I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives were being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.
That’s a criticism to some degree – you don’t want everything served on a plate, but you do need to be able to establish some clear and concise basic rules of the universe, especially in terms of an attempt at new visual grammar – but it may be one I reverse (or invert, if you will) upon revisit. I could follow the gist of Tenet, which is basically a Bond movie – Nolan’s favourite series, if the likes of Batman Begins and Inception hadn’t already spelled that out – with added temporal wizardry.
But whereas Inception managed to offer immersive imagery, lucid plotting and involving characters, Tenet trails on all fronts. The characters are mostly so low key as to be entirely functional – its clearest comparison, beyond the tricksy structure, to Primer, a film for which life is too short to invest the time in to revisit, however worthwhile. The inverted/normal action sequences are striking and compelling, yet it’s often difficult maintain focus on their objectives. And the plotting… Well, Nolan’s twist on time travel means you’re so distracted by the bells and whistles that there isn’t a lot of time to assess whether there’s anything really satisfying going on under the hood.
And like The Dark Knight Rises – remember the reactions to muffled Bane in the trailers? – Tenet’s sound is frequently an obstacle to intelligibility. Frequently intentionally so it seems, as there are great dumps of exposition and motivation dropped during noisy action, to “create a visceral emotional experience… beyond merely an intellectual one”. Really? Cold-fish Chris wants an emotional experience? Then his is a perverse logic, because the effect is an additionally distancing one in a movie of resolutely cool level-headedness.
The only overt emotional responses are allowed the husband-wife duo of Andrei Sator (Sir Ken) and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the latter a battered wife held hostage – but not “fridged” in contrast to a standard complaint with Nolan fare – and the former a grim-faced psychopath ready and eager to dish pain and distress. Ken’s good in the role, but it’s hardly a nuanced one. Debicki’s as flawless as ever in a damsel-in-distress part “rewarded” with revenge at her hand. So yeah, it’s nice that Kat gets her kid for keeps, and that Andrei undergoes a very constitution-cramping demise. But how much do you really care?
Similarly so with John David Washington and Robert Pattinson as “the Protagonist” and Neil. They’re more than serviceable, and we leave them safe and a little sad in the knowledge that they’ll become best buds in inverse directions (Nolan’s been watching Dark). But you don’t really need to see more of their adventures. Pattinson reminded me of a sort of cross between Jeremy Irons and Michael York here. He and the later appearing Aaron Taylor-Johnson – who continues his chameleonic ambitions as Ives, equipped with a big bushy beard – fit the Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Tom Hardy parts from Inception. Which makes Washington DiCaprio. But as capable as his character is, he’s new to this particular game, so not as surefooted and calculated as Leo.
In tandem with that, as transfixing as the inverted sequences are, they don’t “wow” in the way Inception’s dreamscape did. A lot more work is required to discern the reverse logic and the pieces of the jigsaw; even if you “get” the effect-then-cause process, it’s another thing to perceive and digest that in action. Which means, as a plus for Nolan, it’s more difficult to break down the potential holes in his construct, at least initially.
Nolan’s always been a cool filmmaker (I don’t mean “hip”), but this might be his most clinical picture yet. As big as it is, Tenet is very clipped, very minimalist in terms of gesture and poise. The greatest impact comes from Ludwig Göransson’s prowling, pulsing score, driving us forward even when we’re otherwise at a loss.
That said, while I’ve voiced my concerns over coherence, it’s only really the grand climax that left me entirely bewildered by the spectacle. Yes, I know these “temporal pincer movements” were explained several times, but let’s be honest: Nolan has never been the greatest marshaller of the action sequence (making it the more bemusing that he continually sets himself greater and greater challenges). While he improves, he simply lacks the innate genius of George Miller.
Reading the final sequence’s synopsis, it’s easy to respond “Ah yes, of course”. Watching it, however, I found it even less coherent than his usual form (and again, it’s the score, if anything, that makes you feel it has all come together). The expensive effects that are supposed to stun – look at the two-way exploding building! – rather left me shrugging. There are several occasions where we revisit a sequence again from an inverted perspective, but there’s curiously little entailing satisfaction from things falling into place.
As a piece of plotting, Nolan has set up a “foe from the future” storyline with idiosyncratic twists. We have no glimpse of the future world or any of those from it, merely their instrument of destruction. There are pros and cons to this approach, but the main consequence is that the picture is even more Bondian through keeping the future as hearsay (or foresay).
The is much talk of temporal theory, of Grandfather paradoxes and time loops (“Either way we run the tape, you made it happen”). The operating mechanism is that these loops are internally coherent, even though there is discussion of potentially changing them. The Protagonist asks Dimple Kapadia’s arms dealer Priya not to tell his past self about the “plutonium” so he doesn’t attempt to get hold of it, but she refuses – “If that universe can exist, we don’t live in it” – meaning Chris can avoid facing the point down.
Those in the future are attempting a Grandfather Paradox in their plan to change history (I was unclear on the specifics of their scheme, in as much as their world is screwed so they intend to reverse climate change by reversing the Earth’s entropy; presumably, that means returning the planet to an earlier, pre-man-corrupted state, rather than outright destroying it). We see one loop paradox in effect in relation to the Oslo freeport “time stile”, whereby the Protagonist and Neil only know about the time stile because their future selves utilise it, such that when they do utilise it is as their future selves (this one of the few points where I was ahead of the curve, realising who it had to be when Neil pulled off his unseen assailant’s mask first time out).
The plot device of nine parts of the algorithm being hidden in the past works well enough, but it isn’t really all that satisfying (if you want it out of reach, there are surely better and less elaborate ways of achieving this – I had vague déjà vu of The Rise of Skywalker’s treasure hunt, particularly with digressions such as obtaining the fake Goya to get there). Likewise, the inverted bullets thing sounds cool, but really: they’re brought back from the future and sold on the black market because they do more damage than regular bullets? I mean, how much more damage than regular bullets do you need to do in order to make them sought after? Surely it would be more effective simply to employ someone with accurate aim.
With the Nolans and their oeuvre, one inevitably wonders on their fare’s predictive programming element, not least Jonathan and his AI, transhumanist obsession on TV (Person of Interest, Westworld). For Christopher’s part, he has managed to make one of the major (possibly it will be the major released one) movies of 2020, and it’s one that is intrinsically sold on mask wearing. Indeed, it’s intrinsic to the Protagonist’s survival. Added to which, Nolan is explicitly reinforcing Interstellar’s doomed future by selling the climate-change narrative (Greta will give it two diminutive thumbs up). Notable too, that those from the future are attempting a reset (which ties in with some of the more outré AI theories of our paradigm). A reset of one shape or form – financial, social, medical – is also a presiding real-world narrative right now, its play out seemingly imminent.
On a more superficial note, it appears the director has taken note of “Nolan so white” charges previously levelled, even as the picture translates as possibly even more culturally – read: British – clipped and rigid in demeanour than Dunkirk. Nolan talisman Michael Caine is duly wheeled out, and I have to admit, it’s the first time he’s seemed his age in terms of performance. I see he has another couple of pictures incoming, so hopefully he was just having a couple of off days on set.
Even given my qualifications, Tenet is the Nolan film I’ve enjoyed most since Inception. I don’t know if it will improve or diminish in estimation upon repeat visit. I expect the former, not just in terms of the leavening of its plot and visual dynamic, but character and performance too. There’s no doubt he’s made things expressly difficult for his audience this time, though. Which, given his standard budgets, is a risky business; even if this had unfolded as a normal summer, I suspect Tenet would have had a hard time coming close to breaking even.