Christopher Nolan has long been the protagonist of his own films. Inception saw him use Leonardo DiCaprio as a stand-in to orchestrate an operatic heist, Interstellar saw him use McConaughey as a man that leaves his family to fulfill his destiny, and Dunkirk saw him leave humanity completely behind to deliver us a display of time manipulation that helped him step completely away from the director’s chair and into the spotlight as the true star of his films. Character became unnecessary in a display of visual artistry that took the breath away even while leaving me cold to everyone I was supposed to care about. His sound design began to obscure the dialogue, the audience unable to hear what anyone was saying even as Nolan said that it didn’t matter and the things you were seeing told the story. I’ve still managed to enjoy all of his work, even the weird-ass The Dark Knight Rises and its “I made this because I was contracted to” story.
And now we’ve arrived at Tenet.
The Protagonist (John David Washington) plays an unnamed black ops operative in a world not unlike our own. We open on an opera house as he extracts an undercover spy that’s been made, sneaking him out among the chaos of an attempted assassination. After being saved by an unknown individual in a mask, he winds up captured and takes a cyanide pill to preserve any information he possesses. Upon waking, the Protagonist is confronted with a new truth – it was a fake pill, a test to see if he’d really keep everything to himself. He’s recruited to work for Tenet, a mysterious agency that involves inverted objects travelling backward through time as everything around them moves forward. Sent to stop Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a mobster with plans of global destruction, he partners with British local Neil (Robert Pattinson) and the mobster’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to stop a potential apocalypse.
I can’t really talk about much more than this without ruining it for you, but I’ll say that the film gets far more complicated. Trailers were misleading, painting the picture of a time travel thriller when the reality is closer to a James Bond film involving Nolan’s time obsession. It’s a spy movie through and through, and like many Bond flicks it’s a sleek package full of globetrotting, gadgets, and some sexy suits while Elizabeth Debicki (in all of her glorious tallness) serves as our modern-day Bond Girl. Everything about it seems to be what I think he’d have done with the Bond film he’s always wanted to make, combining the strange sci-fi pulp novels of his youth with the trappings of the original franchise.
While Nolan has always wanted to make a Bond film, his actual dream seems to be taking cinema into the realm of stuntshow spectacular instead of story. The guy has always had a sleeping giant inside of him, a need to suppress character and story to play with wind imagery and sound. He would have ruled the silent film era, but as a modern filmmaker his issues are starting to show. I’ve long stood against people that say he’s cold and calculated, nary a hint of humanity in sight. Welp…not now. These characters are pleasant in ways, but they’re not fully rounded. Pattinson and Debicki get the lion’s share of sympathy from the audience, leaving Washington to struggle in his role as the lead. He’s a man stumbling around trying to figure out what’s going on and Nolan’s need to pull intertemporal hat tricks on the audience leaves us just as baffled as he is. Don’t get me wrong, I was more than able to follow the film, but I was left frustrated and feeling like it was all underbaked. Of course then the setpieces kicked in and my lizard brain took over, relishing the violence and wild inverted fight choreography that I was adrift in. Nolan’s strength with practical filmmaking seems silly when he’s crashing planes and throwing Batmen from buildings, but onscreen it all looks like a beautifully cathartic dream any other director would kill for. It’s a shame that he finally gave into his lesser instincts and tossed character depth by the wayside, because he doesn’t get a bad performance but fails to give anyone time to really do enough with it.
I mean…behold Kenneth Branagh. This guy is always a cheeseball, but he takes it to a very strange level in Tenet that is something you’re going to love or despise. The accent is ridiculous, the performance is quiet and threatening, and yet he’s got such an unhappy demeanor to him that feels akin to a man that just needs a nap. His wife, Kat, is estranged and he just can’t let her go. This all leads to some wild interplay, but you really get the connection between them while Pattinson and Washington feel like two people trying to be friendly and not quite getting there.
Ludwig Göransson takes over duties from Hans Zimmer this time around, the latter dedicated to creating music for the upcoming Dune adaptation (the trailer looked stellar). While I usually consider him a journeyman composer, I got really into his work on The Mandalorian and thought he might be an interesting choice for a Nolan movie. What he’s created is definitely weird and wild, full of our standard “brahm” noises and some staccato needling sounds to create a highly uncomfortable atmosphere. It works with the film well despite not really being able to stand on its own two feet. I’m frustrated by this because I’ve long felt Nolan needed to step away from Zimmer and mix things up with a different composer. This…didn’t quite scratch my itch.
Look, at the end of the day Tenet is a decent film but lesser than Nolan’s previous efforts that bought him license to do whatever he wanted. The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar have pretty much guaranteed him the freedom to do what he wants for quite a while. This has been both a good thing and a bad thing, his hold over theatres leaking into a pandemic and causing issues for those wanting to stay home. He’s dedicated to releasing theatrically no matter what, and he was able to wrangle his way into a September release date that I’m all but certain is going to cause spread. A shame, since this isn’t really the kind of film that could be considered worthwhile in that manner. I enjoy it quite a bit and look forward to watching it again, but I honestly can’t recommend going out for it. Setpieces are gorgeous, Pattinson’s feathered hair is breathtaking, but at the end of the day it was a struggle for me. Due to the interesting ideas, solid performances, interesting score, and ridiculously wonderful imagery I’d still consider it a solid 8/10, but right now my thoughts are skewed because it was the first new film I’d seen in nine months.
I’ll try again when it hits home video.