Tenet

Tenet ★★

I might have enjoyed this film more if I'd got myself a PhD in physics beforehand. Unfortunately I just haven't managed to find the time, even during a pandemic enforced lockdown.

2020's saviour of cinema is a mind-boggling head-scratcher, and not in a good sense. The majority of the 150-minute run-time consists of characters trying to explain the time bending mechanics of the nonsensical plot, but it can pretty much be boiled down to Clémence Poésy's first act exposition dump where she literally says the line, "Don't try to understand it", presumably because, try as you might, you just won't. I even read the plot summary on Wiki after and there were some points that I don't recall seeing in the many, many exposition assaults.

This is probably because, and I'm not sure if it's just me here, it's difficult to hear what characters are saying fairly often, either due to the score being too loud or because the characters mumble. I could understand Bane fine in The Dark Knight Rises, but there were many times I was straining to hear dialogue here. The sound editing is not good, and that's one of those crafts that is often effective when unnoticed.

This overall feeling of confusion is coming from someone who loves both Inception and Interstellar, which I've heard a lot of people describe as needlessly convoluted or riddled with plot holes. Recently a lot has been said of Christopher Nolan's films being too cold and emotionless, but I've never found that to be the case. I find the ending of Inception moving, and both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar made me cry.

But Tenet is cold and emotionless. The protagonist of the film is billed as 'The Protagonist', for pete's sake. Characterisation is completely pushed aside in favour of characters endlessly telling you the rules of this universe in convoluted ways. Frankly, I could not care one jot if they managed to save the world.

So, bad plot and no heart, but it must be a spectacle, right? Well, that's so-so too. The opening opera house action sequence is epic, with Ludwig Göransson flying high at his absolute best, a heart-pounding, wonderfully shot sequence. But it's worth pointing out that this is the only action sequence that isn't tied down by the time travel mumbo jumbo.

The rest of the action is not nearly as impressive. It peaks far too early, and completely capitulates in a huge third act action sequence that gives no sense of direction, logistics, or geography, instead leaving us to watch grunts run around and fire guns at unseen enemies while wondering where our protagonist is. The idea of mounting tension, which is essential for the third act of an action film, is non-existent. And let's just say your McQuarries, Evans' and Stahelskis aren't going to be rushing to give us backwards fight scenes - there is nothing here nearly as exciting as Mission: Impossible - Fallout, for example.

None of this is the fault of a wonderful cast. Robert Pattinson at least manages to bring a bit of humanity to proceedings. John David Washington is all sorts of cool even if he is an empty shell of a character (just let Nolan make his James Bond film already). Elizabeth Debicki is impressive if a little bit of a damsel in distress, and Kenneth Branagh seemingly brings his Russian antagonist from his bad Jack Ryan film.

Regardless of a top cast though they can't save this script. I imagine you'd need a 100-page treatment to hand if you're going to make sense of it. It is the sort of film that you cannot believe got greenlit with a $200 million plus budget. I feel that we have reached the point where a studio exec needs to begin reining Nolan in a bit. Sometimes a filmmaker needs to be told 'no' now and then for their own good.

I came out surrounded by people looking confused, and I eavesdropped on a few conversations where people were audibly angry. I imagine this is going to be another film that the critics gush over as they pretend to think it's more sophisticated than other blockbusters simply because it's complicated, while I predict general audiences aren't going to connect with it. Perhaps we'll have to wait for Wonder Woman to save the cinemas this year instead.

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