When people are eagerly awaiting a new blockbuster, it’s hard to temper expectations; it’s harder still when said blockbuster is made by Christopher Nolan, an auteur who has made one exceptional film after another. Indeed, with expectations being so high, the flaws of his eleventh feature-length release are pretty hard to overlook.
A nameless CIA operative (John David Washington) is beginning work as a freelance agent after a botched mission saw him become compromised. Guided only by a single word uttered by his former employer – “tenet” – the American spy meets with a scientist (Clémence Poésy) who introduces him to the concept of Inversion technology, which enables objects to be sent backwards in time. The scientist asserts that whoever harbours this technology could use it to manipulate past events, and it’s the agent’s purpose to prevent that from happening.
Quite ironically, Tenet has been the victim of very bad timing this year. The film was originally slated for a worldwide release in July (a month typical for a Nolan blockbuster) before the global pandemic put a stop to that plan. Instead a “staggered” release was put in place that saw Tenet premiere in cinemas where countries allowed, and kept on-hold until theatres reopened elsewhere. This approach has appeased some, but not this reviewer, who has endured two lockdowns and strict social-distancing measures to see the picture.
Time may well be a concept the world would rather do away with right now, yet for Christopher Nolan, it represents a familiar motif in his filmography. In past features he has toyed with time-bending, non-linear narratives (think Memento, Dunkirk) and even questioned its relativity (Interstellar) with many a cinephile anticipating that his latest film would do much the same. Tenet doesn’t quite align with these hopes, lacking the grand scale of what has come before it.
The ability to invert time is a clever mechanic, and it’s one that Tenet utilises well – such as during an action sequence that has our anonymous hero engaging in close-quarters combat against a masked, inverted assailant. The problem is, there are very few scenes that employ inversion technology, and to witness them, viewers must first endure lengthy, tedious conversations between the characters. This fact will particularly irk Nolan’s detractors, who have long criticised his inability to write compelling dialogue.
What frustrates further about these conversations is how difficult they are to hear, owing to the peculiar sound editing. Throughout the feature, background noises and Ludwig Göransson’s bombastic, bass-heavy soundtrack are amplified to an unreasonable level where subtitles are needed to understand what the characters are saying. This issue is even prevalent in the earliest scenes, with expository dialogue drowned-out by heavy winds and rough waters lashing against a boat, making it an unnecessary challenge to understand the plot.
Adding to the confusion, and the frustration, is the film editing. Viewers are left with barely enough opportunity to absorb what is occurring in Tenet, thanks to the hurried pacing, nor are they ever given a moment to relax as a result of the near-constant noise. To be clear, the screenplay is relatively straightforward, but Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame have seemingly gone out of their way to make Tenet difficult to follow – like Inception, another Nolan caper, it requires the utmost concentration to understand on the first viewing.
While it may falter in the editing and sound departments, Tenet is at least visually impressive. The sporadic action sequences are dominated by grand practical effects, which are captured beautifully by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who surely now has established himself as one of the industry’s greats. The look of the film is further enhanced by the costume department, which has adorned the actors with exquisite suits and stylish casual wear. Spy franchises aside, it’s hard to think of another blockbuster that dresses characters this modishly.
Commendation must be given to the cast as well, none of whom can be faulted. John David Washington – whose character is credited simply as “The Protagonist”, and identifies himself as such – is a classy and confident leading man, never once appearing out of his depth; he receives ample support from Robert Pattinson, who plays British agent Neil, in addition to Elizabeth Debicki as love-interest Kat, Himesh Patel (Yesterday) as fixer Mahir, and Nolan stalwart Michael Caine in a gratuitous cameo as a British intelligence officer.
There is a pertinent question that everybody will want addressed at this point: Is Tenet worth seeing in cinemas? Objectively, this reviewer must say No, owing to both the pandemic and the film’s numerous, glaring flaws. And yet, there is a strong argument to be made for viewing it in a theatre – unless one has a surround sound system installed in their own home, there is no way of replicating the loud environments and thumping bass that can be heard in Tenet; likewise, there is no television large enough to display the sublime visuals. For those who love visiting a cinema as much as they do watching a movie, this may well be enough to entice them back.
Tenet is a picture that’s difficult to enjoy, marred by deafening sound, rushed pacing and a shortage of excitement; but it remains gorgeous to look at and boasts impressive performances from all involved. Though certainly not Christopher Nolan’s finest work, the film is nonetheless admirable in what in hopes to achieve: namely, giving consumers a reason to visit the theatre again.