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Christopher Nolan has a habit of using projects to cleanse his palette of the more typically populist outing that preceded it. Following each entry of his massively successful Dark Knight trilogy, he gave us admittedly large-scale but relatively more introspective, cerebral efforts that catered to his personal tastes (The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar).
With 2020’s much-delayed, bloated and uber-expensive Tenet, we arguably see something similar happening. 2017’s Dunkirk–his best film to date–was a work of relative restraint for the director. At about 100 minutes, the retelling of the infamous World War Two evacuation was his shortest studio outing yet. The war epic that may not have been a “small” film by any definition, but the dialogue was sparse to non-existent, the score often minimal and the taut sequences benefitted from a simplistic character motivation of survival.
Tenet is on the other end of this spectrum. It is occasionally overbearing, unbridled, Nolanesque filmmaking. The hallmarks synonymous with the auteur reemerge with a vengeance: Not always emotionally available, ill-defined characters; the intense musings on garden-fresh,speculative, theoretical science; dialogue so expository it might as well be out of a fine-printed manual. Don’t forget of course, the playful treatment of time and chronology. Tenet is not a complete failure, but probably the weakest blockbuster Nolan has made.
In one thankfully forgiving act of narrative coherence, John David Washington plays a main character called Protagonist. Working for a highly secretive agency, the Protagonist is hired by a mysterious employer to stop an apocalyptic event worse, we are told, than any nuclear holocaust. The cause? ‘Inverted’ technology of course. Someone, somewhere has discovered the ability to reverse the entropy of objects and people, causing them to–sort of–appear to go backwards in time. To give you (a very, very brief) gist, If there is too much of a disruption to this natural entropy that defines our existence, it could lead to the complete destruction of our reality.
Even for Nolan, this is especially heady stuff. It would be tricky material to cover comprehensively in a dedicated documentary let alone the sci-fi, spy thriller he claims this is. By the third or fourth location, Protagonist has chatted with a proverbial cavalcade of stellar international talent (Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Dimple Kapadia). None of these gifted actors get to be characters, however, rather they are vessels for plot progression and rule explanation. Watch out for a bizarre meta-goodbye to Caine, which is not so much a touching tribute as more like when the Eskimo pushed their elderly out to sea on an ice floe.
We also must mention the B-plot moving along in tandem with all this. Elizabeth Debicki plays art historian Kat, married to big baddie and Russian oligarch Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Kat becomes embroiled in the agency’s plans in order to retrieve her son from the clutches of an abusive, temperamental partner. In casting Branagh, Nolan must have been in the miniscule minority of people who both saw the thespian’s performance in that already forgotten Jack Ryan entry and thought his eastern European accent was too subtle.
Branagh’s less-than-understated depiction might not come off so crude were the film around him not taking itself so seriously at every turn. The few lines of levity we do hear–there is a regrettably sincere use of a “buy me dinner first” line during a henchman pat down–feel clunkier due to their rarity. Even our lead cannot quite escape the po-faced sincerity of it all. As his name literally suggests, Washington’s blank slate character has few identifiable features. Robert Pattinson thankfully brings a cocky charisma to the Protagonist’s colleague and charming TE Lawrence lookalike Neil.
Nolan is well aware of the data dump offered up in his lines and obtuse nature of the plot mechanics. At about the half-way point, Neil starts explaining to Debicki’s green character how it all works. The scene fades out as he begins speaking before presumably talking for the next 90 minutes uninterrupted. It’s a cute in-joke but Nolan does not get away with it that easily. The issue isn’t so much with the complexity of the story but how much information is vomited on the audience’s lap.
The more he explains, the more limitations he puts on his world and the more questions we have. This was a minor problem in Inception, but a much more glaring one here. Do we really need to be told that someone being rescued from ‘inverted’ fire was then treated for hypothermia? Probably not. A needlessly protracted, three-way conversation on how to save someone suffering an “inverted” gunshot wound will have your head spinning like Regan MacNeil. It’s an exchange so overwrought it might work better as absurdist metatheatre on Nolan films.
It shouldn’t surprise that it’s the set pieces where Tenet is at its strongest, even if they don’t quite meet the standard set by predecessors. At times, Nolan seems to think the more difficult something is to film the more impressive it looks on screen. A transport plane driving on a runway before crashing into a building sure sounds breathtaking in practice, but those things move slowly when you do it for real. There is nothing as awe-inspiring as Inception’s gravity defying lobby or tense as Dunkirk’s sinking warship here.
When the inventive, ‘inverted’ insanity starts proper, the film most impresses. A scintillating highway chase, followed soon after by a reversed sister sequence, are sights to behold. Another trippy, return excursion to a previous sequence is like a puzzle piece gratifyingly placed in a spot that’s been nagging you for a while. In the run-up to the third act, Tenet’s action serves the story and the palindromic nature of the plot reveals itself in a satisfying fashion.
All that good work, however, is undone by a fairly muddled climax. Inception’s alpine assault was famously channelling On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Tenet’s denouement seems to be paying homage to You Only Live Twice, with its sizable armed group trying to lay siege to a remote facility. This time out, it’s about as fun as watching someone playing a laggy multiplayer game online. There are red teams, blue teams and reverse explosions in a scene with geography less forgiving than a colonial-era map of a contested region. Right before the action, Aaron Taylor-Johnson supposedly gives us the much-needed lowdown over some head-throbbingly loud score, but it doesn’t help much. It’s another ovelong scene with a lot of words and not much said.
As his career has progressed, Christopher Nolan’s films have generally increased in scope and scale. The runtimes have stretched further, the ideas get more intricate, the plotlines become more byzantine and the budgets balloon. For better and for worse, Tenet is the resulting peak of this cumulative process. We globetrot from Oslo to Mumbai to Talinn in an expansive, expensive film that will reportedly need to make $500 million in ticket sales just to break even. No small feat in the middle of a pandemic.
Nolan views much of filmmaking as a mathematical process but the economist in him must be aware of the law of diminishing returns. Dunkirk successfully stripped everything back. Tenet piles everything on and may just have broken the camel’s back in the process.