Christopher Nolan‘s new film Tenet is about an unnamed CIA operative (John David Washington) — referred to only as “The Protagonist” — who works in a shadowy world of sci-fi spooks trying to stop Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Brannagh) from destroying the world. To call this a spy film would be like calling Basic Instinct a romantic comedy. There are so many twists and ideas thrown against the wall that it’s like a Bond movie on amphetamines. You’ve got a protagonist spy, a foreign megalomaniac who’s determined to end the world because he’s dying and wants to take everybody with him, the megalomaniac’s wife ruefully helping the protagonist, and action sequence after action sequence in international locales. Throw in the sci-fi element of some objects (and people) traveling backwards through time and you have a Christopher Nolan movie.
Let’s break this movie into three aspects: the action, the emotional, and the intellectual – because they don’t quite come together, and therefore must be considered separately.
In terms of action, the movie never relents. It thunders forward using a mix of fast cuts, moving camera, and alternating wide and tight shots to catapult you through a very noisy, clanging, mobile plot which never stops long enough to provide adequate context for its high concept ideas. Remember that point in Inception when they got to the level of the snowscape? The shootout on skidoos with nameless soldiers in camouflage fatigues and when you said ‘enough’ to the film? It’s like that, but all the time in Tenet.
The film has some similarities with Inception and Memento, but both those movies took time to breathe and deploy conversation to establish character. Tenet is so noisy, and rushes so hyperactively, that it’s difficult to hear, let alone understand what the characters are saying. The sound mix does not emphasize clarity, either in terms of plot or dialogue. If they offer ‘screenings for mommies’, I’d be tempted to swaddle a Cabbage Patch doll in order to sit through a quieter version of the movie with subtitles just so I could understand what’s being said.
Nolan goes to impressive lengths with his action sequences, however. He frames images to emphasize the might of the helicopters or the cars or the scale of the locales he works with. Everything is overwrought from a crashing plane filled with gold bars to a secret Russian bunker to freighters on the sea surrounded by wind turbines. Nolan refrains from using handheld camera for many of his tracking shots and uses actual sets instead of CGI which lend his films added reality and weight.
The emotional is the weakest of the three aspect. Nolan further and further dispenses the need for development and pacing in exchange for urgency with each of his successive movies. In this one, he simply avoids developing the characters or their relationships. It’s hard to care about Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) because though he’s very very cruel to her, neither she or their relationship are fleshed out. Most of what’s tragic about her situation is told and not shown.
Our protagonists, played by Washington and Robert Pattinson, are never given any dimensions of character beyond their mission. It’s difficult to buy in when Washington’s character cares about Debecki’s or when Pattinson’s character feels affection for Washington’s. This is a real shame as Pattinson has become a fine actor embracing subtle, complex roles in both indie and blockbuster fare. He’s given very little to work with here. You get the feeling he’s the Tom Hardy analogue (from Inception) without the charm.
Charm is really missing from the film as a whole — charm and mystique — for the ideas themselves are interesting. The film is filled with fine actors including Brannagh, who doesn’t seem to know what to do except mutter and glare. There’s a very minor scene with Nolan familiar Michael Caine, appearing quite aged now, and I got the feeling that Brannagh (who appeared in Nolan’s Dunkirk) is slated to replace him in Nolan’s stable.
This brings us to the intellectual, the most rewarding aspect of the film. Apparently, Nolan took more than five years to figure out the ideas he wished to work into the movie. This is fine but he’s lost sight of how to pull them together. The main concept is that there are objects (and humans) who can be induced to have a ‘negative entropy’ – a fancy way of saying they travel backwards in time. However, the elegant high of seeing things run backwards (an easy enough trick in the medium of film) is complicated by elements moving forwards and backwards at the same time, interacting using rules which don’t seem consistent or existent. You watch these sequences and try to puzzle them out and all the while, the magic drains out.
From what I understand, entropy is a state and time can also be considered a state or a relation between events, so it’s hard to understand how an individual object can have its own state of entropy or time … but that’s fine. The concept of time is of great interest to Nolan; consider the outstanding non-linear plot of The Prestige, the narrative moving backwards in Memento, time slowing down in Inception, warped time in Interstellar, and the converging time scales in Dunkirk.
In his book A Brief History of Time and its sequel, Stephen Hawking stated that there really is no reason time should flow forward – it could just as easily flow backwards and satisfy the principles of Physics. But he was talking about closed systems (for example, our universe) and not individual elements. One reason Hawking posited that time might flow forward is that entropy naturally increases – the universe gradually moves from a state of order to disorder and things fall apart. Tenet mentions these ideas fleetingly; there’s a moment where our protagonist asks ‘what about causality?’ What about causality indeed? It’s not adequately explored. There are other ideas too, regarding people from the future sending instructions to Sator (who sounds suspiciously like ‘Saito’ from Inception) to destroy people in the present, but these are best left for the viewer to explore.
Nolan has two conflicting drives within his creative ethos that never balance. One is the intellectual, which explores novel and interesting speculative ideas. My favourite aspects of The Dark Knight Rises were those evoking the Russian Revolution and the Occupy movement. However, these were swept under the rug in favour of the high power action sequences: Catwoman dispatches Bane with the cannons on the Batcycle, etc. It’s as if Nolan has both an inner Stanley Kubrick and a Zack Snyder, yet Snyder ultimately wins. Scratch his cerebral veneer and you get a stylish Michael Bay. Interstellar‘s ideas were great until Matthew McConaughey entered the black hole; then they just made things up as they went.
Some people hate Nolan’s work and Tenet will only confirm their feelings. I’m not one of them. I really, really wanted to like this movie. I’ve found that in the past, I’ve appreciated Nolan’s work more upon repeated viewing, especially when I can turn on the subtitles and ponder the buried ideas. This is exactly what some people love about his work and they’ll want to be sandblasted by his new concoction. It might be a sort of masochistic intellectualism.
In the past, I’ve always gone along with it because the ideas and plot elements were interesting enough to keep me engaged, even if some aspects were given short shrift. A good example is the explanation of Ariadne losing touch with reality in Inception; her reason for killing herself. You have to watch the film a couple of times to see how she gets to that place and how important those plot points are. However, this is proof of Nolan’s impatience, not evidence of his cleverness.
My favourite films by Nolan are those he’s worked on with his brother. Jonathan Nolan contributed to Memento, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Prestige. I’m sure Jonathan’s co-writing balances out his brother’s ideas. I also really like Inception, although that’s solely credited to Christopher Nolan. I doubt it’s possible for Nolan to refrain from big budget spectacles as he moves forward in his career. He has a need to emphasize power and this will always supercede the subtle considerations of character and pacing. Enough fans will be excited by what he does. Studios will always throw money at his ideas. Personally, I’d like to see him strive to become a better director (as opposed to a producer of blockbusters). Someone like Akira Kurosawa, perhaps, who interspersed thoughtful meditative dramas in between action blockbusters. It’d be nice to see Nolan pause long enough to make something like Insomnia or The Prestige again.
Note: Tenet opened internationally this week and comes to the US on September 3rd. Reviewer Koom Kankesan saw the film outside the US and we strongly advise avoiding indoor movie theaters within the country for the time being.