Last week, in my Inception review, I extolled the virtues of Christopher Nolan, and how he makes complex, yet accessible blockbusters that both challenge and enthral an audience; in many ways, that review was the primer for this one, helping to give context to this new work by the acclaimed director.
Tenet is in a tough spot, it’s fair to say. It’s the biggest owed to re-open, and in that way, the pressure is on to make sure it puts asses on seats to help the industry get back on its feet. The film’s release has been a topic of anxiety for a few months for many commentators, and no doubt the talent behind the film, and up until last month, I genuinely didn’t think we’d get to see it until next year, but here it is to prove us all wrong, and hopefully to be the success needed for cinema releases to gain momentum again.
I’m going to put my cards down early on here and say that I don’t think I understood everything that happened in Tenet. Nolan is a fan of complexity, we know that much for certain, and this is no different, and there are times here where I think he asks too much of the audience, but I shall do my best to assess the film by its merits, and what I actually managed to decipher. I’m also going against my usual practice by just copy-and-pasting the plot synopsis, as to not give away too much plot information.
‘Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.’ (Synopsis from IMDb)
As vague as that description is, I can’t guarantee that you’ll know much more after watching the film either, if you’re like me, first of all, see a doctor, because you’re not normal, but mainly you’d have been impressed by the film and its mind-bending feats of filmmaking genius, but you won’t be engrossed by it. Rather than inviting you in to tell you a story, the film leaves you on the doorstep in the rain while it shouts time-travel conspiracies in another room.
I know it may damage my critical integrity somewhat by admitting that I just didn’t get what was going on (and this might be remedied with subsequent watches) but it says something for engaging an audience that if I – someone who watches films a lot and tends to be able to follow them – can’t follow the story, what chance do the casual cinema-going audience have?
Now, I admire Nolan for not dumbing-down his approach and making genuinely interesting high-concept films for the masses, but I think this is the film where he lost me the most. There are attempts (I think) to explain what’s going on, but it’s all breezed past so fast and is covered by pseudo-scientific waffle that it makes it near-impossible to penetrate. The characters are there explaining why things are happening and understanding each other, but that doesn’t mean the audience has too.
Despite its shortcomings in this area though, I don’t feel like Tenet is pretentious. It’s time-bending may fly over many people’s heads, but it feels more like an earnest attempt at presentation, exploring a difficult concept that somehow runs away from him, instead of Nolan making this to inflate his sense of intelligence, it’s made in such a way that it can still be enjoyed, even if you do get a little bit lost.
It’s a remarkable film with an incredibly interesting concept, and what it lacks in narrative connection, it makes up with some truly original action set-pieces that make the best use of the time-flow concept. The only downside to this is, it’s very difficult to talk about such virtues without giving away some of the secrets of the film, and given how closely-guarded this film was before release, I worry that Nolan would put a bounty on my head if I said too much.
You do get your money’s worth in the action set pieces alone, with the first and last sequences being perfect bookends to a perplexing journey that manages to connect the dots that some of the audience may have forgotten about in the intervening two-and-a-half hours.
I feel like special credit must be given to Nolan, and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, for devising and filming some of the most complex and ingenious sequences ever put on film, all captured practically no less, how you even conceive some of these happenings, let alone film them is beyond me, and is a testament to Nolan’s incredible mind for cinema.
The film is also very impressively acted, with John David Washington playing the enigmatic lead character, a role that must have been incredibly physically and mentally demanding. There are also great performances from future Batman, Robert Pattinson, and perhaps the most emotionally disturbing, yet compelling performer in the film, Sir Kenneth Branagh.
I don’t think this is Nolan’s masterpiece, or even anywhere near his best work, but it is a film that I will look forward to revisiting to try and comb through its complexity, and maybe figure it out, and the fact that I actually want to try should tell you a lot about the film. Normally if a film loses me like that, I have little interest in knowing more, but Nolan has made such an impressive world with such finesse that I feel like getting to the bottom of its mysteries will make subsequent rewatches all the more rewarding.
In conclusion, Tenet is a reminder (if we ever needed one) that Christopher Nolan is a master of cinema. Even when his stories don’t fully engage an audience, the sense of spectacle and meticulous craftsmanship in the action should be enough to engage you, meaning that the film can entertain even if you don’t fully understand its complexity; and that just goes to show that even on his off days, Nolan has more ability as a filmmaker in one finger than most do in their whole bodies.