Where to even begin with Cristopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster film.
“Tenet” was poised to be the film that recaptured theatre audiences upon their reopening, following the COVID-19 pandemic that caused worldwide closures.
A hefty feat indeed, and while “Tenet” proves to be everything we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s signature style, the gorgeous cinematography, hair-raising raising action sequences, wildly ambitious storylines and impeccably crafted protagonists; there’s an overwhelming sense that something is missing here.
The perception of whether “Tenet” is incredible or just plain good, will come down to your personal enthusiasm for high-concept sci-fi premises that dare to boggle the mind. For me, I couldn’t help but reduce a lot of what makes Tenet so admirable, down to a simple, begrudging truth: it’s not as good as Inception. Or Interstellar. Or even the Batman films, as a whole. All of these films perfectly encapsulated Nolan’s favoured modes of storytelling but crucially, audiences could follow them without fear of migraines, which in turn allowed their experiences to be absorbed, appreciated and celebrated. “Tenet” threatens that harmony by being needlessly overcomplicated.
Unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) known as “The Protagonist”, is introduced through an explosive opening sequence that sees him foil an attack on an opera house in Kiev. He is captured, tortured and before his execution, swallows a cyanide pill that guarantees his agency’s secrets are protected.
When he later wakes from a coma, he’s informed that the pill was in fact a test and that he passed with flying colours, lucky him. The patriotic stunt earns him a step up the ranks, gaining him entry into the highest echelons of government spy-ops and with it, the knowledge of an impending event that threatens to obliterate all of mankind, re-writing history in it’s wake.
The Protagonist is subsequently taken to a facility where both we and him are introduced to the principles of inverted time travel. The basis of which is that an object can reverse its usual trajectory of travelling forward, with us through time and instead, be sent backwards, or inverted. A variety of inverted objects have already been discovered and the stakes are naturally elevated when the question of “what if” arises. What if a nuclear warhead could be sent back through time?
Co-piloting his mission to save our future/past/present is the delightfully British, Neil (Robert Pattinson). Neil aids the Protagonist in tracing the shell casings of an inverted bullet back to a manically disturbed Russian arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). In order to get close and gain his confidence, The Protagonist must use Andrei’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) as a way in to his organisation. Kat has suffered a tumultuous and sinister relationship with Andrei that has resulted in him using the blackmail of their son, to assert his dominance over her every move.
The theme of inverting objects through time allows for some frankly incredible set-pieces. Nolan squeezes every dollar of the seemingly unlimited budget to meet his grandiose ambition, and watching it all play out is quite an experience, you have to acknowledge the level of finesse he’s acquired. Yet despite the pleasing aesthetics and likeable characters, Tenet is let down by its incoherent plot. What I’ve described in this review is a mere snippet of the full picture and when you come to experience that full picture, even with the film’s constant exposition trying to explain the mechanics of how things work, you’ll be challenged to keep up.
Tenet represents the apex of Christopher Nolan’s obsession with time. It’s impossible to discount the complexity of the script and the sheer effort that’s been poured into producing this larger-than-life exhibition. It’s a completely bonkers journey into a rabbit hole that if Nolan were to pursue any deeper, would most certainly land him in a padded cell.
Tenet serves as one of the most technical and ambitious sci-fi projects ever created. Nolan’s talent as both director and writer is prevalent throughout its 150 minute run time but the film falls just shy of greatness by sacrificing emotional engagement in favour of being a little too self-indulged, and by overcomplicating its novel premise.
Tenet will be released digitally on December 15th.