Tenet Review: Christopher Nolan’s Smartest Film Is Also His Dullest One

While his story lacks the heft to carry an overwrought narrative, the film does deserve a watch solely for Nolan’s audacity and ambition
Tenet Review: Christopher Nolan’s Smartest Film Is Also His Dullest One

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editor: Jennifer Lame

A majority of Christopher Nolan's films are about his protagonists trying to grapple with a reality that's out of their control. In Inception, Cobb lost his wife and cannot return to his children; Interstellar has Cooper trying to find an alternative to Earth; and in The Dark Knight Trilogy, Wayne fights, both, his inner and real demons. The common thread is that they are all men shackled to an indeterminate universe. Fundamentally, Tenet is a retread of those ideas. The only difference here, however, is that this one is a soulless and deafening mania of time fetishism. 

Tenet is clearly Christopher Nolan's most self-indulgent film. It is what Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood was to Tarantino and The Irishman to Scorsese. There is a lot to say about filmmakers who are fascinated by their own style of work — what some may call narcissistic self-reflexivity, others may call that a form of meta genius. Tenet largely falls under the former description. Without revealing too many details, here, we have an unnamed protagonist (a self-assured John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman) navigating this obtuse realm of time in order to prevent the world from experiencing a war that already took place in the future. It's essentially an Asimovian spin to the Bond and Bourne genre of espionage. It is easy to imagine Nolan writing this script with a smirk on his face while simultaneously patting himself on the back. 

Nolan alternates between exposition and let-me-riddle-your-brain moments far too often. His obsession with time exists beyond the confines of his story. Everything moves extremely swiftly — if you blink even for a second, you may miss an entire conversation. There's a perverse form of Sorkinism here — from Washington's wisecracks to scientific explanations that may elude anyone who doesn't have a PhD in physics. In all fairness, however, Tenet is one of Nolan's most impressive ideas. Ignoring the pseudo-scientific babble, this film massively deals with time looping and inversion, like the Escher-esque Möbius strip that you may remember from Endgame. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Hofstadter described that as a strange loop — anything that starts and ends at the same place. Tenet is precisely that — the characters toy around with this concept to save all of humanity from devastation.

The problem, though, arises when you realise that Nolan is a tad too delighted by this idea. He sacrifices effective and structured storytelling on the altar of scientific exhibitionism. After a point, it only comes off as intellectual grandstanding — basically, all sizzle no steak. At the core of every film he has made, there's been a strong emotional layer attached. He's been able to surgically graft his over-the-top sagas with primal human desires and fears. But here, even the ingeniousness of Tenet is not enough to salvage the debilitating lack of emotions. 

The emotions in the film are ice cold, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl kind of cold. While that suits Fincher's structure and context, for Nolan, this can only be classified as pure narrative neglect — one that you cannot overlook despite all of Tenet's cinematic panache. His attempt to fill that emotional void, though, is at best unremarkable and at worst, phoney. This is where Elizabeth Debicki's character, Kat, comes in — the aristocratic, money-clad damsel in distress whom you're supposed to feel sad for. But she is vindictive and vengeful, so trope subverted. I'd much rather have Nolan own up to his lack of zest here than have him conceal it with wishy-washy feminism. This, sadly, is not the end of Tenet's drabness. 

After its high-octane opening sequence and a masterfully choreographed fight scene where we are officially introduced to time inversion, the film falls flat for over an hour. I started growing restless and weary. None of Washington's espionage hijinks have the high you'd expect in a Nolan film — remember how over 40 minutes in Inception were devoted to logistics only? Tenet, at this point, is a cautionary tale about how flash, style, and silver-tongued cocksureness, alone, just won't cut it anymore. This also has to do with the fact that Nolan did not even bother developing his gratuitously violent, ammunition-savvy antagonist — Andrei Sator (a sullen Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet).  

Sator, who always has a scowl on his face, terrorises his wife Kat and with her, the rest of the world with his nuclear wheeling and dealing. Nolan doesn't get to Sator's "bad guy" motives before the final few minutes when Washington finally catches up in this game of tag. Up until that point, we have to stay content with cartoonish lines like, "You don't negotiate with a tiger." Did Nolan take some inspiration from Michael Bay or did he actually believe that a Bond villain knock-off would work? 

Washington and Robert Pattinson (Good Time), who plays Neil, another secret agent, galvanise their suave, debonair characters with absolute ease, carrying parts of the film that they're not supposed to. In one scene, as he strode across a covert(ish) facility holding a cup of espresso in one hand and a suitcase in another, Washington perfected that ideal masculine image — not too macho, not too smug. And Pattinson, with his seductively slicked hair and attenuated gestures, easily goes down as one of Hollywood's most charismatic actors. Together, they make a snappy and dazzling team — I wouldn't mind seeing a mini-series just on their homoerotic chemistry either. Even Dimple Kapadia, as the silent industrialist, plays her role with great poise and elegance. 

Tenet's cinematic glamour would make you believe that Nolan was just warming up with Inception and Dunkirk. The cinematography, coupled with a formidable production design, makes this for a delirious and wild ride. The film's twin visual components — the architecture and its shots — portrayed a futuristic yet grim look of this world. What did throw me off, however, was its unsparingly loud sound mixing — you will leave the film in immediate search for cochlear implants. The extent to which you enjoy Tenet will largely depend on your priorities. While his story lacks the heft to carry an overwrought narrative, the film does deserve a watch solely for Nolan's audacity and ambition. 

You can watch Tenet in the theatres, in India.

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