An impossible to summarize movie. Something about time travel.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki
Review by Jon Kissel
The obvious comparison to Tenet is Shane Carruth’s Primer, a micro-budget time travel indie that somebody has done the math on. Primer apparently checks out, but its characters are so wooden and its dialogue is so jargony that the movie is little more than an equation. Nolan’s a fastidious director who I have no doubt dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s, but it’s in service of an empty story from a director who’s used the parental separation motivation too many times. The script is stuffed with artificial outs allowing for why characters are dry NPC’s or why no backstory is allowed. The stakes are no less than extinction, but it’s an arcane and unimaginable kind of extinction. There’s a reason Alderaan gets blown up in Star Wars, and Tenet has no equivalent despite raising the specter of annihilation when a character encounters their inverted self. The combination of uninteresting characters on a vague mission destroys rooting interest.
It’s not that Nolan didn’t put the right cast in place. Washington and Debicki are rising stars in what should be a major leap in their careers. Pattinson is reintroducing himself as a mass-market draw, and Branagh’s a big ham well-suited to over-the-top villains who spit when they talk. However, no one’s well-served here. Debicki especially is wasted in a role that only asks her to be tall and terrified. Washington is better than I expected him to be, and is allowed some small amount of playfulness from an unplayful director, but I don’t think even his father in the 90’s could’ve made the role work. Pattinson’s Neil has to discount any appealing or grounded characteristics so that the final reveal works. I was impressed with Himesh Patel’s swagger as an accomplice, but he’s tertiary at best.
If I don’t care about anything that’s happening, much less understand it, I would hope to at least be wowed by the Nolan brand of practical action. Flip a tractor trailer or spin a hallway around, and I’ll forgive a lot. While I allow for whatever wizardry was used to choreograph the fight scenes or show action moving forwards and backwards in time in the same scene, it’s ultimately a proof that will be used in a more compelling movie. The inverted characters moving backwards through time was visually over my head. I’m just squinting in confusion and feeling the headache build in my brain. Inverted bullets are more dangerous than regular ones… why? A lot of people just saw a backwards car chase on a highway. Does that mean anything for the world from a Heisenberg standpoint, which the film itself raises as a concern? It’s impossible to just appreciate the action because it’s too tied to the rules of the film, which Tenet both wants to adhere to and handwave away with lines like ‘Lying is SOP’ and ‘don’t try to understand it.’
What’s more understandable is Nolan’s growing concern with climate change, something that also featured heavily in Interstellar. He’s not subtle here with his codewords about twilight worlds, nor is he that imaginary about a future where climate change is unsolvable but time travel can be cracked. I’d be more charitable towards Tenet’s thematic pursuits if it was united with its eat-the-rich strain, another thread that Nolan’s clumsily entertained with The Dark Knight Rises. The thing I liked most about Tenet is the repeated failure of the Protagonist or Neil to fit into the megarich milieus they’re playing in. The Protagonist can be made by the shabby cut of his suit, or the concern over a paltry $9 million or the lives of the staff in the free port. Nolan’s version of a globetrotting Bond film would have the superspy getting made because he can’t mentally fathom what it’s like to have a yacht so big it needs its own support yacht. That’s a cool idea but it’s the 11th or 12th one that Tenet’s thinking about.
This is simply not a fun experience. I don’t know who Tenet is for. There’s so little to grab onto here, despite there being a textbook’s worth of theories and postulates packed into its 150 minutes. A movie like mother! can produce intense discomfort and I can have a lot of admiration for it because that’s exactly what the filmmaker is going for. It constructs a troubling scenario and viscerally puts the viewer in the same mental place. My discomfort and distance is counter to the characters in Tenet, characters who are striding through the world full of confidence and purpose while saying lines like ‘get the other section of the algorithm to the hypocenter.’ I care neither for the algorithm, nor the hypocenter. Maybe that’s my own failing to put in the required work, but I’m more likely to blame the people at Warner Brothers who won’t say no to Nolan. C-