Thursday 27 August 2020

Film Review: Tenet

After cinema's COVID-induced hiatus, Christopher Nolan's Tenet is the first bonafide tentpole film to entice audiences back to multiplexes – but is the high-concept spy thriller too loopy for its own good?

From rebooting Batman to inverting reality in Inception, British filmmaker Christopher Nolan has spent the last two decades cutting his teeth on audacious action thrillers for an adult audience. And a theme running through his stellar filmography is the concept of time, from the disjointed puzzle pieces of Memento to the intersecting narratives of Dunkirk.

Tenet, in many ways, is the culmination of his career to date. Once again, Nolan is toying with time, in another slick sci-fi action hybrid that features stoic men in sharp suits, surrounded by frigid sets and framed by vast IMAX camerawork. 

But unlike Inception, Interstellar or even Insomnia, Tenet doesn't stick the landing. It overshoots, missing the target by some distance. Dizzying, deafening, acrobatic and asinine; Tenet is a compelling contradiction that is both the best and worst of Nolan's tendencies thrust together into a two-and-a-half hour mess of ideas.

The film is about a secret agent played by John David Washington. After a pulsating prologue that sees Washington's character – known only as 'The Protagonist' – working undercover during a terrorist incident in Kiev, we learn that Tenet is about objects from the future (described as the 'detritus of a coming war') that are somehow travelling backward through time. 

We're assured that this concept is rooted in legit physics and is not at all nonsense, but I'm here to tell you that you're better off just accepting a lot of what Tenet puts out there at face value. Don't think about it, just settle in for the ride – after all, 'ignorance is our ammunition', as one character wryly puts it.

From here, the plot spirals outward to encompass a forged painting, some stolen plutonium, a crashed 747, a Norwegian free port, a foppish British spy (Robert Pattinson) and a sadistic Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and his long-suffering wife (Elizabeth Debicki). 

By the time we've reached the explosive crescendo, Nolan's film (he also penned the screenplay) has some serious mileage on it. Tenet is not a short film by any means, and there's a lot crammed into its 150-minute runtime. Action aplenty, the film bounces from London to Mumbai, Italy and Oslo – but the connective tissue tying the plot together gets somewhat lost amongst the cumbersome science and the unwieldy exposition. 

It definitely doesn't help matters that so much of Nolan's expository dialogue gets lost in the sound mix. Important ideas or developments are often drowned out by Ludwig Göransson's pounding score, making it even harder to follow what audacious act of daring-do that The Protagonist and Pattinson are up to next. 

That said, there's a lot to love about Tenet. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is moody and rich in texture; Göransson's score is too loud, but engrossing and exciting at the same time. Washington and Pattinson are a compelling lead duo, even if the script doesn't service their characters with the same emotional heft that Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConaughey enjoyed in Inception and Interstellar

Tenet isn't lacking for originality. It feels of a piece with Nolan's other work – the natural evolution of a filmmaker who has always favoured spectacle over sparsity. But what it does lack is a gentle guiding hand to steer its captain back to calmer seas that are easier for audiences to navigate. There's a five-star film in there somewhere, crying to get out, but on this occasion Nolan's ambition has come at the cost of adhesion.

The Verdict: 6/10

Don't try to understand it; just feel it. Christopher Nolan's latest is a feast for the eyes, punishing on the ears and a workout for your mind. It doesn't 'click' together in the same way Dunkirk or Inception did; it's large and unwieldy, a gargantuan undertaking that is dense and inaccessible. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, I guess so. I definitely admire it. But did I understand it? I'm not so sure.

Tenet is in cinemas across Australia (except Victoria) now.

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