Review: Tenet (2020)

Run that by me one more time… : Warner Bros/Syncopy

Turn the music down when people are talking Nolan – you’ve been told before! TENET is perhaps Christopher Nolan’s most elusive film after MEMENTO, and not always for the reasons intended. Strap yourselves in for a thrilling, but frustrating ride.

The Protagonist (John David Washington) is recruited by a collective of secret agents to take down an arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) who appears to somehow be using temporal reversal technology to bring about World War III.

Let’s get the obvious, and the good stuff out of the way first. The set pieces are stunning – muscular, visceral and as real as you can get while time keeps flipping backwards and forwards. You’d expect nothing less from the man who flipped an 18-wheeler nose-to-tail because he could. From a BOURNE-riffing kitchen scrap complete with lethal cheesegrater usage to to crashing an entire jumbo jet through a hanger, no one does big action quite like Nolan. This is the reason to see Tenet on a big screen, but perhaps not enough of one to keep cinemas open solely for.

Anyone can enjoy the spectacle, the scale and ambition of a piece like this. But how are you meant to understand the mechanics of how or why anything is happening? Suspension of disbelief is essential to enjoy any time travel film (which this is, even if Nolan doesn’t seem to like it being reduced to such in conversation) but if the characters seem just as bewildered by events as we the audience are how can anything connect dramatically?

The time reversal (sorry, entropy reversal) aspect of the set pieces achieved through a combination of complex stunt rehearsal and reversing footage is eye-catching, but unfortunately it can come across as unintentionally hilarious. Nothing like thinking of that backwards episode of RED DWARF to ruin the tension of the final battle between two teams of heavily armed operatives moving the opposite way through time.

The lead character known only as the Protagonist seems a sly comment on the way this and many other kinds of story are told – he’s doing what he’s doing because he’s the hero and that’s what heroes do. As Robert Pattinson’s Neil continually stresses to the Protagonist and the audience about how the time travel works here, “don’t worry about it”. It becomes clear that fate or something similar has a part to play, that the Protagonist is being guided along a particular path whether he wants to be or not. As the story progresses and more timey-wimey shenanigans pulled, you do have to ask whether everything we witness was predetermined by fate, even if we’ll never understand how.

Tenet is missing time and attention on characters and motivation, relationships and emotion. He’s sometimes described as a cold and distant filmmaker, but at least Nolan’s INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR had people acting like people with wants and needs to back up their reality-and-physics-defying spectacle.

The money is all on screen, all the performers do their jobs well and you can’t fault Nolan’s ambition regarding scale and concepts, but this is a film impossible to truly engage with because you’re not made to feel anything. The characters are (intentionally or not) cyphers, the plot frequently breaks its own convoluted logic and you don’t get the impression all this time and effort amounts to anything meaningful. After seeing Tenet you’ll be dazzled, but you may well also be exhausted and not all that satisfied. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourite filmmakers include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Clio Barnard, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Verhoeven, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works written and owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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