Christopher’s Nolan’s time-bending, cinema-saving epic has finally hit cinemas, but is it good enough for you to leave the safety of home to see it? Isaac Bettridge gives us his thoughts.
Christopher Nolan vanishes up his own arsehole with Tenet, a film that combines the glamorous locales and stylish action of a Bond film with the overpowering sensation of ennui and despair of being yelled at by a drunk physics student about particles in a club. It’s a sort of authoritarian movie, in that it is the clear product of ego run amok – what happens when someone overly impressed with their own ability and intelligence is surrounded by obsequious enablers and given access to vast resources to impose their will upon the world. It resembles nothing less than a sort of cinematic Versailles: undeniably gorgeous and impressively crafted but hollow and indulgent at its core, a profoundly overwrought and obscene expense, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
The plot, to the extent that I was able to follow it, follows BlacKkKlansman star John David Washington’s ‘Protagonist’, a CIA operative recruited into a top-secret agency of super spies using time ‘inversion’ technology to save the world from the sinister machinations of a Russian oligarch played by Kenneth Branagh, who is also using inversion technology and wants to destroy all of time and space because of climate change or something. Along the way, he partners up with Robert Pattinson’s dapper British spy Neil and Elizabeth Debecki as Branagh’s scorned wife as they spend two and a half hours tearing through every law of physics and plot structure known to man in a clear effort to ape the success of Nolan’s previous mind-bending thrillers. However, this is not Inception, and the distinction becomes clear very early on.
Nolan is famous for his mastery of the technical aspects of filmmaking, so I’ll give him credit where it’s due. The cinematography is superb, the set design and look of the film are pristine and it certainly gives the impression of a film that’s been smoothed to perfection by a watchful director and crew. This is much harder to appreciate however given the film’s already notoriously bad sound design: it is near impossible to understand what’s being said by most of the characters during several crucial scenes, and even in those without any dialogue, Ludwig Gorannson’s oppressively loud score will hammer its way into your eardrums and probably give you a searing headache. Many complained about similar issues in Nolan’s previous film Dunkirk, but in that film the sound design worked to immerse you in the chaos and confusion of war, where the constant pounding of bombs and the roar of Messerschmitts would understandably crowd the character’s ears. By contrast, most of Tenet takes place in luxurious yachts or sleek operations centres, and yet everyone still sounds like they’ve been put through the same voice filter that Bane was in The Dark Knight Rises.
But these are minor complaints compared to the real meat of my problem with the film, which is that Tenet, much like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz, has plenty of brains but lacks a heart. Significant plot beats revolve around the character’s connections to each other. In particular, Debecki’s love for her (mostly unseen) son and her supposed infatuation with Washington – but no one here ever talks about their feelings, displays any discernible emotion other than anger, or utters more than a few lines of dialogue that aren’t pure exposition. This robs them of any understandable motivation or personality, a crippling flaw for a film as character-driven as this one. Even if you’re able to look past this, the central time travel conceit simply isn’t interesting enough to sustain your interest for the entire 2-and-a-half-hour runtime. Many fans of the film have told critics who find it too confusing to simply ‘enjoy the ride’, but this is advice usually given concerning empty blockbusters like Transformers rather than a work from one of the foremost filmmakers of our age, and especially one who prides himself on how ‘intelligent’ his pictures supposedly are. Unfortunately, Tenet fails to be either fun enough to work as a turn-your-brain-off actioner or clever enough to stimulate you intellectually. Instead, what we’re left with is a film endlessly reaching for greatness but pulled down by the gravity of its own incoherence and pretentiousness, that loops endlessly back in on itself, much like the time loops and palindromes that occupy so much of its runtime, but never really manages to reach a point.