Film review: ‘TENET’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

After the disappointment of his last sci-fi outing, the ambitious but confusing, inert and miscast Interstellar, Christopher Nolan returns with a film as gargantuan in scope, complexity, running time and likelihood of dividing audiences in Tenet.

It seems Nolan’s quest with this film was to make the most confusing time travel movie ever.  Apparently, the Spierig brothers’ Predestination, where characters not only travelled through time but turned into other people, was just too straightforward.  Tenet’s palindromic title should give some clues as to the film’s odd and befuddling structure.  Events appear to take place in coexisting parallel universes with some people moving forward through time and others moving backwards.  It’s often difficult to get a handle on what the hell is going on and it’s always a worry when, as frequently happens here, characters have to disgorge reams of exposition to try and keep the audience up to speed.

On one level, the plot is a fairly familiar James Bond-style ‘spy saves the world’ yarn as a CIA agent simply known as The Protagonist (John David Washington, son of Denzel) is sent by the mysterious organisation called Tenet to stop a megalomaniacal Russian named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from wreaking havoc on the world. From this deceptively simple starting point the film turns into a convoluted and brain-boggling heist thriller involving a strange time-reversing (or entropy-inverting) technology that causes some events within our world to operate in reverse – including having bullets to fly backwards into guns – and multiple time periods to overlap and intertwine leaving us scratching our heads as to not only what’s happening but when it’s happening.  The film throws in references to physics and philosophical ideas regarding fate, choices and the ambiguous nature of cause and effect but exactly what point it’s trying to make is a little hard to grasp.

Much has been made of this film’s supposedly wondrous, eyeball-pummelling spectacle. While meticulously directed by Nolan and attractively lensed by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, it’s not that spectacular.  The recurrent special effect of backwards movement is nowhere near as remarkable as the cityscape twisting magic of Inception and after two and a half hours it actually becomes a little dull and irritating.

Tenet is also meant to be an action thriller and Nolan does fashion some tense, impressively choreographed and dynamically violent battle sequences all driven by his typically ominous music, including an elaborate attack on a Russian opera house.  After 150 minutes, though, these sequences also become repetitive and wearing.

Nolan attempts to infuse the sci-fi hijinks and shootem’up action with a romantic sub-plot as The Protagonist develops feelings for Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) the abused wife of the Russian oligarch he’s tracking.  Unfortunately, the romantic chemistry isn’t there and the film has an emotional flatness that makes it hard to empathise with or really care about any of the characters.  As The Protagonist, Washington is convincingly tough, smart and resourceful but he’s not very charismatic which means the film lacks a compelling human centre.  Debicki is a little more effective as the mysterious Kat but with the fragmented story skipping all over the place we’re not given enough chance to really get to know her.  As the Protagonist’s mission partner Neil, Robert Pattinson has flickers of the sort of louche and enigmatic character we might find in Graham Green novel but he’s also not given enough chance to develop.  As the villainous Sator, Kenneth Branagh is at times convincingly nasty but his Boris Badanov accent also makes him unintentionally funny which kills much of his bad guy cred.

As with The Matrix, some viewers may simply choose to sit back and enjoy the action sequences and not bother with the film’s tangle of scientific and philosophical references.  Others will view it as a brain teasing puzzle and there are no doubt clues, motifs and Easter eggs lurking in this film that will tantalise Nolan obsessives for years to come.  For many, though, this film will seem like a long, albeit impressively-made exercise in self-conscious cleverness and a bit of a chore.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Action, thriller, sci-fi.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Christopher Nolan.

Release date: 11th Nov 2020.

Running time: 150 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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