Like so many teenagers who started developing a fledgling interest in cinema in the early 2010s, I was part of the huge wave, washed ashore at the altar of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. Unquestionably, I was hyped for Tenet. After spending months in a lull with no hopes of watching it any time soon, when I finally got the chance, I wanted to love it so much. I longed for the dopamine and the adrenaline that comes packaged with a Nolan bill. Instead, it was a rush of disappointment in spades.
Let’s start with the good stuff — Ludwig Göransson’s score is a thunderous achievement. His bass-heavy score, layered with pounding percussions and eight-string guitars create a sense of urgency that does a huge service to the film, giving it a much-needed sense of rhythm (more on that later). Having won accolades for his work on Black Panther, The Mandalorian and with Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino), he is already one of my favourite composers working today.
Fight choreography is something Nolan’s detractors have used against him since the Batman trilogy. Tenet marks a massive step-up from his days of directing the caped crusader. The hand-to-hand combats are gripping and adeptly shot. Hoytema is at his usual best too. Everything looks crisp and the camera moves deliciously through the intricate and immaculate set pieces. Even in the dialogue-heavy scenes, the cinematography never leaves you wanting more. Finally, this may feel like banging the drum for an umpteenth time, but Robert Pattinson is once again great, and his chemistry with the film’s lead, John David Washington is a saving grace.
In the last two decades, Nolan has established himself as one of the very few directors who can make big-budget summer tentpoles, yet enjoy the creative freedom often associated with indie movies. This freedom, both artistic and monetary, has catapulted him to a status enjoyed by the likes of Spielberg and Cameron. And I’d argue that he has justified his right to be up there, sticking to his guns and constantly evolving and improving himself over the years. This is why when Tenet missteps and misfires, the disappointment runs even higher.
The plot itself is not too strange: A CIA agent undergoes a test for his loyalty and is employed by a top-secret organisation. Their mission? To save the world. This is where Nolan decides to indulge in his obsessions with time and infuses his trademark time-travel shenanigans. What this leads to is Nolan attempting to tell a simple, straightforward story with all the makings for an exciting spy thriller, in an overbearingly convoluted way which unfortunately fails to break any new grounds in the genre. What’s worse is, if you look past the facade of all the physics and all the chemistry involved, this is the first Nolan film which instead of treating its viewers as intelligent, tries to entrap them in a false sense that they’re watching high art.
Because when you distill Tenet down to, well, its tenets, it has no more in substance than your James Bonds or Mission Impossibles. And that’s not nowhere near a bad thing — Sam Mendes and Christopher McQuarrie have given us some of the best action/spy movies in recent years in the form of these two franchises. But Tenet wants to be more, and in trying to be more, it ends up being neither a satisfactory action thriller, nor an engaging cerebral exercise. Au contraire, it’s closer to a Michael Bay outing, but without his style and charisma.
The characters strike as wooden pieces regurgitating robotic dialogues and trying too hard to evoke some sort of empathy from the audience. John David Washington is a fine actor, but he does not have much to work with. He’s not even given a name, only referred to as “the Protagonist”. Ironically, for almost the entirety of the movie, he’s in the same boat as the audience and fed with exposition — a passenger more, protagonist less. Kenneth Branagh plays the villain, Andrei Sator, with a horrible Russian accent (he was probably too occupied with focusing on his Belgian accent for Death on the Nile). Sator fits the cliché for a classic Bond villain — Russian arms dealer with a God complex in possession of a futuristic tech device and holding a damsel captive. Unfortunately, he’s employed merely as a lethargic and trite plot device, and what we get is a shoddy, one-dimensional antagonist, in a movie made by the director who gave us Ledger’s Joker.
The emotional centrepiece of Tenet is Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki. Let’s face it, Nolan is not known for writing strong female characters, and this is his latest in a long line of transgressions. We are supposed to care for Kat and her son, yet we do not see this relation play out once on screen. There is barely any notable interaction between the two. Instead, we are told again and again of his importance to Kat, when a single meaningful scene would have sufficed. All this comes off as lazy writing at best, cringeworthy at its worst.
Thing is, not many people would agree that making emotional films is a strong suit for Nolan anyway. But I’ve always felt that while his stories are more plot-driven, he succeeds in imbibing his characters with gravitas. There’s always a sense of sincerity and razor-sharp motivations driving them. No matter how structured Nolan be in his approach, he consistently succeeds in lending enough emotional depth to the story for the audience to attach to. What baffles me is how did he fail in this crucial aspect of writing now, in the prime of his career?
This brings me to the biggest flaw of Tenet: the lack of rhythm. There are no shifts in momentum. The movie starts with everything dialled to a ten and forgets to change gears forever, leaving no room to breath. Most of the characters the movie so badly wants us to care about do not get any establishing scenes, and if they do, it’s in the form of undignified dialogues (embarrassingly reminiscent of Suicide Squad’s “This is Katana. She’s got my back.”). Hell, I did not know why anyone was doing what they were doing half the time, other than being told that if our heroes fail, the world would somehow end. Ergo, Tenet becomes a hard film to follow not because of its crazy temporal concepts, but because it does not bother with giving you any context for the scenes. Fifteen minutes into the movie, there is a massive exposition dump which lasts for barely a couple of minutes before it is hastily wrapped up with the words, “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it”. I don’t know if this is a barefaced smirk to the audience, but I wish Nolan had taken his own advice and tried to feel the flow of the film rather than getting engulfed in its intrepid machinations.
As Tenet rolled into credits, I pined for the satisfaction I had experienced when I walked out of Dunkirk. Whereas Dunkirk was cinema stripped to its most basic form and served with a touch of ChrisNolan™ magic, Tenet appears to be a script written by someone consumed with fine-tuning the details in between the lines before they’ve even finished writing the lines. Even in his information-heavy films as The Prestige or Inception, Nolan’s proved that he has the capacity to balance the barrage of content and the emotional aspects which hold a film together. It’s not always pretty, but it’s almost always fun. In Tenet, the expositions and the payoffs are so boring and tedious that for the first time in a Nolan film, I don’t even feel compelled to figure out the puzzle he’s trying to present.
The best way I can sum up this review is by alluding to Ouroboros — the ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail. It’s a mark for the endless loop of birth, death and rebirth; often used as a metaphor in time-travel stories. It’s almost paradoxical then that this could also be used as an allegory for Nolan’s obsessions and indulgences, which have served him so well in the past, end up devouring him this time around. There is no denying of the sheer technical wizardry on display in Tenet, nor is there any denying of the fact that I’m glad Nolan got to make the movie he wanted to make. I just hope that the next stage in his career, like the ouroboros, is a revival and not a drawn-out decease.
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