Tenet Review: Is Christopher Nolan’s Latest Time-Bending Film Any Good?

Last month, I wrote about the James Bond franchise’s influence on the films of Christopher Nolan.  I highlighted some of the direct Bond homages found in films like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and I mentioned that many critics have already pointed out the similarities between the Bond formula and Nolan’s highly-anticipated film Tenet, which follows an undercover CIA agent (John David Washington) on a globetrotting mission to save the world using time inversion technology.  As a fan of both the Bond series and most of Nolan’s movies, I was very excited by the opportunity to experience the film at a drive-in theater last week.  Unfortunately, I left the drive-in with questions, nitpicks, and a general sense of disappointment.  Tenet is, in many ways, Nolan’s most ambitious and unrestrained cinematic vision, but I’m not so sure that’s for the best.

This is the most convoluted film he’s made so far, and as with some of his previous films it requires constant attempts to communicate the complexities of its premise.  However, unlike Inception and Interstellar, Tenet never really succeeds in explaining any aspect of the scientific mumbo jumbo that drives the plot.  The dialogue is incredibly awkward, even by Nolan standards, and it’s bogged down by exposition that never really manages to clarify anything.  When Clémence Poésy’s character says “Don’t try to understand it…Feel it,” it really feels like Nolan’s way of telling the audience that he’s not too interested in explaining the mechanism by which temporal inversion works, and that we should just shut up and enjoy the ride.  During Tenet’s promotional tour, even the actors seemed to struggle to understand what’s going on in their own movie.  This failure to clearly establish the rules of the world is why the first hour and a half just didn’t work for me.  Without a solid understanding of the central premise, the plot is borderline incomprehensible.

Aside from the awkward dialogue and confusing premise, the acting is generally okay.  John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki are all pretty good, although there’s a dearth of character development.  The characters receive information and react to it, they go through the motions of espionage and revenge, and in the end they accomplish their mission, but they never seem to experience any personal growth.  Washington’s character doesn’t even have a name, for gosh sakes!  He’s referred to exclusively as The Protagonist for the entirety of the runtime, which just feels overly pretentious on Christopher Nolan’s part.

The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

Another problem I had with the film is that Nolan fails to take full advantage of the various locations featured in the film.  The characters travel the globe, from Mumbai to Oslo to the Amalfi Coast, but instead of devoting any time to the beautiful scenery, most of the major dialogue and action scenes seem to take place in nondescript rooms, in undecorated hallways, or on unremarkable roads.  If you’re going to make an homage to the Bond series, you’ve got to understand that the best Bond films are cinematic travelogues, highlighting the beauty, culture, landmarks, and mystique of each location.  Nolan isn’t interested in doing any of that.  He’s more cerebral, more internalized, and that’s why so many of his most iconic scenes and set pieces take place in rather unexceptional, indistinguishable interior spaces.  That strategy doesn’t fit the Bond formula, and that’s why certain sequences fall so flat in Tenet.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so completely critical.  I did enjoy the last hour or so of the movie, and the inversion scenes are cool to look at, but overall this film was a disappointment compared to other Nolan movies.  Tenet is, like so many of his previous films, a big idea movie.  He has structured the entire film around the sci-fi concept of time inversion, just as Inception was structured around the idea of shared dreams.  In both films, every conversation and every action sequence is designed to remind audiences of the implications of these concepts.  But whereas Inception’s dream technology inspired me to imagine more sci-fi possibilities, Tenet left me wishing I could reverse time and stop myself from watching it.  I didn’t understand it, and I definitely wasn’t feeling it.

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