The most important film of the year has finally landed, but does it live up to the hype? Here’s our film editor’s take.
*** Spoiler-free review ***
Whether we like it or not, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is without a doubt the most important film of 2020. Originally scheduled for a July release, it’s the first Hollywood blockbuster to be released in cinemas since lockdown. For a time, Warner Bros’ tentpole release was fighting Disney’s Mulan for the dubious honour of the film that would bring audiences back to the multiplexes. The powers that be have decided that the live-action remake of the 1998 animation film has since been relegated to the studio’s streaming platform at the beginning of next month, meaning that both films represent both sides of an ongoing debate over rapidly changing (and increasingly alarming) viewing habits.
Somewhat unfairly, Tenet has become the high-stakes player in an increasingly exhausting narrative that has cast it as the litmus test to see whether crowds can be lured back to cinemas in a post-pandemic world. And now that the eagerly anticipated film is finally here, can it save the moviegoing experience?
No. It’s just a film. No film can be held responsible for reigniting the blockbuster season under these circumstances or overcoming health-related reservations, let alone saving an entire industry. Tenet does, however, need to be seen on the biggest screen possible, as it’s an epic spectacle that reinforces why cinema experiences are so special. But while Nolan’s latest noodlebaker doesn’t collapse under the weight of build-up and hype, it’s hard not to feel the slightest bit disappointed by the end result.
Tenet wastes no time in kicking off in loud, bombastic fashion. Emphasis on loud, because one star has already been deducted from the film’s overall star-rating because of the deafening soundtrack, which frequently obscures some of the dialogue and makes some lines completely inaudible. Granted, after Inception and Interstellar, Nolan’s not someone known for intimate and subdued-soundtracked dramas. Even though, if you thought Tom Hardy’s Bane was tough to understand in The Dark Knight Rises, this is something else: the emphasis on Ludwig Göransson’s internal organ-shaking score does the film a mammoth disservice considering the knotty plot, wordy script and heady ideas. Plus, many protagonists wear respiration masks. You’ll not only have to get your brain around the high-concept ideas, but you’ll also need to strain your ears to be able to catch a lot of exposition. But back to the skinny. After an explosive op goes south, an unnamed covert operative (the charismatic John David Washington) is recruited by an enigmatic organisation, armed with only one gesture and a palindromic word: Tenet. He’ll then have to wrap his head around time inversion, fight to prevent something worse than nuclear holocaust, and “save the world from what might have been”.
If Inception was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with dream logic, Tenet is Thunderball with complex temporal fuckery.
Nolan has always been obsessed with
defeaning horns conceptually-intricate narratives involving the abstract concept of time, and this cerebral, Bond-inspired espionage thriller sees the filmmaker fully commit to challenging our linear temporal perceptions. Indeed, if Inception was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with dream logic, Tenet is Thunderball with complex temporal fuckery. When attempting to explain the flipped relationship between cause and effect, one character even speaks the fourth-wall-breaking line: “Don’t try to understand it – feel it.” It’s good advice with regards to narrative comprehension and appreciating the film on a gut level, but when it comes to emotional engagement, the line becomes emblematic of the movie’s biggest problem – there aren’t many feels to be felt.
You cared about Memento’s Leonard Shelby and his plight to avenge his wife’s death; you were engaged in the twists and turns of Alfred Borden and Robert Angier’s rivalry in The Prestige; you wanted Inception’s Cobb to find some sort of closure; you even wondered why Matthew McConaughey’s character couldn’t give two shits about his son Tom and instead spent the whole of Interstellar shouting “Muuuuuuurph”, in what has got to be some of the most neglectful parenting ever put to screen. With Tenet, you’re crucially never bored – spending your time figuring out the plot intricacies, gasping at some of the terrific set pieces and the time inversion tricks. However, you’re never truly emotionally engaged with the characters.
The blame doesn’t fall at the cast’s doorstep, as everyone is giving it their best, with Robert Pattinson proving yet again that he can outshine most of his co-stars, and Kenneth Branagh relishing his Blofeld-like role as an increasingly hammy Russian Oligarch hellbent on world destruction. Most of the blame resides in dialogue that needed an almighty polish, less choppy location hopping, and the ultimate fact that Tenet is a clever film that gradually begins to buy into how clever it is, and from that point on, tips into avoidable silliness.
As audiences, we can feel grateful for filmmaking that pushes the boundaries so extravagantly, and like Inception ten years ago, Tenet is not your typical summer blockbuster. It doesn’t flow as well as its sister film, but remains equally admirable and thrilling in the right places, thereby worth braving the cinema for. So, go for the spectacle, stay for the head-spinning ambition and the tailoring on show (So. Many. Good. Jackets.), but temper your expectations – this is high-class, convoluted entertainment that requires brain function but minimal effort when it comes to heart.
Tenet / Directed by Christopher Nolan (UK, US 2020), with John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Clémence Poésy. Starts August 26.