Tenet

Tenet

The notion or principle of the action film has faded to the same degree that the Western did many decades ago. Fleets of high-budget superhero fistfights and interconnected cinematic universes have somewhat drowned out the notion of what an action film is or should be, and I imagine that even the most devoted of Marvel or DC fans have a hard time validating their respective franchise entries as being action films (from my perspective, they are really more akin to simple, tropey, enjoyable character "dramas").

Gone are the days of stars like Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Arnold Schwarzenegger cranking out numerous new, albeit unoriginal beat-em-ups manufactured to preserve a general sense of machismo within Hollywood. Instead, in their place exists several, overly-complex networks and webs of interconnected yet seemingly-identical films that are driven and marketed on the basis of IP and franchise fame rather than that of their leading star or director.

I find the study of the modern American action film to be an incredibly interesting one because it does, in many ways, mirror the timeline of the American western. The 21st century has undoubtedly been one of the most interesting times in American history, and any historians down the line will have archives of cultural and artistic oddities from the present era to peruse. As such, the influence that the cinematic universe has had over the blockbuster canon is one that engenders curiosity. It would be ignorant to claim that American action films are not made anymore--indeed, the 2010s saw the eruption of the John Wick franchise, alongside masterful new entries in long-running series such as Mad Max and Mission: Impossible, in addition to a myriad of original low-budget and mid-budget blockbusters like Looper or Baby Driver--however, there is a staggering lack of original material within the genre. Many of the best action films of the past decade have been new entries in pre-existing franchises, and the ever-changing film industry has made it difficult for smaller directors to seek funding for their more down-to-earth flicks.

Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker that I am constantly confounded by for many reasons due to his extremely strange yet particular approach to filmmaking. Besides The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan only ever puts out original work, yet that doesn't ever hamper his ability to broach the mainstream film canon. The name Christopher Nolan is a household name, with his films routinely scoring extraordinarily high outings at the box office. Despite lacking in Academy appeal, his work has scooped up dozens of Oscar nominations. Each new film of his is watched by nearly anyone who watches film, from the most casual viewer of new releases to the most devoted curator of rare and international cinema. His work does not transcend genre conventions, rather, it transcends genre audiences.

Nolan's style as a storyteller is particularly noteworthy. His attention to detail and meticulous attitudes towards screenwriting are unlike most other action directors. Even his tendencies towards meticulousness stray greatly from that commonly seen in the writing of his ilk. Nolan effectively takes on a role opposite to that of a writer like Tom Clancy. While Clancy was obsessed with the machinations of military warfare, firearms, and vehicles, using his typewriter to painstakingly encapsulate the way a bullet would shrug its way through the magazine and barrel of a semi-automatic rifle, Nolan does not care for the individual details of a grease monkey or jarhead's cinematic wet dream. I would not dispute the degree of slog that Nolan ties into his dialogue, but his fascinations with detailed automata lie in those of the scientific realm.

Nearly everyone has labeled at least one of Nolan's films as "stupid" at some point, which is a complaint that I would describe as being inarguably true to some degree. Nolan's inability to write engaging characters with even a semblance of depth is one of the greatest wounds within his work, although it seems to me that with each passing film he acknowledges this weakness more and more by making his characters more distanced from the focal point of his lens. The protagonist of Tenet is quite literally nameless, granting a degree of ambiguity and anonymity that keeps John David Washington's character disconnected from a sense of palpable human emotion. This distance is the core of Tenet's story, and the core of its strength, too.

Tenet is a particularly interesting case study in comparison to Inception, which I consider to be Nolan's most revered film outside of The Dark Knight. The strength of Inception lies in the chemistry between its characters. The gradual trust that is built between them is important to the development of the story, and they form a cohesive unit by the time the film concludes. Meanwhile, Tenet is a film about the disposability of mankind--the unnamed soldiers stuffed into metal shipping crates like bags of meat, lost in the ever-flowing river of time. It is a film that is cold and distanced, filled with a sense of moroseness that incapacitates its leads on many occasions throughout its runtime.

This is, in truth, a film that only Nolan could make. For one, his star power makes him one of the only people that could convince a major studio like WB to shell over $225 million on a plot that could have been conceived by drunk Reddit users who frequent r/MovieDetails. It's incredibly refreshing to see a film of this scale that looks real. Nolan's devotion and dedication to filming practically whenever possible makes this a film that looks gorgeous at times. This is Nolan's third collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and although it isn't as gorgeous as Dunkirk, the action setpieces are shot with a breathtaking display of speed and movement that is only aided and augmented by John David Washington's fantastic and visceral performance.

Furthermore, the foundation of the film's main gimmick (which I will not spoil out of gratuity) is extraordinarily well-built. Nolan wastes no time immediately introducing the core concept of the film to the viewer as he does in Inception. I would not describe the film's logic as being immediately comprehensive nor cogent, but by the time it really starts to settle into play, I had a complete understanding of what was going on. I've always been really baffled by how much of Nolan's audience is built around this cult worship of "I watched this film ten times and I still couldn't understand it!" At this point I'm somewhat convinced that half of the people who watch these films have lost any and all capability of understanding what's on screen in front of them because there's nothing here that could even be mistaken as being confusing.

I went into this film with low expectations given the middling reception but I was quite taken back by just how successfully everything is pulled off here. It feels like the scope of Nolan's films increases with each new entry, with Dunkirk and The Dark Knight Rises both utilizing hundreds upon hundreds of extras at time. He is a filmmaker that captures and directs scope extraordinarily well, and Tenet feels like yet another logical extension upon his work. I wouldn't describe myself as being a Nolan fan, however, I am consistently impressed by his ability to pull off these kinds of high-stakes, high-principle tentpole films.

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