Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clemence Poesy and Himesh Patel
One of Christopher Nolan’s primary filmmaking interests is the manipulation of time. His latest film, Tenet, is perhaps his most confounding narrative yet. The word tenet is a palindrome, which means it is spelt the same forwards and backwards. Like the city of Paris in Inception (2010), time in Tenet folds in on itself and loops back around.
Tenet is essentially a metaphysical Bond film. John David Washington plays a CIA agent and is the hub of Nolan’s narrative merry-go-round. Kenneth Branagh plays a Russian arms dealer who has got his nefarious hands on the ultimate weapon. Nolan has gone through great pains to keep the film’s plot under wraps, and it is not for this reviewer to spoil the party. What can be said is that for a film about time-travel, Tenet feels surprisingly circumscribed. Perhaps, occupied by the physics and logistics surrounding making a film about time-travel, Nolan forgot to create a world where there are actual stakes or even to write characters an audience can invest in. In Tenet we are not privy to a world outside of the yacht owning mega-rich and talents like the aforementioned Branagh, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki are wasted. Their characters are thinly drawn ciphers, existing only in service of Nolan’s head-scratching plot. John David Washington does his best to bring his natural charisma (to be best witnessed in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) to an otherwise stoic role.
This is not a new criticism to be levelled at Nolan and his cinema, where conception of plot has always taken precedence over character. However, Tenet is an example of when this filmmaking philosophy is detrimental to the finished product. There are awe-inspiring moments of action in Tenet. The first act seems to jump from set piece to set piece with the minimum amount of exposition as possible- rather like the films in the Mission Impossible series. Tenet is a film that needs to be seen in the cinema. The score by Ludwig Goransson is heart-pounding as he channels Han Zimmer, mixing that aesthetic with his own more popular musical stylings.
Whatever about the quality of the film, it was good to be back in the cinema watching a genuine cinematic spectacle. The experience of watching Tenet can not be replicated in your living room. It will not work as well on Netflix. It is a blockbuster that is not part of a ‘universe’ or a ‘franchise’. With Denis Villeneuve recently veering into sequel and remake terrority with Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) and the upcoming Dune (slated for a Christmas release), Nolan has steadfastly given us three original blockbusters in a row after putting his Dark Knight trilogy to bed in 2012. That itself, in the current climate, is commendable.