Tenet

Tenet ★★½

There is an, often overlooked, difference between depth and complexity. A movie that's deep, yet not very complex is, for example, The Straight Story. A movie that's both deep and complex is, for example, Synecdoche, New York. And here we are with Christopher Nolan's Tenet, a movie that's rather complex, yet not, in my opinion, very deep. Tenet is, so far, 2020s only big theatric blockbuster and may very well remain its only one. Under those circumstances I would have loved nothing more than to tell you that it singlehandedly redeems what has been a less than satisfactory year for cineasts but... it doesn't.

Tenet follows John David Washington's nameless protagonist investigating a mystery concerning bullets that travel back in time and pursuing an arms dealer with an evil plan that threatens the continued survival of all mankind. What follows is a globetrotting thriller, featuring dull men in suits, dull women in elegant dresses, action scenes with planes in them, comically stilted dialogue, elaborate heists and everything else one has come to expect from a Christopher Nolan production. Co-starring next to Washington are Robert Pattinson, as his partner, Kenneth Branagh as the main antagonist and Elizabeth Debicki as the main antagonists wife, a femme fatale who feels like she's from a Bond movie. They... sure are Christopher Nolan characters. By which I mean, about as emotionally engaging as a bunch of refrigerators with googly eyes glued to them. Washington and Pattinson are stoic men on a mission, with little to humanize or emotionally ground them. It's hard to care.

I guess my other main problem is that I just don't vibe with Nolan's visual style at all. Tenet is filmed in that iconic Nolanian color palette of steely blues, earthy browns and concrety greys that make almost all of its locations look like the same sterile urban hellscape. I will give the movie some credit for, at least, looking like a live action movie rather than a CGI cartoon, which is more than I can say for many popular recent action flicks, the CGI didn't stick out at all. I will also say that some of the action scenes were visually impressive and I have no doubt some of the later ones that are actually built around the time travel gimmick must have been an utter bitch to choreograph.

That being said... the narrative is quite hard to follow and I don't think it's worth the effort. Writing an action movie based on nonlinear time sure is an accomplishment Nolan can take some pride in, despite all the painfully inelegant technobabble and rushed pacing it suffers from. But in the end what it amounts to is a fairly basic plot about stopping a not especially compelling villain from activating a doomsday device. That's what I mean when I accuse Tenet of having complexity, but lacking depth.

Much like Inception, Tenet is an example of a Science-Fiction movie that uses its speculative elements for the benefit of its plot but not at all for that of its themes. Putting that plot together must surely have been a balancing act but while I admit the effort, I can't say I admire the actual product of that effort. Tenet is a clunky Rube Goldberg device of a movie, a whole lot of gears turning, levers flipping, balls rolling and buttons being pressed to produce... well, an emotionally and thematically sparse spy thriller that's hard to follow and easy to forget. I'm sure there's an audience that will find it enjoyable, rather than tedious, to figure out Tenet's timeline and sequence of cause and effect but there was just not much in it for me. It's a bit sad to think it might be the only movie I'm gonna see in the theater this year.