Tenet

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenplay: Christopher Nolan

Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Martin Donovan

Running Length:  150 minutes

Synopsis: A secret agent embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.

Review: Tenet’s release into the time of the coronavirus makes it near impossible to judge the film purely on its own merits. After all, Christopher Nolan had lobbied hard for the film to be released in the hopes of bringing audiences back to brick and mortar cinemas, offering the first salvo in what is hopefully many more pieces of blockbuster content that they need. It’s a risky strategy, especially if Tenet turns out to not be the movie equivalent of an “unputdownable” book, where the cinematic experience is so transcendent that it simply needs to be seen (repeatedly) to be believed, and thus fulfilling the noble goal of offering a much-needed lifeline to the cinemas.

Fans of Nolan’s body of work will undoubtedly be familiar with this feeling, simply because he has managed to make the magic happen many times before, from Memento to Inception to Interstellar and the Dark Knight trilogy. Yet, as a fan myself, I will have to reluctantly say that Tenet just does not do the same for me and is unlikely to incite much desire for repeated viewings in the near future.

While the film is, as all Nolan films are wont to be, astounding in almost all technical aspects, it fails on one of the most important tenets (ahem) of cinema – to tell a story that audiences would actually understand and thus care about (at least, without requiring a Masters in Physics). His films are generally narratively dense and requires a significant amount of unpacking post-viewing, like Ariadne (the one in Greek mythology, not the one in Inception) they usually also offer a unifying thread that audiences can pick up on and follow out of the labyrinthine plot.

Tenet, however, is just a morass of confusing plot threads that are unsatisfactorily resolved (if at all), and a central conceit that is too difficult to visualize despite multiple characters engaging in lengthy exposition throughout the film’s 150-minute running time. There is no illuminating thread to find and grasp onto, even for those well-schooled in the Nolan-verse. It also doesn’t help that, inexplicably, the sound mixing in Tenet frequently drowns out character conversations with ambient sound effects and the booming soundtrack, which makes the dialogue extremely difficult to make out in multiple scenes without the help of subtitles.

While the film has the beats of a traditional espionage thriller or Bond film, essentially chasing a villain/MacGuffin all over the globe, Tenet also occupies a far more rarefied, cerebral space that really does it more harm than good. Because the concept of inversion is so difficult to grasp, all the visual (and true to Nolan’s modus operandi, more in-camera than post-produced) flourishes become difficult to parse and figure out, jarring audiences out of the moment just to attempt to make head or tail of what is transpiring. And yet I can assuredly say not many people would be fully cognizant of what is going on at any time, given how obtusely the entire film plays out.

Perhaps we should all heed an early piece of advice in the film, where the scientist played by Clémence Poésy tells John David Washington’s The Protagonist “don’t try to understand it, just feel it”. There are indeed several sequences which are thrilling to watch unfold, especially the action set-pieces – in particular an extended close-quarters combat scene which brings to mind the incredible corridor fight with Joseph Gordon Levitt in Inception – and there are moments where finally the charisma and thespian talents of Washington, Pattinson and Debicki take centrestage (together with their impeccable suits and outfits). It is also a beautifully shot film from start to end, lensed flawlessly by Hoyte van Hoytema and best experienced on the largest screens possible.  

It’s when one stops trying to make sense of the plot and simply view Tenet on a visceral level does it manage to entertain. Given the baggage of Nolan’s body of work and the serious tone adopted by the film (and its marketing), it almost seems like blasphemy to suggest such a superficial reading, but at least it delivers a true cinematic experience that would be hard to replicate anywhere else. And that is something that is sorely needed at this point, if only to remind audiences of the greatness of the medium, of what they could feel, of the sense of wonder, discovery and adventure while sitting in the darkness for a couple of hours.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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