Credit: Warner Brothers
Blockbuster Beat by Lawrence Garcia Featured Film

Tenet | Christopher Nolan

September 2, 2020

For all of Tenet’s ostensible narrative novelty and talk of the future, it is, in the end, a dismayingly familiar experience.

It makes some degree of sense that a filmmaker so often lauded as “visionary,” yet who’s also expressed longstanding confusion at how mirrors work, should finally serve up a summer blockbuster that’s really only half a movie. Granted, this could only be by design — and Christopher Nolan’s two-and-a-half-hour, time-reversing Tenet is nothing if not designed. The film plays its pre-title opening for maximum disorientation, kicking off in a Kiev opera house with a ticking-clock setpiece, its confusing, if propulsive action set to a bombastic, blaring score (courtesy of Ludwig Göransson, here stepping in for Nolan regular Hans Zimmer). From this earsplitting din, we are soon introduced to John David Washington’s unnamed, capital-P Protagonist, an agent who takes a cyanide pill for the good of his team, only to later awaken and find himself not only alive, but recruited into an enigmatic network known only as Tenet. When a scientist later shows him objects whose entropy has been reversed, allowing them to flow back in time (perhaps from “a future war”), she adds, “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.” In a different film, this might be the director’s nudging advice, but given Nolan’s general interest in clockwork contraptions, it’s hard not to read it as something more like a challenge.

Like Inception (2010) before it, Tenet is first and foremost an ambitious act of worldbuilding. The rules of this particular game, though, are much more difficult to grasp than that film’s dream-heist, Matryoshka-doll mechanics, which Nolan’s typically verbose script repeatedly acknowledges. Much more familiar is Tenet’s globe-trotting, spy-movie framework, with post-apocalyptic sci-fi, heist-, and war-film elements thrown in for good measure. Indeed, as Washington’s agent hops between Mumbai and Oslo and Italy’s Amalfi Coast (filming took place across seven countries), the movie plays something like a catalogue of contemporary blockbuster filmmaking tendencies — a de facto meta-narrative of its studio-backed financing and production. One would of course be remiss not to mention the film’s major characters: the Protagonist’s fellow agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson); Elizabeth Debicki’s art dealer, Kat; and her violent, Frank Booth–like husband, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian billionaire and arms dealer. But for a time, the film’s movements seem more motivated by fiscal flow than by any human relationships. (A chipper PR employee of an Oslo-based freeport, describing the state-of-the-art storage facility’s lethal-to-humans fire precautions: “Our clients use us because we have no priorities above their property.”) When an actual Boeing 747 is crashed into an airplane hanger, the experience of watching Tenet doesn’t feel like much more than watching Hollywood capital move on-screen.

Nolan is not, of course, engaging in some self-conscious, Situationist endeavor à la Olivier Assayas. Tenet is still a blockbuster that wants to make money, and to that end, it doesn’t hesitate to use stock archetypes or scenarios, eventually building to a save-the-world climax that’s best left for discovery. That said, the director remains as willing as ever to confound audiences, which is something to be admired — up to a point, anyway. The problem, as always, is that his conceptual ingenuity far outstrips his formal competence. Here, Nolan wants to do nothing less than rewire the viewer’s brain (moving them away from “linear” temporal thinking), but his bombastic, pummelling approach succeeds mainly in short-circuiting the film’s headier implications. Not exactly the most graceful of stylists, Nolan does try, in his way, to enliven the proceedings. In a routine dialogue scene, he has the camera circle around the three main players (which is the kind of thing Tarantino and De Palma do in their sleep); elsewhere, a conversation between Washington, Debicki, and Branagh unfolds during a strenuous catamaran excursion for no discernible reason (though one could, if so inclined, place the scene in the tradition of L’Avventura or Knife in the Water). During the climax, Nolan even manages a slight twist on blockbuster cliché, giving the audience not a bigger explosion, but the sight of a building exploding and un-exploding at the same time (what this actually does, in any meaningful sense, is harder to say). 

But for all of Tenet’s ostensible narrative novelty and talk of the future, it is, in the end, a dismayingly familiar experience. Despite myriad shots of simultaneous backwards/forwards movement, the film’s supposed thrills — a highway heist sequence recalling either Mad Max: Fury Road or Heat, for instance — are the same things that get the pulse racing in more conventional (temporally challenged?) blockbusters. By necessity, the film leaves much of significance off screen (more perhaps than most directors are willing to risk), and in so doing, it makes considerable demands of the viewer’s imagination, which is, in itself, a genuinely bold, thrilling proposition. The issue, though, is that Nolan offers so little formal ingenuity or image-making invention in return: Few of Tenet’s time-reversing effects are nearly as transporting as, say, those of Jean Cocteau or any number of filmmakers going back to the silent era. And on the level of gargantuan spectacle, Nolan fails to match even the achievements of his past self: Nothing in Tenet begins to approach the superb space-station docking sequence in Interstellar (2014). 

In a contemporary landscape littered with recycled IP and exercises in brand management, original ideas are never to be ignored. But there’s also a viewing experience to consider, and a heady, paradox-peddling premise does not a film make. Nolan has previously proven that he can engineer clockwork mechanisms of emotional force and scintillating implication. But with Tenet, which fails to convince as either dramatic or action spectacle, let alone as philosophical investigation, he’s made something more like a house of cards, built only to be toppled over. All that remains once the credits have rolled is the work of clearing the ground.