‘Tenet’ or — Welcome To The Palindrome?
(Light spoilers for the first 45 mins of or so of ‘Tenet’)
Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ (2020) is, essentially, a James Bond film. The only problem is ‘Tenet’ is so cold, so diabolical, it’s a Bond film made by Ernst Stavro Bolfeld for the pleasure of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his henchmen, possibly to watch during downtime when planning to take over the world.
So what’s ‘Tenet’ about? According to Christopher Nolan what ‘Tenet’ is NOT about is time-travel; it’s about ‘reverse chronology’ or temporal inversion, reversed entropy. So yeah, it’s about time-travel but they just can’t call it that in case it all seems silly and Christopher Nolan films don’t like to look silly in the slightest, at least, not intentionally so.
John David Washington plays some guy who is attempting to stop an attack from the future because Kenneth Branagh has turned into Biff Tannen from ‘Back to the Future Part II’ (1989). To achieve this he befriends Branagh, thus gaining his confidence, so he can discover more about his dastardly plan for world… something or other. In this endeavor he is aided by Robert Pattinson and some vaguely defined intelligence agencies although it ends up being the bad guy’s wife who might bring about Branagh’s ultimate downfall.
So yeah, there’s a TONNE of James Bond here already with the script pulling in everything from ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989) (Washington and Branagh’s relationship essentially identical to Bond and Sanchez’) to ‘The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) (tracking down and threatening a weapon manufacturer) and an extra heavy dose of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969) (Branagh’s baddie is even introduced with a low camera position with the Sun behind his head, just like Peter Hunt framed Blofeld threatening Campbell in OHMSS). Throw in the suits, exotic travel, explosive action and this is, for all intents and purposes, a Bond flick.
Yet like a gun sucking bullets from a concrete wall it’s a Bond film with all the fun and immediacy extracted out of it and, in its place, the gaps have been plastered over with needless and unenjoyable complexity. The only problem is it’s a fake complexity meaning viewing ‘Tenet’ is often like looking at a plate of spaghetti for almost three hours — sure, it looks convoluted and intricate but it’s only because it’s simplicity mangled about to high buggery.
That in itself isn’t the problem as there’s nothing wrong with keeping the audience on their toes and scratching their heads as to what they’re looking at. The big problem, and ‘Tenet’ has several, is when it tips over into patronisation and condescension almost as though Nolan is expecting us NOT to understand what’s going on. At one point a character says “Ignorance is our ammunition” and “You have no idea what I’m talking about”, except it feels like the movie itself is firing ignorance bullets into the heads of the viewer then giving us a little pat on the head for trying to keep up. This is not an appealing attitude for a movie to take.
But as with ‘Inception’ (2010) we’re not dealing with a terribly deep or complex film, only superficially. Except where ‘Inception’ simply set-up some rules and then let them play out like watching dominoes topple over ‘Tenet’, right up until the last minute, is still introducing new variables, additional stakes and unexpected (and utterly unnecessary) dilemmas. The effect of this is that ‘Tenet’ soon becomes grating and, oddly, predictable.
There’s a fight fairly early on where it’s blinding obvious who the masked opponent is and because of the structure of the plot and the way it deals with temporal flow it doesn’t feel like a film you need to see multiple times to understand because, after so much repetition, it feels like you’ve seen it several times already… because you have.
This can be the fundamental problem with time-travel films in that unless you simply go with it and have fun you get bogged down in the paradoxes and no matter how any times ‘Tenet’ tells us to just go with it or feel not think it you can still feel the movie almost pulling a tendon reaching for self-seriousness and scientific credibility. It wants to have its cake and eat, possibly by eating it then reversing time and eating it again. Either way, I was constantly left wondering where all the shit was going to end up.
The film gets really grating towards the end and it has almost nothing to do with time-travel nonsense but, instead, it’s the basic plotting and human relationship stuff that really confuses and irritates. The prime example is Branagh’s wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who is given role so cliched, one dimensional and lacking in agency (for a chunk of the film she’s simply wheeled about in a gurney so how’s that for a proactive woman) she makes the average Bond girl seem deep and multi-layered. She’s there to be brutalised by her husband then saved by the hero but this involves as much emotional convolution as temporal ones and when you factor in her son, who is held up as the main reason for the prime characters to make seriously big decisions, I found I’d lost complete interest. Why? Because we never once get to spend any time with her son whatsoever, leaving him hanging almost subliminally in the background to be simply a child the film can attempt to manipulate our emotions around. Again, it’s not an appealing attitude for a movie to take.
For me, this is Christopher Nolan’s biggest problem — he gets so much of the big stuff, the spectacle etc, spot-on but he always seems to get tripped up by the earth-bound human aspects. There’s a line of dialogue near the end that quotes ‘Casablanca’ (1942) injected to give some heart but it lands with such a clanging clunk it’s almost as deafening as the bombastic score. I think this might’ve been Nolan attempting emotional intimacy but it feels like someone dropped an anvil on some corrugated iron. Still, he tried.
‘Tenet’ is a film in love with its own complexity which it keeps functioning furiously regardless of the audiences enjoyment even if what’s going on isn’t THAT difficult to grasp. It’s a straight forward spy film that thinks it’s an inverted Bach fugue running in both directions at once. Fleetingly it does work and Nolan’s committed to practical effects should be lauded but his story telling, dialogue, sense of romance or fun feels forced, fake and phony. I think he might have inadvertently sabotaged his own movie.