Film Corner with Njal Heddle: Tenet

No TIME To Die/Eid Ot EMIT On

Christopher Nolan really set his own bar a bit too high, didn’t he? Having done nothing but impress and outstand with his entire previous body of work, it always seemed like he’d fumble the ball sometime. Yes, there were lesser works (The Prestige boasts a fairly jarring finale, while The Dark Knight Rises is certainly his least intellectually stimulating effort), but never has Nolan ever made what could be considered as a “bad film”.

And he continues this streak with his latest release, Tenet, his eleventh feature. However, that being said, while not, by any means, a “bad film”, Tenet is Nolan’s weakest film to date. But it may also be his boldest. After all, it’s the only Nolan film to have a hip-hop song play over the credits.

Tenet really had a lot riding on it. The fact that it was Nolan’s next film was reason enough for excitement, but with the sudden impact of a worldwide pandemic hindering its release, the anticipation began to grow. And then there was Nolan’s stubborn insistence that it be shown in theatres, despite no clear date of them reopening in sight. Then the goal came for it to be the first cinematic offering the moment that cinemas DID reopen. The signpost for the film seemed to proclaim it would be the saviour of cinema itself during these dark times.

Taking all of this into account, there would be absolutely no way any film could possibly live up to these expectations, no matter who was at the helm. Be it Nolan, Spielberg, or anybody. So, putting all that to the side, is it worth the time?

Playing out like a good ol’ cold war spy thriller, Tenet focuses on the unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington) as he finds himself roped into saving the world from terrorist Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who plots to manipulate the flow of time itself to end the world.

Right off the bat, its hard to argue that this isn’t Nolan at his most Nolany. Taking five years for even him to wrap his head around, Tenet feels like the culmination of Nolan’s great love affair with time. But it’s not time travel. Not quite. As the film itself puts it, it deals with “technology that can reverse an object’s entropy.” Confused? In a nutshell, one steps through a turnstile and reality gets set to rewind.

At first, it seems fairly slick. Ooh, guns can shoot backwards! How… cool? But as the film goes on, things start to get bloody confusing, but also bloody awe-inspiring. As our heroes battle against “inverted” foes in hand-to-hand combat, car chases and even unsettling interrogation scenes, the sheer craft and care behind said sequences shines through with a blinding sun of creativity. A tense opening takeover of an opera house lays the beginnings of the groundwork, while a hallway fistfight between Washington and a masked assailant has all the hallmarks of a Bourne film on a speedball.

However, the film’s greatest aspect also serves to show the films greatest failings all the more prominently. Nolan clearly agonised over the logistics and the intricacies of his film’s concept, but one gets the feeling he forgot to register how to fully engage the audience in said concept. Tenet, admirably, mind you, isn’t an easy film to get one’s head around. The same was said of Inception upon its release. But where that film played more like a jigsaw, Tenet feels, frustratingly, like a buggered VHS tape. Simply put, if you haven’t fully given over to the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey premise, or haven’t quite figured out how the hell things work, one will simply start to ask; what’s the bloody point of the time-inversion, anyway?

If one were to erase the time-inversion aspect, despite it being a central tenet (hehe) of the film, it would basically have the same plot as any other action movie, and the effect would obviously be lost. But Nolan seems so fixated with the idea, that it feels like he just shoehorned it into a lazy Bond film. It begins to feel more out of place as it goes on, at least until the final, brain-baking set-piece.

Said script also fails to do the actors many favours. Previous efforts of Nolan’s always seemed to give the actors opportunities to really, fully shine, no matter how small the part. Here, everyone is so bland it’s hard to tell them apart after a while. Robert Pattinson brings a smidgen of his well-earned credibility to the role of Neil, The Protagonist’s handler, despite boasting the worst hairdo in any Nolan film to date. The graceful Elizabeth Debicki offers a credible shiver to her turn as a woman suffering horrid abuse over the course of years, despite delivering the most embarrassing line in the film (“including my son”. We’ll leave the context blank, but when you know, you’ll know). Branagh offers a human edge to Sator (despite him being a right horrible bastard), but, like the others, simply feels like a talking prop fighting against the other talking props. Washington, meanwhile, having previously impressed with BlacKkKlansman, has all the screen appeal and charisma of a brick, here. There are pleasant surprises of “Oh look, it’s them” moments scattered throughout the film, but very few stick with one long enough to register, save one.

That being said, despite its sizeable shortcomings, Tenet doesn’t fail to entertain. Even if one still has no idea what the hell is going on, it’s hard to deny the rush one will get come the third act, when shit, truly, goes topsy-turvy. And it is a testament to Nolan’s dedication that he can maintain one’s interest, if not fully grabbing one’s investment to the story. And Nolan’s style is bolstered by a committed technical crew, as well as an admirably Hans Zimmer-y score from Ludwig Göransson.

Tenet is, by no means, a bad film. Indeed, it boasts some truly staggering spectacle unseen in the modern blockbuster, especially in the last few months. But it is, undoubtedly Nolan’s worst film made yet. Had Nolan focused enough attention on the story around his concept as much as the concept itself, it could have undoubtedly his finest. But for its ambition, and the execution of its action scenes, it is still a worthy accomplishment.


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