With "Tenet,” Nolan falls short of mind-blowing — Excels at mind-numbing
The question of whether or not you should see Christopher Nolan’s latest film, "Tenet,” demands far more consideration from those who answer it than a mere evaluation of the espionage thriller’s quality. Somewhat befitting of such an unconventional film, "Tenet”s release is occuring in unconventional times. Seeing the movie in a theater not only carries the mental health risk of short-circuiting your mind — as is usually the case with a Nolan offering — but a physical health risk, as well; the question of "Tenet"’s quality is now inextricably tied to whether it is good enough to see it at the risk of contracting COVID-19. And while projecting such a qualitative barometer onto any film is somewhat unfair (no film until March 2020 ever had to face the same pressure), that Warner Brothers, the studio that produced "Tenet," chose to make it the standard-bearer meant to “save cinemas” only speaks to their faith in the film’s quality.
How wrong they were.
Nolan’s follow-up to his war film masterpiece “Dunkirk” is a soulless, narratively convoluted mess whose massive visual ambition swallows up any room that might have been left for its emotional scale. While “Dunkirk” exemplified a perfect marriage of its director’s penchant for chronologically unorthodox narratives and his affinity for visual splendor, "Tenet" finds Nolan unable to reconcile the two as he doubles down on his visual ambitions at the expense of creating resonant characters that make his time-bending plot worth any of our investment. Instead, we find ourselves thrust into a world where motivationless characters run amok for nearly three hours as they race to stop a World War III in a future that they have never seen.
Leading this effort is John David Washington, who is simply billed as “The Protagonist,” and in what is only a minor expository infraction in a film full of spoken exposition, Washington spends the last half of the movie constantly repeating dialogue along the lines of “but I’m the protagonist.” In case you’ve forgotten, he is a presumed-dead CIA agent who learns that “inverted” objects from the future, many of which are weapons or can be weaponized, are popping up all over the present world. In the Nolan-verse, “inverted” is a fancy way to say “time-travelling.” This distinction is made in the same vain that Kellyanne Conway calls lies “alternative facts.” And because Nolan came up with a way to call time travel something else, he is original.
The Protagonist’s job is to find out who the weapons broker is, an endeavor that leads him to enlist the help of the mysterious Neil, played by Robert Pattinson. For the record, Neil is only mysterious by virtue of the fact that he is thinly written. In turn, we as an audience are left to ponder the mystery of how an accomplished filmmaker such as the great Christopher Nolan managed to concoct the least motivated Pattinson character since Edward Cullen of the Twilight Saga.
Next, he introduces us to Elizabeth Debiki’s Kat. Of all the characters in the film, Debiki is clearly having the least fun, which is understandable considering that the meatiest material Nolan gives her to work with is a scene in which her character purposely spills sunscreen onto the floor of an expensive yacht. Even the least-seasoned, gender-politics-conscious audience member will extrapolate from one viewing of "Tenet" that Nolan clearly has a woman problem. Debiki’s character is one of only three named women in the entire film. And with that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Kat is a captive woman. She is one half of an abusive marriage with Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator, who, you guessed it, is the inverted-weapons dealer who wants to cause World War III. I am reluctant to label Branagh’s performance as his hammiest to date, since that is what the rest of the critics are saying, but in the spirit of "Tenet"’s ubiquitously one-dimensional nature, it is only fitting that I do the same.
"Tenet" is not a compelling film so much as it is a captivating one — with an emphasis on captive. It takes us into its clutches, forcing us to pay as close attention as we can for the entire runtime, lest we miss a beat and find ourselves unable to comprehend the rest. In her own right, Kat is perhaps "Tenet"’s most relatable character, since her status as captive makes her a surrogate for the audience. Hence, Nolan is our Sator, a moderately smart man masquerading as a mastermind under whose hands we are at the endless mercy of. I make this comparison fully aware of the implication that I am designating die-hard Nolan fans as sufferers of Stockholm syndrome. Nolan’s expectation of his audience seems to be that we embrace the torturous anxiety borne from the struggle to approach a logical understanding of his films. There is no joy in discovering "Tenet" because Nolan pulls our moments of understanding out from under us at the turn of a dime. Instead of rewarding our engagement, Nolan does quite the opposite by demanding more and more of it. Which begs the question: is this a director who really trusts his audience, or is he just condescending it?
In an almost subversive way, "Tenet" questions what the purpose of cinema is. Maybe it is not meant to be enjoyed at all. Maybe a good film doesn’t require comprehensible plot or motivated characters. This is a left turn from Nolan’s usual concession, which is to make his convoluted plots worthwhile by giving us interesting characters to lighten the load, as he did with Cobb in ‘‘Inception,” or ‘’Interstellar’’’s Coop. The absence of this customary compromise makes "Tenet" his most audacious film to date. And in typical Nolan fashion, "Tenet" raises more questions than it answers. However, in this instance, Nolan does so to no real purpose. This is a film with nothing to say, which makes it a mind-numbing rather than a mind-boggling experience. "Tenet" is not exhilarating. It’s exhausting.
After about two hours of compulsively making sure I didn’t miss a single detail of the film, lest I be unable to understand what happens next, I realized I didn’t even care. Considering that "Tenet" is supposed to be about stopping the end of the world, it is an achievement in and of itself that Nolan somehow managed to make his film feel so stakeless. We couldn’t care less about what happens to our heroes, so we don’t care what happens at all. Nolan seems to be aware of this, to the point that by the third act he also stops trying to make a film that bears any semblance of sensibility. In a lazy bit of exposition, he has a character reveal that the film is meant to be advancing an environmentalist message, all the while failing to validate why such a subtext was ever relevant to the film in the first place.
None of the aforementioned is to say that "Tenet" is a film completely devoid of redeemable qualities. Ludwig Göransson’s score perfectly accompanies Nolan’s time-bending visuals. The globe-trotting plot gives way to plenty of spectacular setpieces from London to Mumbai. Even I’ll admit that Nolan’s version of the time machine was an admirable rendition of the medium. The final act of the film offers mind-blowing visuals that are at times simultaneously incomprehensible, but the sheer wonder they provoke is enough to satisfy.
Unfortunately, the sum of these parts does nothing to serve plot or character, which only leads one to question why Christopher Nolan is the only Hollywood filmmaker working today who is allowed to command a $200 million budget on an original script. It is an opportunity that any filmmaker would scramble for — and there are plenty worthy of the privilege — but which Nolan absolutely squanders. He can do better than "Tenet.” He has, and he will. In the immediate aftermath of seeing the film, however, one cannot help but feel that maybe Nolan has overstayed his welcome.