In an alternative reality, COVID-19 wouldn’t have been a dominating factor in 2020. Cities wouldn’t be ghost towns. The institutions we rely on for our social entertainment wouldn’t have giant-sized question marks on their survival. Social gatherings with friends and family wouldn’t be reduced to digital forms of connection. And TENET, the latest film from Christopher Nolan, wouldn’t be broiled in a ‘back and forth’ discourse as being the ‘saviour of cinema’ during a global pandemic.
The frank answer to this is that it will take more than TENET to save an industry struggling to adjust within a heightened year of grief, turmoil, and loss. For those reading this review, it would be highly irresponsible of me to say ‘yes, go and rush out to cinema to watch the biggest film of the year’ during a global pandemic. Health should always be the priority, and everyone is navigating COVID-19 the best way they can. For someone who wasn’t planning to go back to the cinema until next year, it took baby steps and the necessary precautions to feel relatively safe. But TENET’s sense of ‘timing’ in a disruptive calendar year for film releases feels rather prophetic considering one of its principal descriptions is about looking at the world in a ‘new way’ – something we’ve all been forced to do.
I’ve always considered Christopher Nolan to be a magician – a valid sentiment given the psychological nature of his films. Outside of The Dark Knight Trilogy, his films are a magnification of The Prestige, where every ‘pledge’, ‘turn’ and ‘prestige’ enhances the scope of the elaborate trick by hiding the answers in plain sight. And he remains one of the few directors today who can command an audience’s attention because of his name and can scope an original film without studio interference. But after watching TENET, my thought process has evolved.
It’s based on one scene from TENET where our nameless protagonist (played by John David Washington) visits Barbara (Clémence Poésy), a scientist who briefs him on the effects of inverse technology. Our protagonist begins observing all the cogs and pieces in their neatly assigned drawers, slowly grasping the magnitude of his mission. As if it was ripped out of a panel in a comic book, it bears a striking resemblance to a notable character in comic book history – Dr Manhattan from Watchmen.
It’s almost coincidental that The Manhattan Project gets a ‘cheeky nod’ (so to speak) in TENET aka Nolan’s re-imagining of the 60s Cold War with a sci-fi, spy thriller twist. While it is not a literal comparison, but there’s a synergy between Nolan and the concept of Dr Manhattan. Allegorically, they are either ‘ahead of time’, ‘out of time’ or ‘somewhere else in time’ that it becomes an exploration as to how they see the world. In TENET’s instance, Nolan’s analytical obsession with time is an in-sync plot conversation about its power and who controls it. As an audience, you’re always trying to figure out *where* and *how* did he come up with the idea such as this.
Because TENET is Nolan’s most ambitious, most outrageous, and most complex adventure ever committed to film. It’s vintage Nolan for the high bar that he sets as a director, yet falls short to be considered as his absolute best (and for the record, The Prestige and Inception are for me top-tier Nolan films).
Whether it is isolating effects of lockdown for those who have cautiously ventured back to a cinema screen, but the first half of the film, TENET immediately throws its audiences into the gauntlet without warning. There’s no safety net, protection or build-up for that matter. For any fan of Nolan’s work, this is nothing new. It’s a defined trademark of the director. No matter how audacious the concept is, the expectation is a mutual agreement with the audience – to meet him halfway. But on this occasion, the sensory overload of inverse images and reverse sound is a shock to the system that you’re not prepared for. Or, in other words, your mind is working harder than ever before for everything to make sense.
Putting that Dr Manhattan analogy into context, TENET is a palindromic jigsaw puzzle that is assembling all its components in the correct sequence. It can’t escape the clunky and disjointed feel in how it navigates that process. For instance, there is a heavy dose of narrative exposition, technical jargon and theoretical paradoxes that would melt your mind. It’s relentless in its pacing as it globe-trots around the world in a Bondian-like fashion. And whether intentional or not, the sound mix (to a polarising effect) can lead to missing vital bits of information – or to the harshest of criticisms – not having the faintest idea of what the hell is going on. Like all of Nolan’s films, they’re cleverly designed for multiple watches. TENET is rooted in that ambitious premise that is worthy of the big screen experience. Just like its time-based subject matter given the state of the world we live in right now, it’s a subsequent reminder of why we love event cinema – an experience which has been curtailed due to the pandemic. But the overwhelming density of its subject means there’s a LOT to take in and accept, pushing audiences far beyond expectations or their tolerances (hence the polarising and divisive reviews and opinions).
None of this is a new complaint. The response is reminiscent of Interstellar – it’s either a film that is underrated and harshly criticised or ranked on the same level as The Dark Knight Rises as one of his worst. Heavy exposition is how we collectively got through Inception, where two-thirds of its dialogue was explaining how the convention worked. There’s no middle ground with a Nolan film; each film in his CV is the definition of ‘go big or go home’. But in taking off my rose-tinted glasses, if you’ve been on the Nolan-train for this long, even the best of directors, especially the ones you love and admire, are not above criticism. Without a doubt, this is Nolan’s least accessible film.
The Protagonist: “You wanna crash a plane?”
Neil: “Well, not from the air. Don’t be so dramatic.”
The Protagonist: “…well, how big a plane?”
Neil: “That part is a little dramatic.”
TENET functions as a big-budget, experimental, sandbox adventure film. It takes more of a vested interest in the technicalities of its time-based mechanics and pushing that concept to the ultimate extreme. Nolan thrives off this notion. You only have to see how he commits wholeheartedly to the advancements with IMAX technology that has matched his ambitious drive to deliver the best cinematic experience possible. TENET is the peak of that indulgent brilliance. Jennifer Lame (editor) and Ludwig Göransson (composer) – the fresh additions to Nolan’s filmmaking circle – provide a different texture from the familiar beats of composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith. Hoyte Van Hoytema once again delivers on the immersive cinematography.
It’s hard not to look past John David Washington as Nolan’s answer to a Black James Bond. When the film suggests “It’s time for a new protagonist”, you sense Nolan being acutely aware of the conversation and discourse with Washington embodying the role superbly with a quiet, charming swagger. Washington presents a counterculture response and interpretation as a spy rather than pass off as an imitator. He doesn’t have Bond’s sense of entitlement or fashionable lifestyle; he is made to work for his progress with characters seeing through the veneer of cheap suits and manipulation. His quip about dying old might as well be a shade thrown at Bond’s rejuvenation with every change of actor – Bond locked in time by specific requirements. But considering how the majority of science fiction films are focussed around white male leads, seeing a Black protagonist is part of the reinvention (or afterlife as his journey would deem it so). They’re seen as the heroes of the story instead of what the genre has usually assigned them as – sidekicks or background characters. That is a thrilling sight to see watching Washington stamp his authority on the genre.
Elisabeth Debicki’s strong performance as Kat provides a significant shift away from a classic and much commented Nolan trademark. Again, just like Washington, Nolan is equally aware of those criticisms and at one point, playfully dangles it in front of his audience. While her role is reliant on another Hollywood stereotype where female characters are defined solely as being a mother (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we still want to see female characters explore the full spectrum of their capabilities instead of just a biological one), her character has the strongest narrative out of the three main leads. Kenneth Branagh is equally sinister and vile as the film’s main villain. Robert Pattison is pretty much Nolan in avatar form but proves here he’s more than ‘that guy from Twilight’.
It’s not to say characterisation is absent. There’s just enough to keep it ticking along to reach its objectives. But they are pawns in Nolan’s elaborate magic trick. TENET occasionally struggles to find a balance where its narrative is desperately trying to catch up with the intensity of its high-concept trick. For comparative sakes, Dunkirk gets away with it because characterisation is not its main focal point; it’s the simulation of war that’s on display, and characters are avatars to that experience. Inception is driven by the art of the heist with a man going through a complex grief cycle. But in both examples, that narrative is tightly interwoven into the plot. TENET is the ‘best of both worlds’ in that respect, but the difference this time around is that the character depth is not strong enough to completely invest in their actions. That might have been Nolan’s ultimate point. After all, his work has earned the benefit of the doubt. Each character functions as abstract statements to a somewhat abstract tale of ‘saving the world’. But somehow, it misses a trick itself. And that’s the frustration. It’s a film so close to perfection but loses that interwoven throughput to pull its audiences through the cerebral madness that unfolds.
But what steers TENET above everything else is what it manages to accomplish when the pieces of its labyrinth start to come together. At times, it is breathless, innovative, and mesmerising. At other times, you marvel at how the production managed to pull off the complexity of the stunts. And you know there’s a madcap audacity running through its veins when you’re witnessing a real-life Boeing 747 crashing into a hanger as if Bane was on set to give the production a hand. This is Nolan pulling out the stops with action cinema, and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen.
This thought is very much a presumption, but just like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, TENET has the aura of Nolan’s swan song to his time-driven concept movies. TENET is more akin to a greatest hits tour, a cinematic universe of his own ‘isms’ that metaphorically roll through Nolan’s filmography and trademarks. And in building up to this specific moment in his career, they all collide simultaneously. The ‘Time Runs Out’ poster slogan feels symbolic and self-referential. The contributions of Washington, Debicki and Pattison grow more as deliberate casting choices; the new generation of acclaimed stars – the future of Hollywood.
Occasionally, TENET falters to crystallise all its sophisticated and complex mechanics, but as an enthralling piece of cinema where imagination meets scale and ambition, it is the epitome of Nolan at his best. Despite the flaws and frustrations, it’s very hard not to feel in awe by that spectacle. Seeing a film so unapologetically escapist, so demanding of your attention and so challenging, is a sensation I’ve missed. I can’t stop thinking about it.
As a master manipulator, what Nolan achieves with TENET is that he has bought himself ‘time’. Time for multiple watches. Time for theories and re-examinations. Time from a year from now, two or maybe three, where we look at this film in a completely new context. And if that is the ultimate trick he’s aiming for, then he’s on his way in doing so.
Where does Nolan go next from here? Presumably, if the sentiment is correct, I would love to see Nolan do something smaller, more intimate. But one thing is for sure, Nolan never makes it easy; he wouldn’t be the filmmaker we see today without it.