Tenet ★★★½

Christopher Nolan Ranked
2020 Ranked

*small spoilers but mainly a write-up of what Nolan's cinema is about and how it's not just about acting smart*

Let’s think for a second about what the most important part of a science-fiction film is; or any genre piece for that matter. It is to make you believe! Of course, that’s the magic trick that practically birthed narrative cinema but it gets forgotten more often these days as we’re drowned in uninspired muck - and it’s even worse now during this pandemic where any worthwhile release has been pushed back into oblivion. So it’s no surprise Nolan’s latest has been hyped up as the savior of cinema in this unholy year.

Nolan, beginning his career with small indies that already played with the complexities of intricate, new storytelling techniques and mind-boggling ideas, has slowly but surely built up his career in the new millennium as a painter of epic canvases on which to present his ideas. The criticism that has (not surprisingly) most often circulated his films is that the spectacle he creates diminishes the story he’s trying to tell. And there’s an undeniable truth to that. Nolan, for all of his amazing craftsmanship, isn’t a great writer. His characters lack the kind of traits that serve good human drama and their identities are often paper-thin. Much like anything in his films, they’re tools to service the spectacle. Is this a bad thing? No, not at all. But its magic will only reach so far and Tenet is the perfect film to show that.

Armed with the same kind of labyrinthian ideas but a wholly new setting of a spy thriller a la James Bond, Tenet tells the story of a man only known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who is thrust into the world of international espionage as he tries to uncover a mysterious plot to end the world that is linked to a strange technology that reverses the flow of time. Trying to explain the exact plot of Tenet would not only do a disservice to the film itself as much as it would be a simple waste of time. The film already does it well enough for you. The film is expectedly laden with exposition but as mind-numbing as it may get (and it really does to the point where your head might start to hurt, though that may also be the thumping bass), the film manages to make things quite understandable. The problem, actually, isn’t so much that Nolan needs to explain the technique of time-inversion as much as he needs to put it to work in his story.

As far as that goes, Tenet can be quite a mess. Nolan starts his film in medias res (though you won’t realize that until later in the film) and kind of refuses to take you by the hand for the first hour or so. The idea behind it is that you discover the complexities of the film’s universe together with the protagonist. You learn as he learns and therefore Nolan never has to "dumb the movie down” for us. Yet in between the bits of exposition, where the human drama kicks in that is linked to this impending global disaster, things feel kind of empty, for the lack of a better word. Nolan obviously wants to attach some relatable emotional value to his action set pieces but in the process only takes away the film’s much-needed tension. The human drama in this isn’t even directly linked to its two male leads who basically only function as puppets in the greater scheme of things but comes back to the character of Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki. She plays the wife of a Russian tycoon (played by Kenneth Branagh) who is the main antagonist of Tenet and linked to the plot to end the world in ways that are, once more, too complex to put into a few short lines of writing. It’s safe to say though that his connection to it has made him a menacing, dangerous, and highly abusive man who sees Kat more as a trophy than anything else. Their relationship is a key element to the events that unfold over the course of the film but only do so much for the overall experience. The necessity of it is definitely up for debate.

No, the human side of this isn’t where Tenet shines, it is in Nolan’s favorite field: practical magic. If anything this man could best be compared to the character of Michael Caine’s Cutter from Nolan’s own The Prestige. He’s a magician who loves to tell you all about his tricks. And what tricks! Nolan is probably the first director who manages to reuse one of his enormous set pieces while actually expanding upon the first incarnation of that setpiece. For anyone who manages to keep track of the crisscrossing of normal and inverted timelines, these moments of cinematic wizardry are a true joy to watch. Though it must be said that, even with the inventive nature of the action in this film, Nolan has made much better use of his love for practical entertainment. Fights between the protagonist and an inverted spy are amazing to watch but the fact that Nolan and his trusty cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema decide to shoot things on such a close distance and with so many cuts, kind of takes away of the magic of seeing to timelines play against each other. In other moments, however, things work just wonderful. Both the car chase and the airplane-sequence are incredible to watch and are worth the entry fee alone. With the droning music by Ludwig Göransson (who, it must be said, does try to be a bit too much like Hans Zimmer and not enough like himself), these scenes become true unparalleled action glory.

But as much as one set piece shines, others falter. Nolan may be a man of epic scale but his globetrotting thriller never manages to feel as global as it should be. In fact, aside from a few moments, it’s hard to tell where you are exactly and it’s a good thing the characters tell you themselves. In the film’s finale, where things really start to get confusing Nolan makes both hits and misses. The sequence delivers both awe-inspiring visuals of half-normal, half-inverted battling soldiers but also raises eyebrows when it's a little to clear Nolan just wants to show off the madness of the inversion-technique in as many places as possible.

Nonetheless, as muddled as the end result may be at times, Nolan does know how to keep you on the edge of your seat, whether it’s to make sense of the plot or to simply marvel at the way he reinvents movie magic (again!). For as unengaging as his characters may be, his spectacle is top notch and a true testament to the magic of movies that can make the most impossible ideas become a reality.

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