Though you may’ve guessed differently from the title, I’m not a Chris Nolan fanboy. I’m not.
However, I don’t resent Nolan either. He’s made some of the finest films of the last two decades, some of which I regard very, very highly. (I still can’t get over the fact that even now, every time I decide to put Inception on for a spin I feel like I learn something new.)
And yet, that finery seems to meet its match in Nolan’s latest film, Tenet.
My Tenet viewing experience was characterized this past weekend by a COVID-conscious safety effort. Visiting a theater for the first time since seeing Greta Gerwig’s smartly crafted Little Women in February, I ventured out with parents and aunt to attend a matinee showing of the movie, mask and all.
There’s no projecting a divorced reality between what I saw when I walked in the front door and what I eventually came to see onscreen. The theater was devoid of life. Half the lights were off upon entering the grand and deserted lobby. An attendant waved us through into the main floor without even checking our pre-paid tickets. Two slight, freckled teenage blondes served up popcorn and sodas as my father and I stood solitary in the silent 5,000-sq. ft. cavern. Other patrons would file in soon after us, but they were few and similarly subdued.
Still, I looked forward to Tenet. Earlier that day at work I had read a particularly bad screenplay, and I was eager to wash the taste from my mouth with a mind-bending Christopher Nolan spectacle. But what I got was all spectacle and minimal film.
That’s an insult against Nolan, surely, but one that need not have been. After all, in just about every other effort put forth by the eminent Englishman (excepting perhaps 2002’s Insomnia, which Nolan did not write) I’ve been blown away. And for the first hour or so of Tenet, I was right there. For the entirety of the run, the special effects (at least) didn’t disappoint.
But filmmaking is about much more than cool effects and a solid start (just ask Michael Bay), and in truth, I don’t exactly think it a compliment that there’s been a broad cry from the punditry that this product stands as a “delightfully convoluted masterpiece.”
The premise is simple enough (or at least it was at first): a CIA agent played by John David Washington is tasked with discovering the origin of a series of “inverted” artifacts (including weaponry) that is moving backward through time. This leads him to the person of Andrei Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh sporting a prickly Russian accent), a Russian oligarch who has made some nebulous deal with the future to wipe out the past and really all of time ever…or something like that.
It’s about there that things begin to break down, and it starts to feel as if someone took the most slapdash leftovers of a Bond plot and baked them inside a half-finished Nolan dreamscape. There are squadrons of various soldiers moving forward, backward, and seemingly every which way in time, a massively impending larger-than-nuclear explosion, and even a part to play for Sator’s estranged wife (portrayed by the powerful Elizabeth Debicki in one of the rawest pieces of emotionality Nolan bothers to include in the film). All of which ultimately amounts to a lot of noise with little substance. Or at least, little that the audience can credibly follow.
I was once advised that a writer should be kind to their audience; the writer is the only friend the reader has inside of the fictionality of the story, after all. And yet, Tenet seems to hold open disdain for the idea that it should bother to explain itself to the group of people it most ardently craves attention from.
There’s a scene where a nameless scientist tells Washington’s nameless protagonist that he shouldn’t try to think about it all too hard, and many a reviewer has wryly remarked that such is good advice for viewing the film itself. Yet, as cerebral as Nolan may innately be, I shouldn’t have to just “turn my brain off” in order to enjoy the poor plotting of a film like Tenet. That’s the same kind of bullshit that the aforementioned Bay gets (rightly) excoriated for regularly. Nolan gets a pass because he wins Oscars? In the pure game of raw numbers, Bay’s movies have made more money. So, which of the two really adds more value to the moviemaking landscape?
That question is somewhat tongue-in-cheek itself because I know Christopher Nolan is a better filmmaker than Michael Bay. A truer manifestation of the scholarly auteur. And yet…that’s also why I think my disappointment is compounded so ferociously. One should be able to understand Tenet. Nolan’s bothered to take the time to allow us to understand heady ideas before. And even if that doesn’t mean that we see every man behind the curtain, we should at least be able to lay credible claim to the euphoric “Eureka!” of a turn well done. That is not the case with Tenet.
Nor do I blame Tenet’s poor prospects entirely on the pandemic, though I do happen to agree with Owen Gleiberman that it has happened to be the wrong film at the wrong moment in time. Rather, I openly wonder if the muddled step of Tenet isn’t a likewise cousin to unsure efforts put out by other storied auteurs of decades past. Scorsese’s The Irishman and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also come to mind as faltering products that almost singularly evoke the ethos of their directors. And yet, at least both of those movies were fun, provided you could dig into the histories they recalled and get swept up in dazzling star performances. No offense to Washington or supporting star Robert Pattinson, but I’m not sure Tenet can lay that same claim.
None of this is to say that Tenet is a bad movie, strictly speaking. But it never felt complete. And when the lights arose and the moment came to reaffix my mask to my face and trudge out into the cold gray of our current reality, it didn’t feel like the movie had ever bothered to give me any answers, or at the very least guide me on a journey to uncover some for myself.
If only Tenet ever cared to be clear about the tenets it supposes to hold, that would have been a revelation indeed. Instead, faced with a world of relentless uncertainty, it is small surprise that I received no relief after being bombarded by evermore senseless uncertainty.