“Don’t try to understand it…feel it.”
Pure Spectacle. That’s all Tenet amounts to, really. And I’m not sure there’s a shorter or more appropriate way of describing Christopher Nolan’s latest Brobdingnagian, blockbuster behemoth. Ever true to his form, Nolan has made a genre film where the machinations of time act as a character, and unlike his previous efforts, it’s all in service of a lukewarm spy story about muted and thinly sketched people. The twisty structure and the composition show shades of brilliance, but none of that matters when the characters are this flat and futile, walking a world this convoluted and clumsy. Tenet begs to be read as palandromic, yet the material comes across as too clouded and confused. It’s a frustrating, plodding, and altogether mediocre movie. Invest your time and mental effort elsewhere.
In a move sure to upset plenty of college students in scriptwriting 101 classes who think they’re being clever, Nolan lazily names the lead character The Protagonist. He’s a CIA agent played by John David Washington, who’s eventually brought into a highly top secret program called “Tenet.” It’s his mission to keep WWIII from happening and stopping Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from acquiring a series of artifacts that combine to form “The Algorithm,” which is a capable of being a world killer. Tenet is a spy movie which means you can expect globetrotting action, massive set pieces, and a few double crosses. The scope doesn’t disappoint in that respect. But more so than any of Nolan’s pictures prior, it’s missing a human element. Why watch an intentionally confusing 150 minute film full of characters devoid of passion and soul? Why try cracking the vault’s combination when the contents are so underwhelming? I don’t have an honest or compelling answer.
The best performance comes from Branagh as the steely stoic; even though his actions make no sense, he still sells it enough to be believed. Elizabeth Debicki plays the role of his disgruntled wife well, and Robert Pattinson imbues Tenet agent Neil with a soft sense of knowing and purpose. What I was most taken aback by though was John David Washington’s utterly lackluster turn as the leading man. His athleticism heightens the action sequences, but the rest of the film finds him straining questions and forcing answers without an ounce of subtlety. Washington is a charismatic individual and actor, which makes the direction of his role all the more underwhelming. Tenet is an absolute slog of a film, one in desperate need of some lightness and personality, and Washington could have brought those qualities in spades. Instead, he’s as unique and as interesting as anyone named The Protagonist ever could be. Whereas The Matrix was smart enough to rearrange a few letters to form Neo, Tenet instead opts to hammer its point home with one dull Protagonist strike after another. No wonder it’s blinded by double vision.
Tenet is an admirable effort, willing to be the test dummy and self submitted attempt at saving all of cinema in the age of Covid-19, and yet it’s a film that doesn’t articulate its time traveling rules clearly enough, let alone abide by them. So much is reminiscent of the lackadaisical laws in the recent Terminator sequels. In this case though, people and things such as bullets can be inverted via tech from the future, and that is quite literally the extent of my apprehension. Too much time is devoted to teaching us about entropy and how the laws of physics will be bent, but it’s so boring and so blandly illustrated that we learn next to nothing, and it’s pretty much the equivalent of a fancy Powerpoint display constructed by a teacher who has no idea how to make the material stick. I’m not dumb, nor am I brilliant, but I know that Tenet makes next to no sense. It’s a big, bold, beautiful slice of nothing.
“His ignorance is our only protection.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
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