Review: Tenet (2020) – A Hollow Rubik’s Cube

John David Washington in Tenet

Lauded as the film that was going to save cinema and other hyperbolic statements that seemed too grandiose to believe, Christopher Nolan’s latest is an ode to classic Bond spy drama’s. Advertised as a true original story, a time-bending, globe-trotting epic with the same visual flair to be expected from the auteur filmmaker. Tenet for all its originality, feels like a lavish exercise in wish fulfillment, a story that provided a reason for visual experimentation, never thematic ones. Tenet embraces Nolan’s worst impulses with an overly complicated narrative and a complete lack of emotional storytelling. Employing a cast that feel more like window dressing, rather than people, Nolan’s second to none technical hand rescues a lifeless picture and makes it into something pleasing but completely forgettable.

The film opens in classic Nolan fashion with a loud, often painfully so, set piece inside an opera house as the Protagonist (John David Washington), tries to avert disaster while completing his little known mission. It is classic Nolan, providing little answers and plenty of intrigue. He then finds himself recruited to a secret mission to avert a world ending catastrophe, at least that is what he is told. This threat involves the reversal of time and the involvement of a deranged Russian arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh). However when Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) finds herself interwoven in this twisted plot, The Protagonist finds himself trapped between saving one life and saving millions. It’s another Bond plot, painted with a science fiction sheen and Nolan knows it, he even plays to it.

Playing almost like a modern day, 70s conspiracy thriller at first, Tenet means to drown you in a sea of questions, not just interested in playing with the notion of time but also how to construct a mystery around it. The more you watch, the more the pieces fall into place, the more you reach the surface of this story and realise the body of water you’ve been languishing in isn’t quite as deep as you first thought. Sure the opening hour is a breathless ordeal, a race against time against an unknown force, the more you know the less answers seem important, in fact they are secondary to a story that works better the less you think about it.

In fact the answers that Nolan (who also wrote the script) deems important, the logistical minutiae Bond never finds important on his race to stop a cataclysm, never feels as relevant as who The Protagonist is beyond his obfuscated mission, or why Branagh’s villain is the petulant man child Nolan’s heavy handed script paints him as. Despite Washington providing enough bravado and charism to hide his character’s emptiness, there is only so much cool one person can take before it just becomes another way of avoiding any kind of personality. Suave, as much as Tenet wants to convince toy otherwise, is not a personality trait. Bond for all his misogynistic trappings at least has a functional flaw, something that makes him human.

Despite a visually jaw-droppingly imaginative vision, with a finale that gives off questions of how they did it all practically (which they almost certainly did) and just why other action films aren’t standing up to the plate in the same dramatic fashion, Tenet is as much a technical marvel and stylish adventure film as it is a tone deaf, emotionless slog. Despite the proclamations that it is something you have never seen before, Nolan frames his film around four increasingly elaborate heists. These are set pieces designed to show off but never really say anything, four vignettes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Soderbergh Ocean’s film. A booming operatic soundtrack maintains a sense of urgency but the looming question hanging over it all is why, if at all, does any of this matter. Nolan fills these scenes from ideas explored in his vast back catalogue but yet again misses the human factor.

Although surrounded by an impressive cast from the likes of Washington, who is a compelling lead despite his inherent character flaws, Robert Pattinson as the scene stealing Neil, a charming and blunt, oddly comic presence in a film lacking in levity and Debicki who provides layers to a stereotypical and occasionally offensive take on a battered woman. Playing to the idea of the strength behind Kat instead of to the scripts cloying pity for her, many a scene is made richer thanks to a superb cast. The only off note is Branagh who plays Sator in an almost Shakespearean manner, a stage performance for the screen that feels less villainous than farcical. The constantly fluctuating Russian accent in comparison is easy to ignore.

While Tenet is certainly a mixed bag to which I could continue to discuss, including a oftentimes confusing sound mix that considers dialogue optional for some illogical reason, in some ways the critics were right, it is a film to be seen, something that reminds us that big screen experiences are vital because where else would visuals like this truly stand out. There is something special about witnessing a highway chase this smartly produced on the big screen, or watching a plane careen through a car park, slamming aside everything it passes. These are visceral thrills that don’t demand intelligent plotting to enjoy and ones that stand out all the more in 8K, your ears close to bleeding in a cinema screen thanks to a score so good you might forgive a few of Tenet’s inconsistencies.

While easily one of Nolan’s weakest entries in an otherwise impressive resume, there is no denying that Tenet is a marvel and something made sweeter the bigger it is. While it lacks a sense of heart, behind the coldness of this spy tale I wholeheartedly recommend seeing it because you will certainly find something to wonder at through the mist of a messy plot contrivances and shoddy characterization. You’ll almost certainly find something fresh and unexpected, its up in the air how much you’ll enjoy it though.


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