Tenet: First Nolan Spectacle Without Substance
Christopher Nolan is the master of bookending films. His brazen openings never fail to be thrilling, sending chills through your body and immediately hooking your attention, knowing this is going to be a head-spinning showcase where things go boom and the musical score seems to endlessly reverberate the booms (the clicking of time infused in the score at the beginning and throughout Dunkirk never leaves my mind). Then there’s his endings, those send-off monologues (The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Dunkirk) or final shots (The Prestige, Inception, Memento) that make you want to stand up and clap when “Written and Directed By Christopher Nolan” hits the black screen; then you walk out of the theater with that feeling of wonder and awe, realizing you’ve just seen something truly spectacular. Even his most linear, smaller and narrative-friendly films (Following, Insomnia, The Dark Knight trilogy) feature some of his other entertaining, thought-provoking trademarks.
Tenet, Nolan’s worst film since Insomnia is still a boisterous force of spectacle with incredible action set pieces, very loud music and sound effects. Unfortunately, and unlike Inception or Interstellar, you walk out of the theater in wonder and awe but only out of confusion and emptiness. You watched something extraordinary but what exactly? Even if you were to catch the exposition dumps (another Nolan trademark) under the sound, it would still be hard to grasp and even if you did grasp it, what did you get out of it? Nolan, I think, tried a little too hard with this one. He overdid himself. In trying to continue his brand of heavy thought-provoking spectacle, he managed to make his version of a Marvel movie (harsh, yes, not all of them are mindless I know), but instead of being content as a mind-numbing, entertaining action blockbuster, it numbs the mind by being too jumbled and nearly incoherent. There’s too much to try to understand.
In Interstellar, we didn’t need Anne Hathaway to tell us that love is the only thing that transcends time and space travel, that was literally what the film was about. In Dunkirk, Nolan mastered the art of nearly no dialogue and while you could argue about its lack of character development, its whole point was showing the simple fact of war-is-hell in the images, the editing, and in the suspense of never seeing the Germans. In Tenet, the exposition is pretty much a necessity to know what’s going on, yet you still don’t know what’s going on after they’ve explained it to you. However, this is just my experience and maybe I’m too dumb. It also takes rewatches (like Memento, but even that one I had an idea after one viewing) and I think the beauty of the film is that it was engineered that way, deciphering through multiple viewings. However again, when you figure it out and have finally grasped it on the 27th viewing, what are you left with? Nothing. It’s bland and empty. There’s discussion to be had no doubt, but no fulfilling or visceral reaction, except from the chills of the insane action. It’s an escapist blockbuster, (which, let me clarify, there is nothing wrong with) disguised as Nolan’s usual intellectually stimulating spectacle. James Bond with a sci-fi twist that doesn’t stick the landing.
Inception was playful, both mind-blowing and thought-provoking in the best way, and had an emotionally believable reason for its subconscious heist. The Prestige had characters we cared about, making the ending heart-wrenchingly good. Interstellar had heart and love, no matter how on the nose. The Dark Knight trilogy had the Caped Crusader as we’d never seen him before and a complicated Joker that had no other motive than to watch the world burn. Tenet has a main character known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Robert Pattinson being cool, Elizabeth Debicki has the role of the one character we can cling to for the sake of caring even though it verges on being thankless, and then there’s Kenneth Branagh’s cartoonish Russian villain who wants to end the world for a reason I still don’t know. All against the backdrop of Nolan’s typically amazing practical effects and for a film shot all around the world, he managed to choose some mundane places for production. But that’s also kind of cool, I can’t decide. This film even looks like a Marvel movie. Grey and colorless. It is also easily Nolan’s worst film when it comes to the camera work. The exhilarating climax is too clunky and frenetic and everything is just too dense for the payoff to fully click.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Tenet. There’s still a lot here to relish, the time-inversion device makes for some cool action/fighting sequences and while there may be too much to comprehend, at least you can go home, Google it and then think about it more clearly. It’s a bummer that Warner Bros. poured money into Nolan’s desk drawers for a shot at Mars only to land on the Moon and it probably won’t break even due to the pandemic. He is still a filmmaker to celebrate, his films are unlike anything else and hopefully he can get back to the greatness that is Dunkirk or Inception while maybe limiting the size a bit and putting a little more focus on characters again. Though I’ll always show up for the rare visionary talent that is Christopher Nolan.