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‘Tenet’ Movie Review – Christopher Nolan’s Latest Movie Is Big on Thrills But Has Little Soul
This article loosely describes the plot for Tenet and may include mild spoilers.
Christopher Nolan has never been what you’d call a sentimental filmmaker, but his highly anticipated eleventh movie seems to have had every trace of humanity surgically removed in post. Tenet will be many people’s first movie theater experience in months, and it’s a perfect reintroduction—a dizzyingly ambitious, exhilarating popcorn thriller that demands to be seen on the big screen, peppered with visuals that feel genuinely groundbreaking. It’s also a strangely apt choice for the social distancing era because nobody on screen is relating to each other in a normal way, or sharing anything that feels like intimacy.
Back in March, Nolan wrote a heartfelt and touching ode to movie theaters in The Washington Post, which doubled as an explanation for why he was holding out to release Tenet in theaters. Nolan’s passion for the moviegoing experience as a way people can come together and connect resonated deeply with me, and it echoed what I was seeking as I made my way to the theater this week.
My cinema experience, in a part of the UK where coronavirus cases are currently low, was surreal. At a weekday matinee, I counted eleven people in a 172 seat screen, many of us solo, all of us appropriately distanced. Everyone wore masks, and kept them on throughout the movie except to occasionally sip a beverage. Nobody was eating popcorn. The atmosphere was somber, but not tense. We felt uneasy, but not unsafe. And soon enough we were whisked out of reality by the nerve-wracking opening moments of Tenet—which, as it happens, depict an opera house audience being terrorized by armed gunmen (so much for relaxing back into the theater experience!). That opening sequence set the tone for a film that delivers on spectacle and thrills, but lacks the emotional catharsis I was longing for.
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Nolan’s films have always been driven more by concepts than characters, but in the past those concepts had psychological questions behind them: In Memento, Guy Pierce’s protagonist can’t trust his own memory, so what does that do to his psyche? Inception’s characters are lucid dreamers by profession, so how do they keep a grip on reality? In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey bends the fabric of space and time to save the world, but can he ever make amends to the daughter he abandoned? In Tenet, there is no discernible human story being told. Its characters are mostly gorgeous ciphers, zipping from one high-octane set piece to the next unencumbered by personality, and if you accept that from the jump, you’ll have fun.
Tenet’s central idea is that it’s possible for objects to move backwards through time, as well as forwards. This process, known as inversion, isn’t like traditional time travel – it’s a radiation-fueled process that changes the object on a cellular level, reversing its entropy, and it’s enormously dangerous in the wrong hands. Though loosely grounded in science, inversion is a knowingly convoluted and mind-boggling concept that only becomes more so as the film goes on. “Don’t try to understand it,” a scientist urges John David Washington’s CIA agent, who is simply named The Protagonist. “Just feel it.” He obeys, and so should you.
Being good at taking orders is one of The Protagonist’s few discernible traits, and Washington’s raw charisma is even more noticeable given how little he has to play. He’s enlisted to help prevent an apocalypse that would be even worse than a nuclear holocaust, and is on the horizon because someone is sending “inverted weapons” into the present from the future. Inverted weapons are much more dangerous than regular ones not only because trying to understand how they work is liable to induce a migraine, but because their destructive power can affect the past as well as the future. In other words, an inverted weapon could destroy not only civilization, but also all of history. That’s a chilling idea that’s never fully explored, but works well enough to create stakes.
Working with Robert Pattinson’s mysterious, winsome Neil, The Protagonist traces the inverted weapons back to arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian baddie who seems to have wandered right onto set from a forgotten Bond movie. He’s developed an algorithm that would invert the entire world, putting it into reverse and therefore destroying civilization. His weakness is his abused, blackmailed wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who loathes him enough to join forces with The Protagonist and Neil to bring him down.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
As a blockbuster innovator, Nolan is unmatched, and it’s his ability to bring seemingly impossible concepts to life onscreen that gives Tenet its biggest thrills. Without going too far into spoiler territory, there’s a fight sequence in which The Protagonist and Neil are moving forwards in time while their attackers are moving in reverse that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen before, recalling the extraordinary moment when Paris folds in upon itself in Inception. Other set pieces here are lifted right out of the spy movie playbook—a car chase, a boat chase, a plane crash – but are delivered with a Nolan spin that keeps them fresh.
Debicki’s role is technically the meatiest of the main three, but her sole motivation is her love for a son who we barely see onscreen, and she spends a tiresome amount of time as the damsel in distress before finally getting a satisfying arc. Washington and Pattinson actually get to have more fun by virtue of their wafer-thin characters, and their sparky banter gives the movie its only moments of human connection.
Melinda Sue Gordon
What makes Tenet so watchable is the sense that Nolan knows exactly what he’s doing. Like it or not, the thinness of the characters and the complexity of the concepts is all by design; both are wryly acknowledged in the script more than once, but you barely have time to get too hung up on either before the next breathtaking action sequence arrives to demand your attention. And at a time of extraordinary failure in national leadership, it sure is comforting to imagine a world in which highly competent, impeccably dressed government agents work behind the scenes to avert disasters before they happen.
We go to the movies for many things—for escapism and excitement, but also to feel something. For all Tenet’s thrills, it left me wanting on that front. As a longtime fan of his work, I’d love to see how the Nolan of 2020 would approach a stripped-down character drama like Memento, or even a mid-budget movie like The Prestige whose ingenuity is all in its script, not its technical effects. If the pandemic has a lasting impact on Hollywood’s ability to shoot large-scale productions, forcing filmmakers to think more indie for a while, we just might find out.
Emma Dibdin writes about television, movies, and podcasts, with coverage including opinion essays, news posts, episodic reviews and in-depth interviews with creatives.
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