Tenet

Tenet ★★★

Let me begin my review of Tenet by talking about Christopher Nolan's previous film, Dunkirk (2017) and why it's his best (trust me, I'm going somewhere with this). Nolan is justly criticised for many traits he can't seem to cure himself of, such as overly complex/gimmicky plotting, pretentious exposition-heavy dialogue, one-dimensional characters with no emotional range and a complete inability to write women or even care about them and their stories. Either by design or happy accident Dunkirk solved all of those problems. Sure, there's the typical Nolan trick structure with cutting between the three timeframes, but as long as you were paying attention to the initial captions this isn't too difficult to comprehend. With history, rather than his often impossible to follow imagination, as a guide the story is linear, and the reality of the situation gave all the characters extremely simple motivations: for those on the beach, survive, for those on the boat, help, for those in the air, fight. And the people in Dunkirk are not conventional movie characters, rather they are archetypes standing in for Tommy Atkins, the lion-hearted British public and the Few (with no female roles because there weren't any in that time and place other than some nurses or tea ladies on ships). Finally the story was told mostly visually with dialogue unimportant, everything the viewer needed to understand what was going on, to feel the fear and the hope, was all up there on the screen.

By contrast Tenet is Nolan as his most Nolan-y, in fact this is the ne plus ultra of his career. Everything you know, and possibly don't love as much as you used to given the mediocre-to-poor reviews this movie has received, is here. There's the incomprehensible plot that while I'm sure can be explained on a whiteboard later makes no real sense as it rapidly unfolds, mostly in scenes where people stand or sit while explaining things to each other (y'all spent 20 years shitting on George Lucas for doing "scenes of sitting and talking alternating with choppy action" filmmaking, but when the sainted Sir Christopher does it somehow it's not a problem). There's the scientific mumbo jumbo that make even Interstellar (2014) seem as plausible as something like The Andromeda Strain (1971), and all this is delivered in multiple massive info dumps raced through at top speed; you get a sense our man knows this stuff isn't compelling cinema but he has to have it, so his solution is just do what he always does, only quicker. The characters likewise have too much plot and exposition to chew their way through to really register. Another major criticism that's been made of Nolan's dialogue is that he has his characters just describe what they're feeling rather than show us, but here he doesn't bother, so we have to live without any of that. And of course the biggest problem with the dialogue is that once again is often drowned out by background noise or music just when the most important moments of the plot are being discussed, so I envied those watching this at home with the subtitles on.

It's funny how some reviewers are talking about all the charisma John David Washington brings to the protagonist (who is only known as a The Protagonist, which would be a good joke if Nolan had a sense of humour and if you ignore the fact that Neal Stephenson already made this joke, but far funnier, in his 1992 novel Snow Crash), however because he's playing a Nolan protagonist he isn't allowed to show any charisma. He's a stoic professional with a code of honour, and that's pretty much all there is to him. Indeed you could have had Washington play the laid back supporting character and Robert Pattinson the grim and determined lead and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference. I've read a lot bad reviews of his work here, but as the villain Kenneth Branagh does a far better job playing a Russian oligarch than he did in his own Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and if you don't believe me watch that one, I'll wait. Meanwhile the willowy Elizabeth Debicki does her best with what is probably one of the better written female characters in a Christopher Nolan movie, but that's really not saying much, so check what little expectations you might have had at the ticket counter. Finally Sir Michael Caine makes his obligatory appearance in one scene playing someone called Sir Michael because since everyone knows he'll have a cameo there's no point wasting any time coming up with a character or even a name for him.

The story itself is almost like James Bond movie crossed with other near-future-backwards-time-travel movies like 12 Monkeys (1995) or Looper (2012) crossed with one particular 1989 episode of Red Dwarf. Nolan has been mooted as a potential Bond director for years, but I'm pretty sure that after Batman he's done with franchise filmmaking, including turning down tip trucks full of money to knock out sequels to his own movies. This is very much the globe-trotting adventure mixed with action and ostentatious wealth porn that the 007 series trades in, and here our heroes work for quasi-government intelligence agencies, but as I said, this is a movie that's big on explaining the technicalities of things, but not who the characters are or why they're doing the things they're doing. Yes it's two and a half hours long, but but there was apparently no time or will to get into any of that. If any other director, even a successful veteran of several comic book movies had tried to pitch Tenet or anything vaguely like it to a studio, that meeting would have ended very early, or even more likely the script would have been thrown in the recycling before the reader made it to page four, but that's the power of Nolan.

This leads me onto a strange sort of confession. I think he's overrated as a director (and I didn't get into another of his less loveable traits, his overuse of handheld and closeups along with too rapid editing) and even more so as a writer, but I'm very happy Christopher Nolan exists and gets to make the films he wants to make. These types of movies: high concept action flicks, are exactly my bag. He also gets massive props for his commitment to practical effects over CGI and for only shooting on celluloid. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to see Tenet in 15 perf 70mm IMAX which is the format the film is intended to be shown in, but there's only 13 locations in the entire world where one can view this film properly. This also got me thinking about whether the comparatively low mark this film gets when compared to Nolan's others is more than just the fanboys waking up to the problems their hero's work has always suffered from; maybe the lack of the big screen experience (and the associated positive memories of this) makes plainer these very real flaws. Nolan's movies are always an assault of picture and sound, I've seen a lot of films at some very fine cinemas, but his are among the loudest, and the incredible size of the IMAX projection (especially the one here in Melbourne, one of the largest cinema screens in the world) overwhelms the audience, battering you with the sheer scale of the thing. Clearly some are finding something lacking.

So while often confusing and home to many of its writer/director's worst habits, I ended up having a good time with Tenet. As should be clear form the above I'm only recommending this as a cinematic, preferably IMAX showing, I don't really think this would work at all on your television or, *shudders* your phone. I've avoided discussing the plot, although as many people have noted it's pretty hard to spoil this movie as first you'd have to explain it and that would be quite the challenge. That being said some of the free flowing observations below do discuss details from the film, so if you haven't seen it stop reading now. Ta.

"Inverting" something temporally would not allow it to be manipulated freely by people moving forward through time, objects have to be acted upon to move regardless of anything else. So it sometimes seems as if Nolan is cheating the rules of his world in order to get cool shots. Overall the whole notion of time takes a harsh beating in Tenet, and let's not even get to the relationship between space and time, that's defenestrated in the first 15 minutes.

Likewise, I know that many will insist that after multiple viewings the plot will make sense, but let me just ask if gravity works whether you're travelling forward or backwards in time, why wouldn't air? Or every other element and physical force? I think the answer might be that making all the inverted people wear oxygen masks was introduced to make the story slightly more intelligible for the audience, but happy to hear arguments to the contrary.

Despite enjoying myself I have to agree with the AV Club's reviewer who stated that: "Tenet is the movie Christopher Nolan’s critics have been accusing him of making all along. It’s a shiny clockwork contraption with a hollow centre: a convoluted Rubik’s Cube blockbuster that, once solved, reveals little more than the complexity of its own design." The fact that the answer as to what's actually going on isn't revealed until the final act and the attempt of explaining how not until the final scene doesn't let the story off the hook. Two and half hours of frantic movement without clear motivation and goals is not the essence of great storytelling.

This leads on to a related complaint: does The Protagonist do everything he does not so much to save the world but rather to help a parent reunite with a child that's only seen in the distance, from behind and out of focus? Is it because this was what powered the story in Inception (2010) and that movie made all the money? One can also observe that in typical Nolan fashion there's nothing more between the male and female leads than a couple of brief pecks on the cheek. You could never have even the chastest of lovemaking in a Christopher Nolan film, but you can show a woman being kicked in the stomach.

Although speaking of the director, one last instance of him perhaps learning from/responding to his critics is that in addition to making the sharply dressed white dude with brushed back hair the support rather than the lead, there's no dead wives in this one, indeed the death of a husband is the most important thing here, so that makes a nice change.

And finally, it was pointed out to me in my review of The Prestige (2006) that there's an unintentional camp factor in Nolan's films that comes from playing everything, no matter how ridiculous, completely straight. I'm not quite sure if this was what started it, but after a while I just starting seeing this in Tenet, and every impossible idea and rushed but fantastically complicated technical explanation for it just made me giggle all the more. Some of that was at the awesome spectacle, some of it was not. But that's Tenet for you, unarguably the most Christopher Nolan movie of his entire career, for better and for worse.

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