Some herald it the saviour of cinema, but does it live up to the expectation?
Christopher Nolan films can be both taxing and rewarding. As a director, he presumes that the audience will be sufficiently intrigued by his plots that they’ll be back for a second viewing. It’s sort of an ultimatum: come again or be forever unable to explain what on earth was going on. With Tenet, this remains the case, but Nolan has gone a step too far. This time, I was too confused, too uninvested in the characters, to care about filling in the gaps.
The film begins in a Kiev Opera House where we are introduced to our protagonist, cryptically known as ‘The Protagonist’, who has been tasked by the CIA with breaking into the building. The break in is visually spectacular, galvanised by the shuddering bass of Ludwig Göransson’s electrifying score. As a battle commences between indistinguishable combatants, The Protagonist is saved when a bullet inexplicably un-fires, through the body of a terrorist, into the barrel of a gun. It’s an exhilarating scene, but an intensely chaotic one. Unfortunately, this sets the tone for the rest of the film, which, despite almost exclusively expository dialogue, is too disordered to follow.
The inverted bullets, first glimpsed in the Kiev Opera House, are being used by terrorists in the future to influence the past i.e. the Protagonist’s present. He must trace them to their source, during which he will be forced to invert his own time flow so that we can watch him fight in reverse, drive in reverse, shoot in reverse and generally drag the practical effects budget so high that we forget we still don’t know what’s going on. If Tenet wasn’t already utterly incomprehensible, the film’s dialogue sits at the bottom of the sound mix, lurking uselessly beneath the gunfights, explosions, car engines and score.
John Washington, who plays The Protagonist, brings as much to his lines as the charmless and lecturing script permits. Unfortunately, The Protagonist has about as much personality as his name would suggest. He can flawlessly fight multiple enemies in hand-to-hand combat, and deliver the occasional suave joke, but he acts primarily as a plot device. Regrettably, the other characters in the story are similarly two-dimensional. Russian mob boss Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is an intimidating, if overblown, character. That is, until we discover his puerile reason for wanting to destroy everything around him, ‘if I can’t have you, no one can.’ It is hard to reconcile Tenet’s hyper-intelligent and creative plot with its dry and humourless characters. Whilst Nolan constantly impresses cinematographers and effects experts alike, the average cinemagoer (myself included) enjoys a film much more when they can be invested in the characters. Robert Pattinson is the film’s saving grace as Neil, the quirky, competent Englishman who seems always to know more than he makes out.
Tenet is at times reminiscent of Nolan’s earlier masterpieces, particularly Inception and Memento. However, it seems to somewhat miss the mark, focussing on concept at the expense of overall experience. I have no doubt that there’s an internal coherence to the story, but my indifference towards piecing it together is probably quite telling.
Illustration by Eve Miller