Review by Joey Fanthom
“Don’t try to understand. Just do.” This is a line delivered early in Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, by Clemence Poesy’s scientist as she introduces the concept of ‘inversion’ to John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist. It is a concept that seems to be some variation on time travel where, once someone has undergone inversion, they create a second iteration of themselves that, to someone in the normal plane of existence, looks like they’re moving backwards – I think. If you replace the word “do” with the word “watch” in Poesy’s line, that is probably the best way to experience the film. Despite having a seemingly endless array of expository scenes in which ‘inversion’ is explained to both the protagonist and the audience, there are still times where the internal logic of the concept – and thus the film as a whole – appears to go out the window completely. Nolan’s script is muddled and frantic, moving from place to place at breakneck speed at times, then screeching to a halt at others – a frustrating element in a film that concentrates so much on temporality.
With the likes of Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), Nolan established himself as the thinking man’s blockbuster filmmaker – combining fun, big-budget action with a clever, mind-bending idea. He attempts to uphold that reputation here but the film struggles to meet either criteria. As I have mentioned already, the premise of the film is confusing and quite poorly executed while the action sequences are not that thrilling either – especially not when you have to watch most of them twice. Yes, the majority of the set-pieces are presented twice, once in regular time, then again from an ‘inverted’ perspective. It’s like in Back to the Future Part II (Robert Zemeckis, 1989), when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) sees himself at the school dance in 1955, except in that film it makes for passing jokes, not full sequences played in reverse. As soon as the inverted version of events begins, you know exactly where they’re going yet Nolan insists on dragging the audience through the whole thing. This is from the man who gave us the hotel fight scene in Inception or Bane (Tom Hardy) breaking the bat in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
The premise of the film is confusing and quite poorly executed while the action sequences are not that thrilling either – especially not when you have to watch most of them twice.
There are a few positives, at least. The cast are all doing their best to make sense of the baffling material. John David Washington gives it his all and marks himself out as a potential action superstar. Even though his character has been given no more depth than a generic, faceless protagonist in an average video game – his character’s title is literally The Protagonist, and he tells people as much multiple times during the film in case we didn’t already know – he still manages to emit a certain amount of charm and charisma. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson plays Neil, the Protagonist’s partner who accompanies him through most of the film, bringing a smug knowingness to the character. He is clearly a Nolan surrogate, almost laughing at everyone around him – and the audience – as they struggle to understand what is happening. He actually asks Washington, in yet another exposition dump, “Is your head starting to hurt yet?” Yes, Christopher, it is. Not because your plot is particularly complex but, rather, it lacks coherence. That and the horrendous sound design.
There are fair amounts of dialogue – often in pivotal scenes – completely drowned out, either by Ludwig Göransson’s score or deafening action going on in the background. One sequence comes instantly to mind as the Protagonist, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and the villainous Andrei (Kenneth Branagh) are zooming around on a boat. Washington and Branagh are leaning in whispering to each other while the engine completely drowns them out. Speaking of Branagh, he is really out of place in this film. He portrays the most basic of basic Bond villains, complete with massive yacht, Russian accent, and devious, world-ending plans. Debicki plays his abused and blackmailed wife – a disturbing trend in her filmography, having played similar roles on TV in The Night Manager (Susanne Bier, 2016), and on film in Widows (Steve McQueen, 2018) – with her usual repertoire of sad eyes and just enough underlying resolve. I would love to see her move away from this typecasting in future as she is a fabulously elegant and talented screen presence, although, with Nolan’s poor track record of female characters in his films, it was never really on the cards here. Indeed, there is a scene where she is brutally beaten by Branagh’s character which apparently had to be cut by nine whole seconds. The scene is bad enough as it is but that extra nine seconds would be gratuitous and indulgent in all the wrong ways.
Overall, that is the biggest problem with this film: Christopher Nolan indulging himself in the worst elements of his filmmaking. He strains himself trying to add complexity to a bog-standard, save-the-world story. There are no genuinely compelling characters with any form of depth past their archetypes (the protagonist, the know-it-all sidekick, the abused wife, etc.). He makes us watch his – below par by his standards – set-pieces not once, but twice. And his awful treatment of women on screen does not look like changing any time soon. A major disappointment.
Tenet will open to Irish audiences on August 26th.