The long awaited reopening of cinemas will surely have many film fans making Christopher Nolan’s newest release their first priority (it’s my first 2020 cinema release in many months, for sure) and this highly anticipated and famously delayed film sees a former CIA agent known as “Protagonist” (John David Washington) encounter a secretive organisation called “Tenet” and as he is made aware of peculiar “inverted” bullets, ones that are strangely able to travel backwards through time, he soon finds himself goes on the trail of dangerous and powerful Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who seemingly has contact with unknown people from the future and whose time-bending technology could result in world war three, and must work alongside fellow agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Sator’s unhappy wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to prevent worldwide disaster.
Hmm. I really dreaded the prospect of writing up a plot summary for this notoriously complex film but I actually think I did alright, eh?
As you might have gathered, Tenet is most definitely a complicated film. As evidenced by films such as Inception, Interstellar or even The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan doesn’t make simple films and his latest is clearly his most complex yet, making Inception look positively straightforward, and this is the film’s biggest problem. Personally, I don’t mind puzzling films; in some cases, I like having to keep my brain switched on and I do appreciate a stimulating plot that keeps you guessing, makes you think, and presents you with a puzzle that you have to put a certain amount of work into and hopefully, you’ll eventually decipher it and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in being able to “solve it” but even if you don’t understand everything, a film like this should leave you with the feeling that you’ve at least understood most of it, necessitating a rewatch to fully understand it perhaps.
But Tenet, on an initial viewing, takes complicated to a whole new level as Nolan makes it incredibly difficult for the average audience member to understand anything; a basic attempt is made to teach us all about “inversion” and about how a certain “turnstile” machine can lead to characters moving backwards in time while others move forward, but for me, I’d say that Nolan doesn’t explain the rules of his world coherently enough and though his film has a potentially fascinating concept, the way that he introduces us to all the story’s components is flawed because there’s just too much to take in, too many names to remember and too much wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, causality and advanced physics talk to take in, and at the end of the day, the film is too ambitious and its confusing manner will surely alienate many audience members.
For me, I started off by understanding the gist of what was going on but after a while, the film inevitably lost me and I actually found myself getting annoyed and frustrated at how it was proceeding; I did indeed feel alienated, not able to understand the plot, what the mission was, and why the characters were doing what they were doing, and even though I could see some admittedly brilliant filmmaking on display, all of that meant nothing because I felt left out and confused and what’s worse, I recognised Tenet as one of those films that actually made me feel stupid – like I should have been involved in the plot but in reality, annoyed that I just didn’t know what was happening. At all. There’s plenty to admire in the filmmaking (more on that below) but despite all the time-bending action sequences, I found it difficult to get excited or amazed by any of it and overall, I’d have to say that the film left me cold, so to speak, as the characters weren’t passionate nor fully developed enough and the film’s needlessly convoluted nature just bothered me. Plus, as others have pointed out, it is often very difficult to fully understand what the characters are saying, due to the omnipresent loud sounds and the fact that many of them wear masks while speaking, and I await the day when I can watch this film with subtitles!
But all that aside, Tenet looks as impressive as any other Nolan film and Hoyte van Hoytema (apparently Nolan’s new favourite DOP, taking over from former regular Wally Pfister) treats us to plenty of crisp, sleek, and technically marvelous cinematography while Mandolorian composer Ludwig Göransson compliments the film well by giving it an interesting score, one that at times appears as though it’s appropriately being played backwards, and it manages to give the film a spy movie atmosphere, all the while never being too intrusive or overbearing.
And despite all that I’ve said about the baffling plot, a lot of hard work has clearly gone into this film and most strikingly, the action sequences and fight scenes really do stand out; a great number of the sequences, both “inverted” and real time were done without the use of greenscreen or special effects (calling to mind how Nolan was able to craft the incredible Inception sequences) and the filmmakers’ and the actors’ hard work was clearly not in vain as the action looks good and we are given something that we haven’t really seen in film before. Although the backwards scenes did remind me of a certain episode of Red Dwarf . . .
The cast also do their jobs well and in the protagonist role, BlacKkKlansman‘s John David Washington is cool, confident and charismatic in the leading role and he clearly commits himself to the many action sequences and alongside, future Batman Robert Pattinson (sporting an English accent in this one) is just as cool and committed in his supporting role of fellow agent Neil, the beautiful Elizabeth Debicki convinces in her role of the abused “villain’s wife”, though with some script reworking, she surely could’ve been given more worthwhile things to do, and Kenneth Branagh gets to do something a little different by playing the villain of the piece and he does it all very well, managing to appear appropriately nasty and villainous but at the same time, I was fully expecting someone else to be revealed as the actual bad guy because Branagh’s Sator seemed to be mostly all bark but little bite.
So that’s Tenet. I may find myself watching it again in a week or two and I really do hope that I understand it a little more because it had the potential to be an amazing film, but I think that Nolan just got carried away.
Oh, and did the whole “bad guy in the present gets time travel technology from shadowy people in the future” give anyone else Looper vibes?