Tenet

Tenet ★★½

Tenet feels like it belongs in the 1950s. I mean that in the best and worst ways. You see, Nolan writes films where Russians are baddies from the Cold War, British housewives are damsels in distress (or are they?), and it's shot on glorious 15 perf 70mm celluloid. I was lucky enough to catch an actual print in one of the last three projectors that projects large format film in Toronto (thanks Varsity!).

But even 70mm can't really save this film. In that sense, Nolan reminds me a lot of Wolfgang Puck. Some kids might not remember this guy, but he opened a little restaurant in West Hollywood in the 90s called Spago, which became renowned for "Designer Pizza." You know when you go into a pizza place now and find goat cheese, chicken, or walnuts and honey on a pie? Yeah, that was because of Spago.

In reinventing pizza, Wolfgang created the "celebrity chef" personality and LA producers threw him whatever the fuck this guy wanted: TV Shows, franchises, merchandise, cans of soup. Nolan is not dissimilar to Puck. He's working in the biggest kitchens in the world, with the best cooking appliances money can buy, backed by overpaid financiers who just want to pay more for pizza.

The problem is he's lost the fundamentals of what makes a good story: character development, depth, psychology, logic. You know, the tomatoes and cheese. And in doing so, he's become a parody of himself. His films extend his brand, rather than the brand extending the quality of his films.

And I would argue, Nolan did reinvent pizza with Memento. It was this classic thriller, edited in a truly brilliant way. It was like nothing I had seen before and inspired me to take the craft of editing more seriously at a tender age. That's why it's so difficult to witness 20 years later, a director in a massive kitchen, with 65mm cameras, the best sous chefs in the world, international funding and he still can't get the basics down.

The basics, in Tenet's case, being humanity. There is an emotional immaturity to all of Nolan's work, but this film takes the cake. The emotional catharsis simply isn't there because here is a man who clearly appraises Logic > Emotion or Mind > Heart. And this isn't anything new. He's been a soundboard for "hard science" and trying to materialize impossible theoretical physics into a watchable film for years now.

I just ask myself at this juncture, why? I'd understand if it was just one recipe in his wheelhouse, but he keeps returning to making palatable mathematical puzzles with the emotional intelligence of a 12-year-old. In this case, the quotient to his equation is time. Why time? Well, perhaps because Nolan worships Cronus (ancient Greek god of Time) and Saturn like the rest of them (see the black monolith in 2001) or maybe because Nolan is battling with his own relationship with time.

Instead of delving into the primordial-mythological element of time (see: Cronos or Back to the Future), Nolan is quite obsessed with time as a quantum construct, something that can be defeated in the physical reality.

The core idea gets severely weighted down by classic Nolan exposition. I thought Interstellar was bad. This film makes that story look ambiguous. The amount of time characters spend explaining and explaining both complex and intimate details of the story to characters completely estranged from them is mind-baffling. I was in paralyzed shock. This wouldn't pass in a high school film.

But because every character is lit with expensive Airstar balloon lights, sitting in restaurants where I couldn't even afford their coat check, we're all supposed to nod and understand the over-complicated premises. Because Washington is wearing a Brooks jacket in an uppercrust gentlemen's club. Naughty little Nolan!

But, ultimately, he's asking a lot from the audience. And not in a Malick way, where he asks you to take a philosophical jump to reach an emotional center of his characters. Nolan asks you to take these leaps of literary faith so that you're left asking a question you didn't necessarily want to ask in the first place.

I don't care how convoluted your stories are, at least try to make us care. The protagonist (and he literally refers to himself as such, maybe 3 times in this movie) must save the life of a billionaire's kid. Yes, the hero in Nolan's film is on a mission from "time" to save a rich asshole’s life. Because if the uber-wealthy and their kid survives, we all get the glorious privilege of surviving too.

I shit you not, this is where Tenet's most basic plot lies. There's a war on time, securing plutonium and British intelligence flying in Sikorskys to ensure the safety of the rich. 

At a time when cultural rifts couldn't be stronger, biological contamination an imminent threat, wealth disparity growing, Nolan is making a film about military intelligence saving billionaires (because there's a little billionaire in all of us!).

Look guys, someone needs to make a movie about saving the billionaire arms dealers. If not Nolan, who?!

The time-inversion is a quantum weapon that was invented by someone in the near future, who eventually kills herself after realizing what she has done (This, too, gets explained just about as well as in this paragraph). In the wrong hands, it could mean...annihilation.

Beyond that, there's no need to understand the time-inverting weapon because as a scientist who pops on screen, only to never return again, explains in the first 10 minutes to the protagonist. "Don't try to understand it.” OK, thanks, but then don’t try to get me to understand it by laying out the rules in the third act. 

I can suspend disbelief for logical gaps. But, when your antagonist says things like: "How dare you lecture me, Andrei Sator, about radiation?! I grew up in the rural villages of Russia, scouring the earth for plutonium!," I nearly died. Truly one of the funniest moments of a film to come out this year.

SIDE-NOTE: The villain's name, Andrei Sator is an anagram for "RE-RADIATION." #Im14andthisisdeep

And it could've been a staple comedy-action film, a la Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. But, unfortunately the script is never funny enough to get there. I can feel Nolan reaching for this meta-comedy ("We're just saving the world from obliteration") but it never quite lands because Washington's comedic chops ain't there. His cadence is too dry, which makes for a terrific Nolan action protagonist. Same goes for Pattison. They're making the most with this script.

The Russian oligarch arms dealer is my favourite character, by far. It's part-satire, part-evil, and zero reality. It's a bit Bond-y, but I loved him.

There is an absolutely brilliant action sequence that takes place at an airport hanger and Nolan proves he is truly the best technical director working today. It's a clever and complicated riff on the climax of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, but I won't give anything else away. It's a sensational piece of direction.

The star takeaway for me was Ludwig Göransson's score. Wow. Give this guy just every action film to score ever. It was phenomenal work that elevated the film, without drowning out the visual ambience in ways Zimmer somewhat does.

But I feel all of that greatness is too far and few between. Tenet eventually unravels into a pristinely crafted military propaganda picture where "anyone can be the protagonist" saving the world from "imminent danger," (in this particular case, those damned Ruskies!). Just like Dunkirk, the ugly reality of how Nolan is pumping out $200 Million+ tent pole pictures becomes increasingly clear; UK/US intelligence and military funding, with Hummers and all.

I nearly fell for this one. I really did. I thought it was going to be an intelligent dissection of time, story, and our place in it. But that Nolan is gone, if he was ever even there.

You're left with a bloated third act, where explosions go off in forwards and backwards, making otherwise treacherous warfare look cool and enchanting.

Like Puck, Nolan has branded himself cleverly and received recognition well beyond his abilities. You walk into a theatre and still get a quality picture. The structure, the cinematography, the performances are all there. But the recipe is old and the dish is served cold. I suppose you can only re-invent azzip for so long.

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