Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster Tenet (2020) rings hollow despite its riveting action sequences, superb effects and the enormous ambitions written all over it.
Is there a person in this world who is even vaguely interested in cinema and hasn’t heard of Christopher Nolan yet?
Almost every consecutive movie of the London-born filmmaker stirs up a heated debate that burns years after it debuts. Because as far as mass entertainment is concerned, Christopher Nolan blends directorial thoroughness with no-seatbelts thrill rides almost flawlessly. Nolan’s features had been bold because the filmmaker rejected to operate within stiff frames of genres. He conjured magic and pushed the boundaries further down the hall of champions in most of his movies – paid homage to Stanley Kubrick’s legend in Interstellar (2014); revived Batman and forever reinvented comic book movies; directed a war movie with a collective protagonist whom we feel connected to; and made a mind-bending movie about dreams which really was a drama about coping with grief.
So the title of the most expected film of 2020 was a no-brainer – it was Tenet (2020).
The discrete marketing campaign leveraged names attached to the project – John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kenneth Branagh – which allowed Tenet (2020) to stay afloat on everyone’s tongues without sparing any plot details. A complete tabula rasa, setting aside the palindrome title that explained less than “inception” and “interstellar” did.
After finally getting a hold of Tenet (2020), the use of such a cloak of mystery seems completely understandable now.
Tenet (2020) deals with an incredibly convoluted plot
The story begins with a kick-ass action sequence in an opera, where we get to meet the protagonist (who is named The Protagonist). In a rather unfortunate turn of events, the man almost dies but is rescued only to learn about an intricate plot that might end in “something worse than nuclear war”. An enemy from the future threatens to end the world, and so the race against time begins.
The stakes are high but only on paper, or to be more accurate – they are high according to the full hour of story exposition. Talking about people, about events which happen outside of screen and next steps in the big scheme of things occupies a huge part of Tenet (2020), alas the plot still remains so muddled, so deeply self-indulgent (in the way only Nolan’s scripts are) that none of these things manage to make a lasting impact.
Troubles begin with the way Nolan constructs the plot. John David Washington meets with dozens of people like a teenager who doesn’t believe in the coronavirus. Tracking all of the meetings is hard, and it’s even harder to understand what they bring to the table. On the contrary, the reason for many of appearances and events remains opaque in spite of an avalanche of exposition-centered scenes.
On top of that comes the impenetrable wall of dialogues and hastily explained science. Nolan always loved jigsaws and conundrums, but it’s the first time when playing smart ruled over cinematic artistry. But the true reason why this script fails so miserably is because Christopher Nolan traded real characters whom we believe in for fireworks and bloated scientific nuances.
Actors struggle to find their places in Christopher Nolan’s vision
John David Washington’s nameless protagonist puzzled me the most. Although there are attempts to imbue his lines with James Bond-esque chutzpah and wit, Washington sadly lacks feistiness. The Protagonist is not a person with tangible goals and blood circulating in veins – it’s a brush in the director’s hands. He’s basically what Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in Inception (2010) could have been if given to a less talented actor – a lifeless cog in the machine.
That kind of vague importance reminded me of Ryan Gosling’s part in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), however Denis Villeneuve’s direction smartly explained the marginal importance of the film’s protagonist. In Tenet (2020), the protagonist has actually a major role to play, but it’s somehow lost in the whole razzmatazz.
Similarly beleaguered are the supporting characters. Robert Pattinson, whose character eventually ends up being at the core of the abstruse plot, visibly struggles to find his spot too. Pattinson admitted in interviews that he didn’t understand Tenet (2020) in the slightest, which couldn’t be more ironic. That’s some food for thought here – if one of the main actors doesn’t get it after months invested in the job, how come the audience is supposed to in little more than two hours?
Nothing spectacular arrives from Elizabeth Debicki or Kenneth Branagh either. The two entwine in a lackluster Russian magnate-unhappy wife drama, and despite their best efforts, toxic love that binds them is made of paper. It’s especially the case of Debicki whose high-end composure feels unwelcoming and unrelatable.
Tenet (2020) is awe-inspiring to look at & listen to
My theory is that turning off the analytical part of the brain might profoundly help in enjoying the film. While Tenet (2020) feels emotionally barren in comparison with Nolan’s previous works, and its over-complexity is frustrating, the film does not fall short on technical grounds. The film is superbly loud, both noisy and flashy, and as much as its IMAX-fueled intensity tired me, the craft is one to admire. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s exceptional cinematography benefits from locations scattered from industrialized Tallinn and Oslo to sun-bathed Amalfi coast and the crowded streets of Mumbai. Spanning across so many countries, it provides much space to breathe.
Ludwig Göransson’s ears-drilling soundtrack does its part too. As a close kin to the works of Nolan’s usual collaborator Hans Zimmer, the score of Tenet (2020) adopts a vibrant, synthwave-like texture, with guitar and piano solos reminiscent of Inception (2010). It’s fast and frenetic – exactly like the pacing of the movie;
Undoubtedly there will be die-hard Nolan fanboys (until Tenet (2020) I proudly represented this group) who will praise the meticulous effort of their cinema god. And sure, upon third or fourth viewing, Nolan’s newest film might be less overwhelming. In the case of the vast majority of audiences who will watch it once, Tenet (2020) will come off as an audiovisual sensation with little substance to live up to its great ambitions. We’ll forget it in a few years and welcome the next big project of Christopher Nolan with a bucket of cold water at hand – just in case.
Hate Grade: 4/10
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Music: Ludwig Göransson