By Tyler Gibson
The irony of Christopher Nolan’s long-delayed “Tenet” is that it’s his most straightforward film since 2006’s “The Prestige” despite having one of his largest budgets. After months of postponements due to the pandemic and speculation regarding plot points, it’s quite jarring the film is nothing more than your average spy genre fare- low on nutritional value but high on cinematic fervor. It deals in tropes instead of subtext- the subtext is the text.
Nolan is delirious off his own supply. Each scene is mounted with pristine clarity courtesy of the rich 70mm film. The film globe-trots between countries and continents, crammed restaurant buildings and glorious yachts. Every subsequent location vividly and deliciously brought to life. Exterior night scenes in particular are quite gorgeous with their auroral, yellow glow and moody, murky darks. The titanic set-pieces are crafted with Nolan’s masterful sense of reality. A centerpiece car chase unfolding on the highway ups the stakes in gritty, grueling fashion while a hand-to-hand hallway brawl featuring an “inversed” character delivers on the gleeful, time-shifting thrills we expected and anticipated. The “time-inversed” element is cleverly executed alongside the plot which results in bold and dazzling structural surprises that add additional weight to the impressive action. Oscar winning composer Ludwig Goransson’s score isn’t quite memorable without context but the percussion-heavy arrangements urgently drum up tension. If you’re lucky and safe enough to experience a theatrical viewing, it’s a pleasure to lose yourself in the spectacular cathedrals Nolan curates onscreen.
This maximalist commitment to form is also to the film’s detriment. Elizabeth Debicki’s character arc represents the genre at its most problematic and deplorable. Nolan is too in love with the films of James Bond to recognize its frequent mistreatment of women and the lack of agency they’re given. Kenneth Branagh overdoes his Russian villain to a disturbing effect which makes for occasionally unpleasant viewing. A third act revelation explaining his scheme is poorly executed due to Nolan’s lazy writing and mistake in not planting the seeds earlier. What should preface the climax feels like a hatched afterthought.
Robert Pattinson unleashes his natural charisma and showmanship on a thin sidekick character that overwhelms John David Washington’s flat lead performance. (He’s referred to as only ‘The Protagonist’). The foundation of any great film lies with character and emotion but the hollow conception of “Tenet” disregards both. The film moves at a breathless pace exacerbated by editor Jennifer Lame’s nouvelle cutting (jump cuts leap-frog conversations ahead mid-sentence) which causes friction with the constant informing by the screenplay. Christopher Nolan the director can’t seem to get out of the blundering way of Christopher Nolan the writer.
The events of the world and current movie-going habits unfortunately did the film no favors. It would be impossible for any film to deliver after months of stigma and snarky perception, let alone a beautiful mess like “Tenet” that potentially leaves audiences more puzzled than elated. Christopher Nolan won’t save cinema, but he’ll give you something fun to watch on a Friday night [B].