all in our heads — which actually works against its goals and merely causes confusion. If only Nolan trusted that the audience doesn’t need to know how time travel of Tenet works in order to accept that it works, he might have turned in a much better script.
Ironically, the best way to enjoy this overly-cerebral film is to not think too much about it.
In focusing so heavily on exposition, Nolan’s script reduces multiple strong actors (Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel) to little more than lecturers on the film’s concepts – or worse, on the minutiae of action set-pieces we’re about to see play out visually anyway. The two principal characters have no lives, goals, or emotional attachments outside their tactical missions; Washington’s character is literally referred to, in dialogue and credits, as The Protagonist. Any sense of personality in the Protagonist or his handler Neil comes courtesy of the innate charisma of Washington and co-star Robert Pattinson. Only Elizabeth Debicki’s character is granted any sense of personal motivation, but her regressively cringeworthy supporting role revolves entirely around motherhood and domestic abuse at the hands of Kenneth Branagh’s cartoonish villain. For a large stretch of the movie, she’s not even conscious. But characters in general are a secondary concern in a film desperately, constantly scrambling to justify its own self-serious premise.
Bafflingly, the script also repeatedly undercuts its own ideas. The core conceit fires exciting “what-if” triggers in the audience’s brains, but unfortunately the movie just isn’t that imaginative in its use of it. Conceptual threads are abandoned constantly, while the film’s structure fails to live up to the satisfying palindromic promise of the premise or even illustrate the “why” of it all. Dialogue constantly describes the mechanics of the film’s particular flavour of time travel, but we rarely ever see it properly in action. Ending the film in a bland, incoherent gunfight is especially disappointing. In the end, there’s less inventive time travel play in Tenet than in an average episode of Doctor Who, which notably has dealt with a few of the specific ideas in this film itself.
Happily, the action set-pieces are still grand and audacious practical affairs. It is always fun to see an action movie transition to multiple locked-off, unmanned cameras for a particularly expensive or dangerous stunt. But they still feel limited, engaging in single acts of spectacle without exploring the uses of the core concept that could feed into them. Just one sequence properly renders the mental gymnastics physical, and it’s both thrilling and laugh-out-loud funny as a result — but nothing else lives up to it. Perhaps that’s down to Nolan’s philosophical resistance to computer-generated effects. Perhaps it is due to the rushed production process, or the sheer technical difficulty of the few reverse-time gags Nolan did pull off. In a worst-case scenario, it might just be down to a dearth of imagination.
Technically speaking, Tenet is confoundingly both cutting-edge and uncharacteristically rough. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography does great service to Nolan’s large-scale directing achievements, but is rarely afforded the grace notes that littered the likes of Interstellar or Dunkirk, thanks to a breathless and confusing edit that shears away anything not directly informing plot. This also has the curious effect of neutralising the film’s globetrotting geography: characters hop casually between continents as interchangeably as if they were rooms in a house, leaving us to wonder what the point was beyond a fleeting change of scenery. Ludwig Göransson’s immense score, though full of clever backwards compositional tricks, frequently drowns out the dialogue via an audio mix that continues Nolan’s singular obsession with placing masks and distortion filters on his characters. These choices all leave the audience wondering — vocally, in my screening — what the hell is going on.
Its dialogue, more interested in mechanics than character, is delivered in dense chunks, comprised largely of mission briefings before high-concept action sequences. The story revisits the sites of earlier set-pieces, for plot reasons but with the added advantage of reusing expensive assets. Characters chase a MacGuffin device split into nine pieces hidden around the world. And most hilariously of all, the film culminates in a military operation in an abandoned town, enacted by soldiers on literal red and blue teams. Combined with an obsession with metaphysics, the whole exercise has the feeling of a Hideo Kojima game, only without interactivity.
Nolan has long had these faults, but his strengths as a filmmaker have previously outweighed them, resulting in some of the last couple decades’ finest popular works in cinema. Much of the criticism of Nolan has even been somewhat unfair, coming from critics who refuse to engage with the humanity under the films’ chilly surfaces. But Tenet plays out almost like self-parody, amplifying all the cliches and memes about Nolan’s style (suit tailoring, for example, comes up in more than one scene) while diminishing his robust classical storytelling and sidelining the emotion that has been there, buried, in most of his work thus far.
Warner Bros clearly adores and respects Nolan; he has delivered them a string of hits popular with audiences, critics, and awards bodies alike. Tenet represents a dangerous gambit in the age of COVID-19 : a blockbuster so must-see the studio hopes audiences will risk infection and death just to catch a glimpse of its brilliance. But in the end, Tenet is just a movie, as it was always going to be. Nolan’s success has finally caught up with him, his self-important arrogance as a writer fully getting in the way of his taste and skill as a director.
There is spectacle to be had here, and at its best moments, it is every bit as huge and thrilling as any other film in Nolan’s filmography. But the bulk of the movie, largely spent getting to those moments, is a drab and bewildering slog. It is Christopher Nolan’s least-engaging film in years, and it is certainly not worth putting your life on the line to see it in theatres — if for no other reason than you will probably need subtitles to understand what anybody’s saying. Otherwise, the credits will roll and the plot will still be a mystery to you.
John David Washington,Robert Pattinson,Kenneth Baragh,Dimple Kapadia,Clémence Poésy,Michael Caine,Elizabeth Debicki,Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel