Walking home from the theater, I couldn’t help imagining the other people, the cars, and the escalators moving backward.
The impact that Christopher Nolan has had on cinema over the last several years can hardly be overstated. From a storytelling standpoint, his use of heady themes and fringe science in mainstream movies have made it increasingly difficult for even blockbuster action films to get away with being stupid, vacuous spectacle with explosions in place of plot. Visually, his muted palettes and calm environments appear everywhere. And just about every big budget movie trailer in the last ten years has had its own version of the percussive Inception noise (it played your head just now didn’t it?) With Tenet, Nolan continues the theme of time manipulation that he first introduced in Memento and has continued through every film with the exception of Insomnia (that I can recall) and his Dark Knight trilogy. Trouble is that, as with M. Night Shyamalan (another filmmaker who often employs gimmicks), at this point audiences are more accustomed to Nolan’s machinations than we were when Leonard Shelby was forgetting his wife was dead or Dom Cobb was also forgetting his wife was dead. Nolan has already offered so many mindbenders that the audience’s understanding has adapted and reshaped its understanding of cinematic space. Bent once, shape resumes, never.
Before continuing, but I’d like to state right now that while this is a film that should be seen in theaters and NOT pirated at home, if only to support the production jobs that have been impacted so greatly by the pandemic still ravaging America (regardless of what a certain “president” might say), Tenet is also not a movie worth risking your health for. No movie is worth that risk. Be smart. Be safe. You can wait.
While obviously a different film, those familiar with Nolan’s oeuvre will be able to identify several of the recurrent elements including the aforementioned muted color palette and concussive score, a be-suited protagonist, although this time played by John David Washington and not another white guy who vaguely looks like Nolan himself (that part is played by Robert Pattinson), and a running explanation of the world’s rules delivered in short bursts of exposition during set-up for the next extended action sequence. Don’t get me wrong, Nolan is among the best, most stimulating filmmakers in mainstream cinema, but it’s hard to watch Tenet and not immediately rearrange its pieces to imagine Nolan using his post-Inception sensibilities to remake Memento. Problem is that Tenet seems to do less than either of those films in establishing and never violating the rules of its world, complete with its first offered explanation literally ending with “Don’t try to understand it.” Those thrown by the developments of Interstellar will likely have equal problem following Tenet. It also doesn’t help that much of the explanation is delivered through phones, gas masks, and other bits of distortion, with accents, or over that percussive score, all of which makes specific words difficult to understand. I never had trouble deciphering Tom Hardy’s dialog in Dark Knight Returns but almost the entire opening of Tenet sounded garbled. I don’t know if my screening was particularly quiet or if my own hearing has been reshaped by months away from the theater but this was easily the hardest Nolan movie for me to understand just on a spoken level. Dialog isn’t Nolan’s strong suit – although he has many of them – and exact phrasing is often unimportant, but having that general explanation is essential in appreciating his work. It’s surprising that someone as detailed and precise as Christopher Nolan would let such a lack of clarity cloud his vision.
Beyond the various narrative and filmmaking tricks, Christopher Nolan is an outstanding technical director. Even when such things as character and audience connection fail, as in Dunkirk, his sense of pacing, scale, and innovation remain impeccable. While other gimmick-based filmmakers like Shyamalan or, I’d argue, Wes Anderson have little to offer once their mysteries or quirks become clear, Nolan uses his ideas as a springboard for his technical prowess. Like Inception, the greatest joys in Tenet aren’t in dissecting its ideas but in watching how those ideas allow Nolan and his crew to manipulate the space on screen. Although smaller in relation to previous films, the action sequences in Tenet are brilliantly crafted. Even when developments become predictable, the film’s central conceit allows us to experience multiple perspectives of the same events to further enjoy how well exquisite the choreography, stunts, and practical effects truly are. Tenet is an exceptional series of escalating setpieces. Yet, it’s often the space between those pieces where the foundation begins to shake.
As stated, establishing a solid base is vital to any work, especially Nolan’s, so it’s understandable that he’d take time to build up the world before expanding our understanding of it. Unfortunately rather than focusing on its main thrust much of Tenet‘s first half takes us on a tour of how the ultra rich spend their time. Now, upon further viewing or examination, as I’m sure film theorists will dissect Tenet as extensively as any other Nolan film, the intricacies of the first half may become clearer but as a viewing experience separate from outside influence, the film seems to spend a lot of its runtime just getting where we know it’s going. I’ve often argued that Nolan would be perfect for the Bond franchise and, other than a handful of exchanges, the entire first half could have Washington playing 007 and nothing would be any different. This long build up does little to serve a story that’s already teetering on convolution, and the stakes its builds don’t balance with those offered later. When told that an entire world is at risk, one or two people we’ve just met don’t seem so important, especially when those people were introduced as stepping stones to meeting others. The result is that by the time we finally get back to the main plot much of the film’s momentum has subsided, and we’ve reached the inevitable point where logic begins to drift. Since Tenet‘s strength is in how its visualizes the implications of its world and not in establishing that world, perhaps the film could have benefited from Nolan’s own approach from Memento: give us as much before as after. It happens a little, it fits the theme, and it would work. It’s unfortunate that the film’s time doesn’t run that way.
Often storytellers can be tripped up by our own creations, especially when dealing with the intricate subjects Nolan regularly litters his films with. We fall victim of personal fascinations and, when successful, fall into familiar patterns rather than take new challenges. We start to think that our audience follow our lead and never see the tricks we introduced them to. Tenet is a good film, lack of clarity and all, and Christopher Nolan remains a genius filmmaker. His world is immersive enough that walking home from the theater I couldn’t help imagining myself among the escalators, the cars, and the other people, moving backward. Yet he as a storyteller and we as an audience can’t be awed in the same way we were ten years ago. We’ve adapted to his tricks. As with any other object, a mind never resumes shape, once bent.