Have you ever had a great idea but not been able to clearly express it? Like, it’s right there on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t find the words? Well, that’s Tenet in a nutshell. A movie obviously built on interesting, complex ideas, but with no clue how to put them into practice.
Tenet is the latest film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker well-known for his big, bold, game-changing concepts. Tell a story backward. Invade someone’s mind. Travel to the ends of the universe. And his idea for Tenet might top them all. Boiled down to its bare bones, Tenet asks what if there was a technology that flipped the rules of physics? Technology that made it possible to reverse the direction of time something was traveling in? Who would pay for that technology, how would they use it, and could they be stopped?
If you’re thinking, “That’s cool! I kind of understand it, but not really,” you’ve just described Tenet. The film itself stars John David Washington as “Protagonist,” an unnamed character who, very quickly, finds out about this technology and is tasked with stopping it. He’s a guy who is loyal, looks great in a suit, and always knows the right person to speak to when he needs a crucial piece of information. Beyond that, he’s largely mysterious, which fits in perfectly with the rest of the film.
For the bulk of the story, Protagonist goes from person to person, completing task after task, almost like in a video game. He gets this piece to find the next. Uses that to do this, and so on. Along the way, he has the loose motivation that he’s trying to stop global armageddon, something worse than World War III, but those stakes regularly get forgotten from one scene to the next because they’re so vague and detached from the events of the film.
In the hands of Nolan, though, each of the scenes where Protagonist has to achieve a goal works very well. Let’s face it. The dude can direct a set-piece. So from reverse bungee jumping to billion-dollar boat races, Tenet is engaging and fun to watch. The problem is from moment to moment we can’t quite articulate how or why the scene is important. We certainly like watching it and the scenes are unique and masterfully crafted. Plus there’s that faint understanding of something like “Oh, he needs to break into that vault by crashing an airplane.” However, the crucial second level of “How does that event impact the larger plot?” or “Why should we care?” almost never registers.
To attempt and cover that, Nolan drowns Tenet in exposition. All of those set pieces are generally set up by some variation of Protagonist sitting down with a new character, that character explaining something, and then him standing up and leaving. The contrast of these scenes with the aforementioned action is drastic and jarring. Convoluted info dumps followed by loosely dramatic stunt shows don’t exactly make for a smooth movie watching experience. Then again, those stunt shows are dammed impressive, especially when they’re driven by the film’s big idea of inversion. Seeing people moving forward and backward simultaneously, cars flipping around, story rewinds, it’s appealing to watch something new. Plus, Nolan uses it to slip in a few twists and turns in terms of character and plot. These scenes are when Tenet is at its best.
Oddly enough though, in a film about that very thing, the inversion doesn’t happen as often as you’d expect or like. It becomes more and more prevalent as the characters learn more about it, leading to a finale that’s fully told in both directions, but somehow by that point, it’s underwhelming. Almost as if the movie has lost any semblance of itself and the technical achievements it took to achieve these visuals far outweigh the emotional impact they are having.
Much of these criticisms could have been smoothed out if Nolan’s characters were well-rounded and relatable. But, alas, everyone in the movie is almost as mysterious at the start as they are at the end. Nolan named “Protagonist” that for a reason, of course. There’s artistic intention there, probably about the everyman or maybe just trying to let the audience see themselves on this adventure. But since we know so little about him outside of “he wants to save the world,” whether he achieves that goal isn’t particularly dramatic. As a result, giving the character that generic name feels less like an interesting choice and more like proof he’s a meaningless vessel.
The same can be said for the other main characters. Robert Pattinson’s Neil is meant to feel untrustworthy and ambiguous throughout but that’s all there is to him. Who does he work for? Why is he helping? It’s mostly kept secret so he feels like nothing more than a plot device. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat has a bit more to do because she’s trying to get out of a marriage and save her son, but the scenes with her son are so unemotional, they’re hard to believe. There’s even a potential romance between her and Protagonist but it has the passion of a wet mop. Oh, and the fact that Kat spends a decent amount of her screentime being tied up, beaten, and shot, does not help Nolan’s reputation for not being able to write women.
Sadly, we know each of these actors is supremely talented. We’ve seen it in numerous other films: BlacKkKLansman, Good Time, and Widows, just to name a few. In Tenet though, you get a sense they are as confused by the subject matter as we are and left without anything relatable to grasp onto to craft a performance. Instead, they end up more like set dressing than characters we’re engaged with. Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Martin Donovan, and Himesh Patel all pop up in Tenet as well, but with the exception of Branagh (who plays a dubious, boring villain), none are on the screen for more than a few minutes. The impact they have is minimal.
Ultimately, Tenet feels like the work of a filmmaker who has become almost too powerful for his own good. A filmmaker who has an idea in his head and sees and understands it from his perspective but no one else’s. Gone is the humanity and accessibility of films like Memento or Inception where flawed characters dealt with loss and pain while the big ideas were explained clearly and executed directly. Instead, Tenet feels like a movie that makes sense, has high stakes, and human emotion in one place only: the mind of Christopher Nolan. And if someone dared to tell him otherwise, he wouldn’t particularly care because he gets it, and thinks you should too.
Though, can you blame him? Tenet, as a concept, is a grand slam. Machines exist that can make items travel backward in time! Awesome! However, in practice, Tenet is a scorching ground ball that’s turned into a double play. It’s got some artistry to it, for sure, but in the end, everyone’s out.
Tenet is now playing in theaters, where they’re open. (Note: I saw Tenet at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, CA.)
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