Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: John David Washington, Robert Pattison, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Kenneth Branagh and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Review by Damocles
If you search the word “muddled” in a thesaurus, every synonym can be used to describe Tenet.
Christopher Nolan is one of those directors that I respect and simultaneously dislike at the same time.
He focuses a lot on spectacle, has the ability to make reality seem more exciting than it really is, and often prefers to tackle an interesting concept poorly, than telling a simple story well.
It makes him a strange paradox in my mind … an appropriate mindset going into this film where much of the plot is about “time inversion”, “entropy” and “temporal movements.”
The film’s plot follows the Protagonist, a spy who joins a secret organisation named Tenet to prevent an Armageddon that is being bought about by Andrei Sator, whose scorched-earth policies will result in the world being torn apart by time inversion.
The plot is dense, confusing and admittedly too complex to properly enjoy. Nolan plays with time a bit too many times in ways that convolutes things too much for you to have a good grasp on what is going on. Confusion is not a particularly good emotion to be feeling when watching a spectacle play across the screen. In Inception (2010) it was enjoyable, in Tenet it is almost insufferable.
This is one of the few times in a review, where I won’t bother to convey the plot in words, but instead just tell you, that if you want to enjoy the film more, it is almost better to ignore what characters are saying and just focus on what they are doing.
Of the three elements that make Nolan special; spectacle, reality and concept, I admire and respect his craftsmanship for spectacle and refusal to implement CGI in his films, but despise his fixation on strange bloodless violence and unnecessary complications to a climax approach.
Tenet is his most “Nolan-esque” film to date. An interesting concept that is made complex far too much, that I felt myself checking out of the film after the 9th expository explanation.
For a man with such visual flair to his set-pieces, he seems to depend a lot on needlessly complicated wordplay to describe what is happening.
In addition, I felt a lot of the incredible locations and sets were not given enough time to breathe. A location shift to Mumbai should be more than just a slightly underwhelming bungee stunt and multiple scenes of dialogue. Tallinn was reduced to an airport. The incredible opening opera house sequence, I felt needed a bit more love and care in the set-up.
The climatic ending needed a better sense of geography and scale, something I was particularly aggrieved about because there was such a lack of focus on what seemed like a large-scale battle, but you couldn’t really tell who was shooting at whom.
Too many action set pieces I felt were not built up enough, where they felt earned, unique and creative and as such, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by it all, despite witnessing a 747 crash into a building. If anything, I felt they were strangely underused and even a little under-dressed, but then that could just be the nature of a film regarding “time inversion.”
This is a shame, because the casting for the film is excellent, with a truly standout physical performance from John David Washington, whose charisma is palpable despite some odd dialogue choices. His physicality is impressive and I was struck by the natural athletic grace he had, no doubt a holdover from his NFL days.
Robert Pattison’s ability to be a chameleon in any role, continues to impress. I was struck by how well he seemed to control his face to express himself, in a lot of the action sequences.
Elizabeth Debicki, arguably one of my favourite actresses ever because of my Melburnian bias and her effortless class, felt a little bit wasted in this role, a typical Nolan flaw, as he has always had a bit of trouble writing women. A very relatable issue to have, as I struggle from the same dilemma.
What I was pleasantly amused by is Branagh’s continual ability to play a Russian with a slightly strange accent. He seems to enjoy being the big, bad evil Russian with a philosophical intellect, as he plays a highly similar character in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014).
On a more positive note, I loved Ludwig Goransson’s work for the score, with much of the soundscapes sounding remarkably unique, tense and evocative for a spy thriller. His music was particularly refreshing after Nolan’s frequent collaborative efforts with Hans Zimmer, and I found that much of the film was boosted by Goransson’s style and flair.
Rainy Night in Tallinn is such an incredible example of how Goransson is able to transform a peaceful, airy sound into something dark and terrifying before lifting it up again into something heroic and mysterious.
Praise must also be given to the cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema whose work continues to shine under Nolan’s direction. I was particularly struck by how good everything looked, a testament to his ability to make the ordinary world more exciting.
However in spite of his work, I couldn’t really find myself getting more invested in the film. Certain shots grabbed the eyes, but there was this strange disconnect between all the elements that make a spy thriller exciting. Costumes in particular, were really drab for a spy thriller, with much of the characters covered up or dressed in dull tactical gear that didn’t really express their personality.
A key element behind espionage films has always been the glamour of certain locales and characters, and I couldn’t help but feel like Nolan’s insistence on realism was a detriment to this unique take on the spy genre. The Protagonist’s costumes switched constantly, and actually served to be slightly distracting, as I could not pinpoint what his style was, beyond multiple suit colours.
However there was major disservice to Elizabeth Debicki’s tall frame not being utilized enough to emphasis her natural ballet posture. Her costumes in particular did not suit what I imagined a Russian billionaire’s wife would dress like with many not really accentuating her tragic looks.
A great example of spy costuming done right, was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) where all the characters had incredible colours and looks that matched their personalities. Normally, I would not pay attention to costumes, but in this film, I felt like it was needed to just bring the characters to life a bit better.
Overall, I felt like Tenet was not one of Nolan’s better films, as I really felt like this time around, the time inversion concept proved too much even for a filmmaker of his abilities and it soured what might have been a fun take on the spy genre.
Set pieces lacked panache and visual flair, especially with some action sequences needing to be expanded further or developed beyond a simple gimmick, such as the enthralling bungee jump sequence or the truck heist perhaps benefiting from a night-time shoot.
Too much of Nolan’s violence seems so bloodless and at odds with the realistic approach he enjoys, and I do wish he would film his action with a better sense of the enemies the protagonists are fighting, because the formula is there, it is good, but the execution isn’t quite up to scratch.
Perhaps I am too biased to the John Wick films, or Mad Max series, but at the end of the day, I dislike seeing such huge potential for unique and interesting action wasted.
A scene to recall: A windmill safe-room is a remarkably interesting and novel concept to me. Just seeing the Protagonist spend his time working out and disguising himself as an maintenance worker stuck with me oddly enough.
It also reinforces my suspicion regarding hi-vis vests and that I was right to use it in my high-school murder mystery.