Depending on who you ask, Tenet’s release in 2020 became symbolic for something larger about the medium. At worst, it represented a trend for art to trump all adversity (even amidst a pandemic) or at best: the film that will save the cinematic experience by keeping many theatres in business. Going by the UK box office, it certainly achieved the latter to a certain degree, ruling as the number one movie for an impressive eight weeks.
However, despite this huge burden the film hoisted upon its shoulders (with the hard worn weariness of a turtle), my curiosity about Tenet came from what it says about Christopher Nolan’s style. Having made a movie backwards, elevated the comic book movie to such a degree that it ignited a whole trend (heightened realism), and depict the true cost of time on a group of scientists; Tenet had my attention.
The end result is something of a mixed blessing. Tenet is certainly engrossing, ambitious and Nolan’s most primal film. However, it’s also an effort that exposes some of his problems as a screenwriter.
Tenet is about a secret agent called The Protagonist, (John David Washington) who finds himself thrust into the world of futuristic espionage after surviving an interrogation. In his new role, he has to track down a Russian arms dealer- Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) to prevent him from hatching a world annihilating plan. He does this by trying to befriend Sator’s wife- Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Along the way, Washington’s CIA agent is allied with Neil (Robert Pattison) and Priya (Dimple Kapadia) whose insights provide him with a vital grounding about his current predicament.
On the surface, Tenet is Nolan’s closest attempt at making a James Bond film with an emphasis on globe trotting, impressive set pieces and Washington’s cool but dangerous persona. However, the story contains a “mind bending” premise that attempts to prevent the film from becoming a Bondian facsimile.
Notably, Sator has discovered a means of travelling back in time and wants to destroy the past via a series of artifacts that will trigger an algorithm that inverts entropy (the idea that time has a single direction like an arrow).
While this concept results in some spectacular sequences, particularly a series of car chases on a freeway, and a crucial moment where Sator is viewing a tense scene through the vantage point of how the audience just saw it, Nolan’s portrait of time in Tenet feels like it’s lacking.
In his previous films, Nolan’s high concepts were often married with crucial revelations that would greatly speak with an emotional truth about the human condition. In Memento, the director not only used the central character’s inability to form short-term memories to make the audience feel like they have the condition, but also make points about how we often lie to ourselves to keep going in life. Equally, in Intersteller, time is arguably the overarching antagonist. It forces the characters to assess their priorities and reflect on their losses (amid the central plan of saving humanity by finding a habitual planet).
In Tenet, the inversion of time instead comes across as a fuel for the action sequences and plot as opposed to something revelatory. To make matters worse, the concept gives rise to an overabundance of exposition that at times is poorly handled. One scene that’s particularly troublesome is when Washington’s character and Neil are sketching out a plan. The scene is scored and directed as though it’s a montage as opposed to a long scene that’s meant to impart crucial information. Consequently, vital information can be lost based on Nolan’s approach to conveying it.
The screenplay also feels overwritten with character motivations often told as opposed to shown to us. One example is the revelation that Sator is slowly passing away from Pancreatic Cancer, resulting in why he wants to take the world with him. Rather then this being an emotional moment that’s communicated from the character, it’s lumped in with other exposition to set up the climax.
Interestingly, Tenet feels closest to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West insofar as its subtext is concerned. There’s a potentially intriguing thread about Washington’s character, via a persistent conversation he has with Priya about his place in the mission and story at large. Conceptually, it feels like Nolan is making a primal point about the nature of storytelling, and a character’s attempt to carve an identity as the centrepiece of the narrative. However, in execution, it lacks depth and instead feels as a means to get to a clumsy final twist. This is also a far cry in comparison with Leone’s film, whose existential grappling made larger points about the genre, and the characters place in a changing America.
In spite of this, Tenet does have a few things going for it. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is stunning. One memorable instance comes in the film’s closing moments where three characters are framed in a large circle amid the backdrop of a desert. In its colours (a chalky brown mixed with muted gray) composition and blocking, the scene evokes the iconic duel at the end of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Moments like this illustrate Nolan’s deft understanding of the medium, and its power to cast larger then life imagery (even out of seemingly ordinary interaction).
Between Blackkklansman and Tenet, John David Washington has illustrated a knack for being able to show the underlying emotions that fuel his characters. Some of the actor’s best moments in the film are when these come to the fore: such as his sadness at failing his team at the start of the film or snappy line readings, hinting at his deadly side. Robert Pattinson steals the show as a British agent whose nonchalance matches the spirit of Bond actors gone by. And Kenneth Branagh proves to be a formidable presence as Sator.
Ludwig Göransson’s score is an experimental treat. Some tracks give you the impression you’re listening to a propulsive series of waves. And others wonderfully take cues from Nolan’s high concept with some parts sounding like the forward and backwards motions of time are engaged in a tense tug of war with one another.
Part way through Tenet, a character simply muses- “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” The line encapsulates the central problem with Tenet. Its high concept hits you at the speed of a Concorde. But it ultimately leaves you empty and unfulfilled, due to not being anchored by anything meaningful or something that has a semblance of emotional truth.