Tenet – Nolan’s new time-bending thriller exhausts, baffles, and alienates

After being tested to his limits, one man (John David Washington) is immersed in the world global espionage on a mission to save humanity from utter destruction, past and present. His only weapons? The help of a secret military organisation dedicated to saving time itself, and the word Tenet.

Christopher Nolan’s eleventh film, Tenet, has been looked on as the redeemer of the 2020 summer box office. It’s also been labelled as a yard stick for the future of cinema-going; with the Covid-19 pandemic raging on, watching a film with dozens of strangers now seems (for many) hardly a risk worth taking with Netflix at home. So, the industry looks to a director well known for his box office success to get bums back in seats. These are undoubtedly unfair expectations to place on any film. But if there is any one filmmaker you could put money on delivering something that blends an action-packed popcorn fest with a mind-bending narrative, it’s Nolan.

Unfortunately, Tenet doesn’t live up to these weighty hopes, mostly due to a confusing plot that offers viewers no respite. Nolan’s films are famed for elaborate narratives; the film, however, takes this complexity to a new level, making his famously intricate 2010 film Inception look a recipe for making ice in comparison. Or, so it seems. Tenet starts at a million miles per hour, not giving viewers any time to absorb important plot points or character motivations. The relentless pace also moves us back and forth through time across the film, meaning you skirt over vital narrative details that you later double back on later on without realising their importance. This leaves you feeling disoriented, distanced, and ultimately fed up, like a rollercoaster ride where the novelty has worn off but you need to wait for the end.

The cast is surprisingly low-key compared to Nolan’s other films. Typically he draws career-defining performances from his actors (Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight; the list goes on). But a talented young cast ultimately fails to shine in Tenet. John David Washington, Hollywood’s new leading man, is charismatic but lacks depth as the protagonist, Protagonist. Alongside him, Robert Pattinson – who excelled earlier this year in The Lighthouse – is similarly lost amidst a busy background. Kenneth Brannagh goes the opposite direction and hams up the villainous Sator too far, though he’s a fun antagonist. The star of the film is Elizabeth Debicki as Nestor’s estranged wife Kat. Debicki exudes glacial coldness but also carries a vulnerable streak that makes her character intriguing.

Tenet’s undoubted strength is its camera work. Given Nolan’s near-impeccable track record and 10 Oscar wins, this was expected. The film boasted some very impressive set pieces, including an airport fight sequence and clever visual cues to help viewers keep on top of the time shifts. It also takes in several beautiful global filming locations, giving the film a uniquely Bond-esque feel. The major directing let down is the sound mixing. Nolan’s trademark experimental soundscape and action sequences often drowns out character dialogue, making the plot impossible to follow. This is an amateur mistake, and fatal for Tenet.

Tenet, in any summer and from any other director, is an action flick with gravitas. But from a director with a track record like Nolan has, and in a year that cinemas needed a hero, the film is a rambling let-down crushed by the weight of expectation.

Tenet offers the big-screen popcorn moments that cinema-goers have missed but it’s out of time with Nolan’s best work. 5.5/10.

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