TenetReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/01/20 12:51:12
In recent years, when there has been talk over who should get the job of directing a James Bond movie, Christopher Nolan’s name has usually been at the top of those list. He certainly has a flair for creating hugely successful event films on a scale that make even the usually overstuffed Bond extravaganzas seem puny by comparison and he has often spoken of being a fan of the franchise—the ski attack sequence in “Inception” alone struck many as an overt homage to the climax of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Of course, there is no way that the Broccoli family that has been producing the Bond series to great success for nearly 60 years would ever cede to Nolan the kind of creative control that he would presumably require in order to sign on to make one. Instead, Nolan has given us “Tenet,” the first blockbuster epic of the Covid era and a film that fuses together a Bond-style globetrotting adventure with all of the accoutrements one associates with the franchise with the kind of head-spinning narrative that Nolan has become famous for that includes a particular emphasis on his long-standing interest in time as a cinematic devise, both as a structural challenge and as a narrative devise. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, the only thing that most viewers will be absolutely sure of when they come out of it is that the Broccoli family may have had the right idea all along for “Tenet” is, for all of the anticipation surrounding it, kind of a mess—an undeniably ambitious but dramatically confused story which feels as if it is going out of its way to come across as the most deliberately obtuse and impossible-to-follow Bond film ever made, or at least since the original version of “Casino Royale” (1967) and at least there was a number of reasons why that one didn’t make much sense.Out of respect for Nolan’s willingness to keep as many of the plot details under wraps in the run-up to the film’s delayed release, I will endeavor to be vague in regards to the few plot details that I will divulge—in this particular case, that will not be as great of a chore as it may seem. Our hero is a C.I.A. agent who is known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) and as the story opens, he is in the middle of a rescue mission at an opera house in Kiev overrun by terrorists when he begins to notice that strange things are happening all around him, including bullets that seem to be moving backwards instead of forwards. This eventually leads him to being recruited by a super-duper top-secret international terrorism unit known as Tenet and learning from a resident brainiac scientist (Clemence Poesy) that the backwards bullets have been “inverted”—they have been sent from some point in the future by someone who has figured out how to travel back in time and mess around wit events that have already taken place. With the aid of British secret agent Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist begins to uncover a global conspiracy with world-destroying potential that points back to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a twisted billionaire Russian arms dealer with a wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), whom he cruelly mistreats and whom The Protagonist utilizes to get to the bottom of what he is really up to and the potentially dire consequences for the entire planet.
Needless to say, “Tenet” contains all of the attributes that one might associate with a Bond film—a suave and unflappable hero, a megalomaniacal villain hell-bent on world domination or destruction, a beautiful woman caught between the two of them, a elaborate pre-title sequence that proves to have only a tenuous connection to the main storyline, exotic locales, a genius in the lab who sort-of explains all the advanced technology that will be deployed, state-of-the-art vehicles of all types, a number of large-scale action sequences and even a ticking clock during the climax that lets us know just how much time our hero has left before things go ka-boom. What it doesn’t have, alas, is a coherent plot, intriguing characters or a real sense that there is anything going on just beneath its impeccable surfaces. Granted, the Bond movies are not usually what people thirsty for thoughtful and humanist cinema immediately flock to but at their best, they have blended the expected eye candy with wit, style and a certain degree of self-awareness as to the ludicrousness of them all and a few, notably “One Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “Casino Royale,” have even dared to look a little closer at Bond in order to see what makes him tick. Here, Nolan has brought in some of the most charismatic actors around in Washington, Pattinson and Debicki and has perversely given them characters to play who are largely one-dimensional ciphers. As for the villain of the piece, always the most important element of a film of this sort, Stor proves to be a singularly uninteresting antagonist—even the poignant element to his ultimate plan seems forced—and matters aren’t helped by allowing Branagh to repeat the same overblown Mad Russian performance that he gave in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014), possibly on the assumption that no one actually remember seeing it the first time around.
The other major problem is that Nolan’s storytelling skills, which have always been a bit on the complicated side and which have required audiences to keep up with what is going on instead of dumbing things down for the masses, have now become inscrutable at best and completely indecipherable at worst. Combining the typical Bond template to an always-expanding puzzle-like narrative along the lines of “Inception” in which every scene raises new questions about both the details of the plot and the fabric of time and space—the quantum this time around being of physics rather than solace—is certainly a bold a nervy choice but it is one that just does not work. On its most basic level—The Protagonist is the good guy, Stor is the bad guy and they are both trying to get their hands on the McGuffin that will save or doom humanity—you can sort things out, I suppose, but whenever the film tries to explain the particulars of what is going on, little of it makes any sense. Then, apparently worried that someone might actually figure out what is going on, Nolan has made the exceptionally perverse decision to deploy sound mix so loud and overwhelming that renders much of the dialogue, especially the explanatory stuff, all but unintelligible. It is as if Nolan watched the funniest scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959)—the one where Cary Grant finally gets an explanation for everything that is going on but viewers are unable to hear it because it has been drowned out by the sounds of a nearby airplane—and chose to expand it into an entire 2 1/2 hour movie.
And yet, in the way that even the lesser Bond films are fun on some fundamental level—they are the cinematic equivalent of a hot dog at a baseball game—“Tenet” does have some moments of genius that emerge once you give up trying to make sense of it all and simply let the whole thing wash over you. The big action scenes are undeniably impressive in their staging and execution—all the more so when you consider that virtually all of them were apparently achieved by using practical effects instead of CGI. The conceit of things occurring in reverse leads a number of amusing moments, even as you are thinking that perhaps the film is less an homage to Bond than it is to the immortal Swedish Bookstore sequence from “Top Secret” (1984). Washington and Pattinson have a nice byplay in their scenes together that comes through even when we have no idea what the hell is going on. Perversely, the best scene in the film is also one of the quietest—a meeting between Washington and Michael Caine as a high-ranking British spymaster who offers up some advice on his upcoming mission and an unlimited American Express card so that he can get himself properly outfitted and save humanity in style. The scene is brief but it is witty, it has fun playing with the conventions of the globetrotting spy adventures and leaves you wanting more—three qualities that are otherwise in short supply here.By sheer coincidence, I saw “Tenet” only a day or so after watching “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” another effort from a filmmaker whom I greatly admire—Charlie Kaufman, in that case—that I admired on a technical level but which just did not work for me. In both cases, they are projects made by defiantly iconoclastic filmmakers who have clearly been allowed to do whatever they wanted without fear of interference but who have conjured up works that are essentially impenetrable variations on themes and ideas that they have explored far more successfully in their previous efforts. In both cases, the results aren’t bad in the classical sense—they are both wildly ambitious works and the end results, though undeniably flawed, are more interesting than the usual run-of-the-mill bad movie. I am still convinced that Christopher Nolan is one of the most daring and fascinating studio filmmakers out there—the rare director who feels no urge to dumb things down once the budget hits nine figures—and that while “Tenet” is an undeniable misstep, I am eagerly awaiting what he has in store for us for his next project. I also have the sneaky suspicion that if he and Kaufman had met up before embarking on their respective projects and traded screenplays, we might have gotten two better films in the end.
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