How grand to see cinemas reopening after months of lock-down, and better still to see small production companies and the major studios show there work on the big screen again, not constrained to a television transmission. There is no doubt the pandemic and Netflix have altered things radically in the movie world, but that’s another story to be analysed at a later date when we see how cinema releases pan out.
In the meantime, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest mind bender Tenet to enjoy or not as the case may be. I say enjoy, but it is a cold fish dished up on an over-heated, expensive plate. This is a serious sci-fi oddball of a movie, a head scratcher.
When his Memento burst onto the screen I hailed a new talent. The back-to-front plot was audacious and clever, the protagonist suffering from anterograde amnesia, the star actor Guy Pearce perfectly cast, and yet there was something alienating about a study of a man losing his memory while trying to track down his wife’s murderer who was hunting him. I think I felt he ought to be among therapists not on his own. Then came a string of well-made blockbusters, Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Interstellar (2014), and finally in 2017, the flaccid Dunkirk, a war epic homage to British pluckiness and stiff upper lips. What they all have in common is alienation – today, firmly inscribed in stone as Nolan’s obsessive subject matter.
In Tenet, Nolan returns to dimension-bending visual trickery, the kind that made Inception too clever by half. He describes Memento and Inception as his masterworks, and they are by any standard of a high order in cinematic skill. How much they will be remembered is debatable. I rate Memento way above Inception for it did not require the massive suspension of disbelief Inception demanded.
There’s a hellova lot riding on Tenet – it must recoup a huge production budget and it has to rejuvenate cinema chains on the brink of insolvency, and all the staff that depend on them. That’s a megaton of pressure for one sci-fi action film with a relatively little-known lead actor, John David Washington, eldest of Denzel Washington and actor Pauletta Washington’s four children, last seen in BlacKkKlansman, here energetic but a little dull. That last remark warns readers I am not going to give this film a lot of stars.
Tenet is Nolan back on familiar ground. The word is a palindrome, spelled the same backward as forward. Nolan chose it for a story about technology that can make men capable of going back in time. It has all the visual pyrotechnics of Inception and all the, what the hell’s going on? reaction too.
In truth, I could not make head nor tale of the plot and was forced to turn to the studio press release for help: “In a twilight world of international espionage, an unnamed CIA operative, known as The Protagonist”, is recruited by a mysterious organization called Tenet to participate in a global assignment that unfolds beyond real time. The mission: prevent Andrei Sator, a renegade Russian oligarch with precognition ability from starting World War III. The Protagonist will soon master the art of “time inversion” as a way of countering the threat that is to come.”
Okay, so Tenet tells the story of “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), who finds himself embroiled in a convoluted conspiracy, but it involves spy stuff, time travel and World War III, and … big sigh … yet is nowhere near as interesting as that might suggest. I’d rather do algebraic equations than try to explain things but here it is:
Along the way, Protagonist (what a terrible name), meets up with Neil (Robert Pattinson), who appears to be a mysterious ally, and nefarious Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Brannagh), whose tortured accent is often incomprehensible – Russians are the cliché baddies. Branagh is not good at accents as his over-blown version of Hercule Poirot amply demonstrated.
Among the notable cast brought in to justify a mega-budget and attract bums on seats from all nations is a shamelessly underused Elizabeth Debicki as Sator’s wife, Kat, whose entire character repeats endlessly “I have a son!”.
This is supposed to represent her inner turmoil in lieu of an actual personality or internal life. Walk-on and walk-off cameos by the likes of Michael Caine and Martin Donovan are easily forgotten.
Did I like anything? Yes. The action is spectacular as always, and the whole reversal of physics, time-flowing-backwards, a fist fights seen from different angles, the magic of it all is a neat trick, but only for the first couple of times, thereafter getting increasingly predictable and boring.
The problem is that everything around these moments – the characters, the story, the leaden exposition dumps – are just so lacking in anything remotely human that you can latch onto. The Protagonist barely registers as a character, despite Washington’s best efforts – he’s too po-faced – and it’s hard to follow his adventures when the jeopardy and rewards are so low. Moreover, even the best action sequences are smothered in a ton of vacuous dialogue about the end of the world and “temporal pincer movements”. Eh?
For example, the protagonist discusses the classic paradox of time travel with his colleague, Neil (Robert Pattinson). He asks: If you went back in time and killed your grandfather before you were born, would you instantly disappear? “There is no answer”, Neil replies unhelpfully, dodging the paradox. The actual answer is, yes, of course I would bloody disappear! My grandfather would never have begat my mother, and my mother would not have begat me, if you can excuse the Biblical expression. Trite dialogue abounds, summed up in Neil’s comment later, “Whatever happened, happened.” Man, that is so not profound.
There are references to today’s political machinations; Trump gets a look-in over his indifference to 170,000 Americans dying from coronavirus, and counting, that “it is what it is”, a line Michelle Obama re-purposed for her convention speech recently. Perhaps Nolan was giving us a hint that the fashion governments are showing in how callous they can be for death and the destruction of small nations is at the core of his unsympathetic story – call it, a lack of empathy for humankind.
As in the dreams in Inception, the Nolan film Tenet closely resembles, each reverie within a nightmare is just another shoot ’em up movie with guns and car chases, and for this reviewer risking Corvid-19 in a cinema, truly boring. Is there a studio gangster film we have seen in thirty years that does not have a car chase ending in an explosion and conflagration? Showing us death as a cheap thrill goes all the way back to American atrocities in Vietnam.
In the opening sequence of Tenet, a whole auditorium of classical-music concert goers are put at risk of being blown up by an explosive device, a fact the Protagonist seems to laughs off. “Only the people in the cheap seats” might get killed. Dear me, what has he against lovers of Beethoven, Mozart and Bartok?
Nolan throws himself at a whole realm of human experience that he usually avoids, because he knows his literary weaknesses, apart from the murderous imaginary wife Marion Cotillard played in Inception. Otherwise, wives in Nolan films are almost always saintly or dead except when in flashbacks. He is a really bad writer of female roles.
Nathan Crowley, a regular Nolan collaborator and DP Hoyte van Hoytema adhere to a stark palette of neutral tones of the type we are used to seeing in a dystopian nightmare, mostly the color of concrete and rusty steel. We are given moments of respite in images of blue water and sky but just as cold as all the other sequences.
Altogether, Tenet is a chilly, cerebral exercise. You admire what you see not what you hear. You are aware Nolan is repeating himself. It lacks humanity, the very stuff of memorable stories. Will it help save our cinemas? Well, a family film it ain’t. And it outstays its welcome at the two hour mark with more to go.
- Star Rating: Three Stars
- Director-Writer: Christopher Nolan
- Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia
- Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
- Composer: Ludwig Goransson
- Visual effects supervisor: Andrew Jackson
- Special effects supervisor: Scott Fisher
- Adult Rating: PG 13
- Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?