Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan
So the long-awaited Christopher Nolan film Tenet has finally been released, and it is…okay. Nolan took five years to develop this script and produce the film, which feels incredibly derivative of his previous films, especially The Dark Knight and, even more obviously, Inception. That doesn’t mean Tenet is terrible from top to bottom. There are some very innovative ideas woven throughout the picture, and of course, Nolan is a master at practical effects-driven large scale set pieces, including computer effects conservatively and skillfully. What is not included in this mix are emotionally relatable characters with complex relationships.
An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) is part of an undercover SWAT operation at a Kyiv opera house that goes south quickly. During the skirmish, The Protagonist (as the script refers to him) is saved a black-clad man wearing a distinctive red tag who appears to be moving backward. The Protagonist is captured by the terrorists who have attacked the opera house and tries to end his life with the standard-issue cyanide pill given to agents. Instead of dying, our hero wakes up to a new life where he is told this was a test, and he’s now entering a hidden realm of reality.
This journey brings him to a laboratory where The Protagonist learns that centuries from now, a war is being waged with the past, with weapons being sent backward through time. He discovers an arms dealer named Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is somehow communicating with this future enemy and funding terrorism. Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Delbecki), appears to be a possible way into the arms dealer’s inner circle. Neil (Robert Pattinson) becomes a powerful contact for The Protagonist and seems to have a greater understanding of what is going on and can guide the hero as he comes into his own.
Tenet’s inverted time aspect will be what most audiences walk away in awe of and rightly so. It is a complex plot device that Nolan uses handily. Sequences, where inverted people are fighting people moving forward in time, are quite a spectacle to behold. You can see how intricately planned and thought out these pieces of choreography were. Nolan has really put a lot of consideration into world-building, having inverted people rely on oxygen units. Their lungs can’t process the gas because they are working backward. If you try to set an inverted person on fire, it works in reverse, freezing them because heat is removed rather than added. These are brilliant science fiction ideas that look spectacular on screen.
However, at the end of the movie, I don’t care about the Protagonist or any other character. They spend most of the picture delivering exposition, and any attempt to add emotional gravitas feels clunky with cliched dialogue. I understand Nolan wants The Protagonist to be a 21st century James Bond type of figure, but he never gives him the kind of charismatic, aloof dialogue to communicate that. When our hero comes to Sator’s dinner party and is being patted down by a bodyguard, he remarks, “Where I’m from, you take a person to dinner first.” This is such a terrible line that we’ve all heard in other films and television shows for decades. There are bits like that throughout the movie that appear to reveal that Nolan spent most of his time working out the intricate action set pieces rather than build characters.
I think a lack of emotional connection with characters is a significant issue throughout Nolan’s work. I have not seen Dunkirk, though I have heard it might be different in that regard. I know Interstellar tried, but I personally felt it stumbled. I give Nolan credit for trying in that movie to tell a story with genuine pathos. Inception worked because of the choices of the actors who brought a lot of charisma to the table. As much as I like Robert Pattinson and wanted to like John David Washington, they felt lost in this material. The stylistic decision to leave the Protagonist unnamed definitely didn’t pay off in the film and just served to distance me further from him. Maybe there is a plan to reveal more backstory in a hypothetical sequel?
Ultimately Tenet is a beautifully constructed machine, something Nolan does very well. But it’s built on a thin, fragile frame of visual delights. I personally see many fascistic artistic elements in Nolan’s work, and The Dark Knight is a sort of core text that sums up Nolan’s personal superior viewpoint of humanity. Tenet pushes the same narrative ideology that there are a rare few select people that know how the world really works. It’s a perspective I become more uncomfortable with the older I get while learning and embracing leftist/socialist ideology. It doesn’t help that we have shallow characters embodying Nolan’s script, leading to a film that rings as well crafted by a draftsman but lacking a soul.