Christopher Nolan's latest globe-trotting sci-fi thriller Tenet is an unbalanced, albeit ambitious piece of work. Think Memento and Primer, only with a larger budget and broader strokes, occasionally striking that same mind-bending magic as Inception, but mostly leaning too hard on its visual flare and forced "event cinema" architecture that Nolan is known for.
Director Christopher Nolan returns with yet another massively-scaled piece of original science fiction in Tenet, a film billing itself not as time travel, but time inversion as star John David Washington travels the globe in attempts of preventing World War III from happening by using the past, present and future as the ultimate weapon.
The Protagonist (John David Washington) is a CIA operative getting thrown into a world of international espionage that he soon realizes means preventing WWIII, only not with your typical bullets and assassinations. This time, he must use something called time inversion to alter time itself in hopes of stopping Russian psycho Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) . With the help of Andrei’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist plots on a course that takes him across the globe and across time to discover the true nature of time inversion and its effects on the world.
Christopher Nolan has returned to the world of mind-bending science fiction with Tenet, a film that looks to Inception and says, “hold my beer”. Where Inception required patience and understanding as Nolan took us deeper and deeper into the dream world, Tenet requires a math book and a degree in Physics for one to truly understand just what Nolan is trying to accomplish from a technical aspect.
The story of Tenet is rather simple, unfolding over extensive (and slightly repetitive) sequences featuring our main characters walking down a road, spilling key points of what is about to happen and what they’ve learned from their previous outing. This is all trademark Nolan stuff, which is either going to be comforting or slightly irritating as Tenet quickly becomes an exercise in Nolan Filmography 101, with a dash of new performances from his cast (aside from Michael Caine).
Once Tenet gets rolling, things start to piece together and the story starts to add up in a way that makes sense and evolves naturally. It takes nearly two hours for the film’s time inversion to really click and for Nolan’s script to start twisting and turning things to the point of thematic satisfaction. I can’t exactly explain this without spoiling, but I can say that you will start to understand previous scenes as you progress deeper into this world that Nolan has no doubt constructed with the ultimate amount of care and scientific research.
But this proper care and knowledge is almost what becomes one of the film’s glaring issues. It reaches a point where it feels like Nolan is making things confusing for the sake of it and not to better the plot or its characters. There’s a point early on when one of the characters says something along the lines of “don’t even bother trying to keep up/understand” when trying to explain the mechanics of time inversion and that is how you will surely feel the entire time. Things happen and the story starts making sense, only for Nolan to twist the knife even more, failing to come back for that final payoff.
When it’s all said and done, Tenet wraps itself up in way that makes perfect sense, but feels like it took nearly three hours to sell such a simple story. One that could have easily been condensed into a much shorter running time.
Tenet also feels like another cold and visually drab affair. Nolan captures these exotic locations in such a lifeless manner. This made sense in Dunkirk, a film about the chaos and bleak realities of war, but it doesn’t really add up for a film about manipulating time and possibly having the ability to alter the past (or at least a fragment of a specific dimension’s past?). Why does everything feel like such a helpless exercise when our main character is literally given the chance to alter anything from death to the end of the entire world?
John David Washington‘s The Protagonist is one of the most boring leading men to ever grace the screen. I can’t exactly knock his performance, which felt so much like he was doing an impression of his father Denzel Washington, yet still managing to give off that energy and spark in a way that made his character somewhat unpredictable and far from the norm when you think CIA agent. I don’t have as much of a problem with Washington’s performance as I do his character. Nolan doesn’t give us a strong emotional backbone. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Cobb is constantly haunted by his wife’s memory in each and every moment of a dream — this makes us understand his character’s motives and intentions, which directly impact his emotions. There is none of that here in Tenet. The Protagonist is simply trying to prevent total annihilation because that’s what CIA agents do, while also trying to learn more about time inversion, because who wouldn’t want to be able to mysteriously catch a bullet that has already been fired? We don’t know why he cares about any of this on a personal level, aside from just assuming that he’s a good guy.
His relationship with Elizabeth Debicki‘s Kat is shallow and laughable, creating a false sense of guilt as he “brought her” into this cruel world of arms dealers and time travel, suddenly feeling like he needs to get her out safely or else its on him?
Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson‘s Neil is the film’s only true shining star. Pattinson gives us a suave, confident and also mysterious character that you equally don’t care about, yet are slightly more engaged with, if only because you want to learn more about his backstory, which adds up completely come curtain call, but doesn’t really wow your socks off.
I’m glad Pattinson is getting some “summer blockbuster” screen time before starring in The Batman next year. This was no coincidence to drop such a huge Christopher Nolan movie with him co-starring a year before he takes on the mantle as the caped crusader. I can say that Tenet doesn’t highlight his acting in a way that will change your opinion of him, unless your only connection to him is Twilight, but he carries the film in a minimalist role that requires very little.
Looking back, the more I thought about Inception, the more I found myself wanting to revisit it to better understand it. This is because Nolan created such an intricate world, filled with exciting characters and expansive set pieces that just blew my mind away.
Thinking back to Tenet mostly just gives me a headache. I would like to watch it again to see if there’s anything more to discover from its characters and to better study Nolan’s interpretation of time travel. But I don’t really want to revisit the story, which on initial viewing felt scrambled for the sake of it and overly-complicated just because Nolan can put his stamp on it and call it high-brow art.
The musical score is one-note and far from memorable. Think mashing those jolting notes from Dunkirk and Inception together, but never giving the film its own rhythm or trademark. Ludwig Göransson is no Hans Zimmer and I feel that Tenet‘s score feels like someone trying to emulate what has worked for Zimmer and Nolan in the past, but without its own unique identity.
The music was also very loud, drowning out some key moments of dialog in a way that felt intentional and distracting. I’ve read other people complaining about this same problem, which leads me to believe that Nolan just doesn’t know how to mix his movies anymore. I would love to revisit to verify this claim though.
Tenet is being billed as the event movie of the summer. A movie you should be paying top dollar to see on the largest and loudest IMAX screen around, preferably in film (if you want to please Mr. Nolan). I will always support the theatrical experience, especially in such a time of need, but that being said, I would have no problem telling people to pass on this one altogether and to wait for a home video viewing.
I walked out of the theater feeling cold and underwhelmed. The biggest thought I had was that I wish Nolan would take a stab at a more traditional heist movie, because I think he is one of the great visual storytellers that knows scope and can deliver movies on such a large scale. But lately, I feel that his visuals have been outdoing his writing, leaving us with films that feel empty and void of any real emotion. This is incredibly confusing after he delivered Interstellar, my personal favorite film of his and one that I think works so well because of Nolan’s ability to capture such raw emotion on a huge scale.
But that wasn’t the case for Dunkirk and now Tenet, which makes worried about what he is going to do next.