Regular readers of my blog may recall my past posts regards Christopher Nolan and his films. Nolan is a guy who has great fun treating films as magnificent toy boxes, making hugely ambitious films of massive scale, praised for being a bold and intelligent film-maker up there with the likes of Kubrick. While he may indeed share many of Kubrick’s own weaknesses, I’d dare suggest Nolan’s films are not quite as sophisticated and successful as professional critics or Studio marketing might suggest. I suppose Nolan shines in comparison to his contemporaries, but his latest film, Tenet, may be the one that most starkly reveals his particular weaknesses and worst excess. Remove the Imax footage, remove the huge set-pieces, and what have we left? Well, a headache, most likely.
Setting the film’s tone from the start, Tenet begins at a relentless pace and never really lets up, ensuring that the audience can at no point pause, take stock and consider just how ridiculous and nonsensical the proceedings are. We are thrown into a massive symphony concert in Kiev that is interrupted by a terrorist attack. Fortunately the security forces seem to be onsite in suspiciously short order, and among them is The Protagonist (John David Washington) and a few other agents that posing as part of the security forces go in to retrieve a high-profile asset whose cover has been blown and whose murder is being masked by the terrorist attack (or something to that effect). We never learn who the asset is or who he is working for or indeed who the Protagonist is working for. After a typically elaborate action sequence that Nolan seems able to spend fortunes on getting ‘in-camera’, the Protagonist is captured by the shadowy unnamed bad-guys behind the terrorists. is tortured for information but manages to take a cyanide capsule to ensure he dies before giving any information away.
Cut to an unspecified location an unspecified period of time later, with The Protagonist fully recovered due to somehow being rescued off-screen and brought back to life and his tortured features (and ripped-out teeth) all magically restored due to astonishing cosmetic surgery. I must confess that at this point I was already baulking at the leap of faith I was being expected to take. He’s dead, then alive and in perfect health, and we’re expected to just take that on faith- an indication of the majority of the film to come, in fact. Tenet is distinctly not an exercise in show, don’t tell. A monstrous amount of screen-time is invested in dialogue explaining what we are seeing and why but its so convoluted even the exposition confuses.
The Protagonists fortitude to not succumb to torture, and die rather than give in to the enemy, has seen him promoted to an unspecified intelligence agency in a secret war to avert World War Three. The Protagonist is moved to an unspecified offshore windfarm, from where he is later whisked away to an unspecified location and introduced to the concept of inverted objects that are travelling backwards through time, from some unspecified future, sent by unspecified people. Such objects can be picked up before they are dropped and other nifty tricks. Who is sending these objects from the future and why, for what purpose? Me, I was still wondering how they (and who ‘they’ are) managed to rescue The Protagonist, resurrect him and restore his devastatingly good looks. The time travel and high-end physics stuff was already going past my head.
Clearly, Tenet is very ambitious, but like Inception and Interstellar, it suggests a sophisticated and intelligent thriller slowly unravelling before our eyes. It feels churlish to complain about a film offering a bit of a mental challenge but I’m not entirely certain its honouring its own rulebook as it progresses (yes, can I dare suggest Nolan may have been cheating?) I’m not entirely sure I ever had a grip even on the basic premise, and as it makes its mental loops and twists in its relentless sprint to the finish I confess I rather gave up on ever making sense of it all, deciding that I’d perhaps leave that until my second or third viewing.
I suspect though that, rather than it being a case of me missing the clues necessitating those repeat viewings its really a case of bad film-making and sneaky smoke and mirrors. There are several really problematic things about Tenet, and much of it centres upon bad story-telling. Nolan has largely gotten away with not alienating his audiences in the past, but he may be just too clever/ambitious for his own good with this one. A major plot-point involves the wife of an evil Russian oligarch/arms dealer being threatened by said husband that he will ruin her reputation and take her son away: but I don’t think that son has a single line, or close-up, or any emotional stake in the film. We are told how she feels, we are told about her plight, but we don’t really see it, feel it. It seems more like a plot device, and that sort of thing, and lots of coincidences, permeate the film throughout. I’m not at all convinced repeat viewings won’t exasperate my current concerns either.
But I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Perhaps the film will be transformed on subsequent viewings, but as I unfortunately cannot read messages from the future as they do in Tenet, I’ll have to indeed just, ahem, wait and see.