[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Tenet.]
One of the biggest problems with Christopher Nolan is his uneasiness with emotion and pathos. He’s far more comfortable within the rigid bounds of dramatic structure and scientific formulas than he is with the complexities of human experience. Even at his most emotional and earnest in a movie like Interstellar, he needs to take time to explain how love works and position it as a measurable force like time or gravity. Nolan’s success comes from how he’s been able to take this weakness and still make powerful movies about identity as they relate to grandiose concepts of time and truth, so that when we see the reverse chronology of movie like Memento, it’s not a gimmick but a way to get inside the mind of his protagonist, who has no short-term memory.
Sadly, Nolan’s new movie Tenet is all gimmick, and devoid of those fascinating questions of identity and truth that invigorated his previous efforts. Playing by the rules of the spy genre, Nolan crafts a rote entry into the genre devoid of personality other than the convoluted concept of “time inversion”, which puts the movie into a palindromic structure. It’s a neat trick, but a hollow one that wears thin over the course of the film’s runtime. Divorced from thoughtful characters or any thematic heft, Tenet is merely an exercise in palindromic storytelling. It’s an immaculately crafted puzzle that offers no reward for solving it. By the time you’re trying to figure out what a “temporal pincer maneuver” is, you’ve ceased to care.
The film begins with an extraction mission at an opera house that goes sideways and our unnamed protagonist (John David Washington) opts to take a poison pill rather than sell out his comrades. He awakens on a hospital ship with mysterious superiors informing him that his willingness to die for discretion makes him the ideal operative (now officially dubbed The Protagonist) for a mission to bring down arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) by ingratiating himself with Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). This leads to a series of MacGuffin chases and spy tropes where The Protagonist and his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson) attempt to talk to ascertain some painting or mechanical doodad or what have you to stop World War III, which we’re currently experiencing through time-inverted debris.
Somehow, the future has figured out how to send items back to the past. So, for example, a time-inverted bullet no longer flies forward; it flies back into the gun. The trajectory of time is reversed, so The Protagonist must figure out how to avoid this coming war, which involves stopping Sator. However, Sator can’t simply be assassinated because he holds the secrets of exactly how time inversion is happening and this bizarre relationship with the distant future.
I’m not going to get dragged down into the various time inversions beyond to say that the overall structure of Tenet is divided into two halves. The first half proceeds at a fairly standard clip with various items being inverted so that a bullet goes back into a gun or The Protagonist and Neil can rappel up a building. The film then twists at the halfway point where we see there’s a giant machine where humans can be inverted, although they need to wear oxygen masks because their lungs can’t handle inverted air. This leads The Protagonist back through the events of the first half in reverse order while also learning that Sator is trying to put together a doomsday device that will collide the future with the past and annihilate all life. Sator is okay with this because he has a terminal disease and doesn’t want the world to live on after him. He’s the ultimate abuser—if he can’t have life, no one can.
The sentiment running through Tenet is that you’re seeing Nolan’s riff on a Bond movie, with all the shortcomings that implies. The thing about a prototypical Bond movie is that they’re generally fun and sexy. Bond may not be the deepest character, but his charisma and the world he inhabits makes him a compelling enough hero for the mission he needs to accomplish. He’s not encumbered by his story running forwards and then backwards, nor is he burdened by the icy hand of a filmmaker who seems to abhor anything sexual in his movies. I’m not saying every spy adventure needs sex, but if you’re crafting a globetrotting affair where the Protagonist’s main motivation is protecting the gorgeous Kat and the most those two characters can manage for the most part is a chaste kiss on the cheek, then your Bond riff is missing some key notes.
Nolan seems to be in the spy genre for the action, which is fine, but it also renders Tenet into no better than a Michael Bay movie but in a three-piece suit instead of a t-shirt and jeans. Tenet has its share of eye-popping, speaker-obliterating action, but none of it means anything. Beyond Kat wanting to get away from her abusive husband and rescue their son, the film is shockingly devoid of character stakes and personal arcs. It’s all about the mission to save the world, and so time inversion obfuscates more than it illustrates. No matter how the action turns out, we don’t really care what happens to the people involved beyond the general movie-star charisma these actors possess. You root The Protagonist because John David Washington is cool, not because the character is compelling.
I’d also argue that despite the bombast of the action, Nolan has harmed himself with a sound mix that obliterates key pieces of dialogue in a movie that sorely needs you to listen to the torrents of exposition it provides. At my screening, other critics shared my complaint that the dialogue track was incredibly difficult to understand over the score and sound effects, and I’ve heard a similar complaint from critics who attended other screenings, which leads me to believe that either Nolan made a bad choice in choosing to drown out the dialogue track, or that he was indifferent towards his audience being able to understand how exactly time inversion works. That latter would be particularly unforgivable since so much of the movie is given over to people explaining various aspects of time inversion. Either your artistic choice rests on characters needing to be understood, or their dialogue isn’t that important anyway, but it can’t be both.
Perhaps Clémence Poésy’s scientist has the best explanation when she tells The Protagonist that he shouldn’t try to understand time inversion but feel it. At some point, Tenet washes over you, and you cease to care. When Aaron Taylor-Johnson shows up playing some secret military soldier talking about temporal pincer moves they’ll make, you’re left wondering why you should be invested beyond the device itself. I suppose some audience members will be very much on board with trying to follow the inverted and non-inverted timelines and characters. There will be YouTube explainers and diagrams and much rejoicing among this movies-as-puzzles community. But for people who want to see a movie with a riveting plot and complex characters, you’ve got nothing.
In his last film, Dunkirk, Nolan also largely discarded with characters and complex storytelling, but it worked because he was telling us about true events and using this stripped-down narrative to create a work of experiential filmmaking. We didn’t need to know the lives of the individual soldiers because we were sharing in their fear, dread, and fight for survival. The film gets its heat from the truth of its unfolding, not from its characters. Tenet not only lacks characters, but truth. You reach the end/beginning no richer for the experience because the ornate puzzle is ultimately hollow.
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