Christopher Nolan is at his best when making cerebral, puzzle-box movies such as briskly paced films like Memento and my favourite, Inception. I also admire his last film Dunkirk, which was technically accomplished, more stripped down, and had a shorter running time. Then we have the stinkers, like the plodding, ponderous Interstellar and the incoherent The Dark Knight Rises, which see Nolan straining for emotion – never his strong suit.
I was excited to see what the mysterious Tenet held in store, hoping I could be objective. Such was my jubilation at being back in the cinema after lockdown that Tenet could have been shots of a man grouting tiles to Hans Zimmer’s score and I’d have been at least semi-exhilarated.
Initially, to my delight, Tenet most resembled Inception. It’s certainly as high-concept. The plot concerns a new scientific breakthrough, “reverse entropy”, which means objects travel backwards through time – bullets return into guns and crashed cars retreat to the road unscathed. Most amusingly, this also means fight sequences between chronological people and backwards-travelling people resemble spasmodic, interpretative dance routines. Naturally enough, this ability has fallen into the wrong hands. Russian oligarch, Andrei Stor (a ludicrously hammy, vodka-swilling Branagh) wants to use this technology to return to the happiest moment of his life before wreaking destruction on the world.
The concept is fascinating and worthy, and all of Nolan’s usual tropes are present – spectacular sequences that are fluidly edited and shot without green-screens, mind-boggling twists and charismatic performances (Pattison and David Washington shine).
But alas, this is no Inception. Nolan’s technique has become a problem here. The foot is never off the throttle, and the overwrought score (this time by Ludwig Göransson, and not Zimmer) never shuts up to allow us to catch our breath and digest the bombardment of information. Trying to follow the plot feels like attempting to cram for a physics exam in the middle of a rave. Don’t get me wrong: the action sequences are incredible and worth the price of admission alone. But such philosophically intriguing ideas could use more modulation in tone and pace. I wish Nolan would stop treating us like insatiable adrenalin junkies once in a while.
I became disengaged because of the over-busyness of Tenet. Every character is like an employee trying to look occupied when the boss comes round, but on fast-forward, like they’ve just binged on amphetamines. The characters aren’t real people, but speed-walking ciphers, rattling off confusing exposition – and good luck hearing them over that thunderous score! One character even chips in some scientific analysis while on death’s door.
So what? you might think. None of this will come as surprise to anyone who remembers enjoying Inception. But while that too was high on cerebral explanations, Cobb’s (Dicaprio) backstory was genuinely affecting and grounded proceedings so they didn’t get too unmoored in pseudo-scientific babble.
No such luck with Tenet’s characters. Sure, a “poignant” backstory to make us care about Stor’s wife, Kat (Debicki) is parachuted in, and the preternaturally talented actress does manage to smuggle in some emotion. But we never settle into her story, because the film must hurtle on to the next (literal) race against time.
Tenet may hold up better on repeat viewings. And part of me admires Nolan’s chutzpah in being so uncompromising on such a scale. He also deserves credit for never underestimating his audience, but, to be honest, I could’ve done with a little more handholding.
Words: Rory Kiberd