On Christopher Nolan’s eleventh outing as cinema’s near-fi poster boy, extraordinary visuals and a decent showing from the cast struggle to mask weak characters, an annoyingly labyrinthine concept, and a storyline that might qualify as serviceable if only you could hear a word anybody is saying.
A slightly irritating penchant Christopher Nolan has had in his recent output has turned from an understandable need to deliver exposition into a recurring segment in his filmography. An hour-long introduction is required for all his sci-fi ideas to explain the high concept drama that will unfold before your eyes — it happens in Inception, and it happens in Interstellar (although not as severely.) It means that Nolan’s recent output doesn’t bare much rewatching, and that’s fine in the context of enjoying a film for the first time, but when watching Tenet in cinemas, it’s shocking how quickly I became frustrated with just how much context Nolan had to drill into my skull before I could even possibly begin to understand just what the hell is going on.
I don’t like to be made to feel stupid. I mean, who does? But if I can immerse myself into a film’s plot deeply enough I can absolutely accept that I’m a pawn for the filmmaker’s storytelling; if I’m not meant to get it for a while, then fine, as long as there’s a healthy pay off waiting to draw me back in. Unfortunately for Christopher Nolan, his entire film plays out in exactly this way, and the payoff is not at all worth it.
Early in the film, one of Nolan’s necessary expositional characters tells our lead, fittingly credited as The Protagonist, and played with stern excellence by John David Washington, that he shouldn’t try too hard to understand Tenet as a concept. At this point I have half a bucket of popcorn stuffed into my mouth and my eyes are rolling so much that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to see clearly again. To summarise, Tenet is an organisation that toys around with artefacts from the future that are “inverted”, meaning they can travel backwards in time. With me? NO YOU’RE NOT. Because Christopher Nolan doesn’t want you to be with the concept of this film. It becomes increasingly draining as the film spirals into boring war zones and bland fight scenes that are kept alive by the idea that some of it happens in reverse (because that’s a thing in this film, some things happen in reverse while others don’t).
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson put in stellar performances as The Protagonist and Neil, his handler, respectively. Neil, shabby-chic and well-mannered, is a delight to watch as he flits effortlessly between serious gunman and humorous business-casual — Pattinson’s character is a diamond in the rough, buried in a quarry of rocky characters. Kenneth Branagh as Tenet’s primary antagonist, the despicable Andrei Sator, is woefully unthreatening, and Elizabeth Debicki puts in a respectable shift as Sator’s captive wife, Kat, but as with nearly all of Nolan’s women characters, Kat is a frustrating watch. Often at the mercy of men and underdeveloped as a character, it’s difficult to find a whole lot of care for her, even if her situation in the film is a sticky one. A running storyline throughout Tenet is The Protagonist’s seemingly unrelenting desire to move Heaven and Earth to save Kat from Sator, but there isn’t a whole lot of juicy character backstory to dig our teeth into that would give any indication as to why. Out of the goodness of his heart? Colour me unconvinced.
Tenet is undoubtedly Nolan’s most conceptually dense film to date. Although you might not know it because the exposition you desperately need is clouded by muffled delivery. The sound is awful, simply put. It’s difficult to discern exactly what characters are saying, and often at the most inopportune moments; characters speak of espionage in masks, delivering key information to deaf ears. It makes Tenet a cryptic watch before you even bring the plot and the mind-boggling elements into play. I understand that many movie-goers may have an easier time of wrapping their heads around just what the bloody hell is going on in Tenet, but as a film-lover, I want to be entertained above all else. Tenet missed that vital mark for me.
It’s certainly a spectacle. Nolan’s visuals live up to their reputation, and the heady concept of Tenet at least has the eye candy to match. It’s filmed well, and it has the desired affect of getting your blood pumping. But even the action sequences that are sprinkled sparsely throughout this dialogue-heavy espionage film feel forced, and are sadly given precedence over an engaging set of characters and story. About two thirds of the way in, I hope the film will soon be over so I can at least find some migraine relief buried at the bottom of my bag, but the worst is still to come. The final action sequence of Tenet finds us knee-deep in a full-fledged war zone, machine guns blazing and explosions that would make the Fast and Furious franchise jealous. It’s a disappointing conclusion to a film that has at least been discreet with it’s action — the type of scene where the background turns into a haze of gunfire and extras running around playing Rambo.
There have been arguments in recent years that Christopher Nolan has a bad habit of placing spectacle over substantial plot, and I’ve never subscribed to that issue. But if there’s one thing that Tenet has achieved, it’s that its given Nolan sceptics a master’s degree-level trump card to play whenever they want. Tenet is concerned with impressing cinema-goers with surreal fight scenes and a whacky concept rather than focusing on a succinct plot that delivers in both entertainment value and sense. It’s possibly Nolan’s most frustrating film; over-explaining without explaining anything, non-existent character development, and awful audio delivers a genuine dud in Nolan’s otherwise quality filmography.
Words by Connor Cudmore
Graphics and design by Betty Woodhouse