By Sam Maguire (UK)
Encharged with rescuing cinema amidst such times is no small task, but Tenet’s director Christopher Nolan, with a proven track record of stylish and accessibly cerebral blockbusters, commercially and artistically successful, on the large, sprawling and ambitious scale, seemed to be the man for the job.
Nolan’s style, his playbook, his interpretation of cinema as a visual means of communication is well established, his canon enjoying a consistent sense of identity. The manipulation of time, his pessimism in the institutions of higher power and the belief of man’s righteousness to act without consideration of such institutions binding him.
This is the genealogy of Tenet, we know what to expect, not revolution, but certainly evolution.
After an admittedly quite good opening, we see Washington’s Protagonist un–fussily recruited into the organisation Tenet where the exposition dump establishes the act of inversion, that is, a kind of moving backwards in time. In Nolan’s world of course that means reversing bullets and punches which are “unpunched”.
Coordinating the concept with the Nolan style is the challenge here, perhaps we can expect a braver, more committed iteration of Inception, or if not, maybe a trumped up Memento? Unfortunately we get neither, Tenet is what Nolan’s most voracious critics believed Interstellar or even Inception to be, it is clunkily and boorishly inaccessible, Nolan’s worst sins of cold, scarred men here have graduated into parody, males so blocked off and poorly developed there exists no window that can be opened into Tenet.
Largely wasting the talent of Washington and Pattinson, Tenet squanders their talent within a dizzying array of locations, Moscow, Mumbai, London, the potential rubbed away as dimly lit corridors, gurgling cargo ships and jealously guarded vaults rumble onto centre stage. We get the same unremarkable dull washed out colour palate.
Nolan knows how to stage and time set piece, but the colouring has always been strangely unprovocative, mutedly uninspiring and thoroughly forgettable.
Already well documented is the inexplicable sound mixing, the score ruthlessly overpowering the dialogue, dialogue at one key point, delivered by a character wearing a mask, speaking through a garbled radio, while composer Ludwig Göransson does his best Hans Zimmer impression.
Nolan’s obsessions with urban decay has never been more obvious, like with Inception, Tenet strives to be a high concept film, utilising a plot device that should facilitate a certain pushing of the envelope. But even with its apparent carte blanche, Nolan appears incapable of imagining a fantastic world that doesn’t end up with men stalking the inside of high rise buildings wearing suits as an instrumental score swells into crescendo.
In Tenet this jittery tempo is juxtaposed with wistful, loving shots of Elizabeth Debicki’s character, uninspiringly imprisoned by fear of her husband, played with relish in a quite frankly bizarre performance from Kenneth Branagh.
Debicki is one of too many here scrabbling to find a sense of equilibrium within Tenet, which resembles more a patchwork of tropes, Nolan–isms and clichés than a film crafted with care and attentiveness.
There is too much talent in Tenet not to make the act of inversion, sporadically thrilling, there are some genuinely awesome moments reminiscent of Nolan at his best, the gradually ratcheting up of the tension, the increasing squeeze on the senses as the music blares and the cuts become even more frequent and erratic. Nolan is a master at this in the mass scale, understanding just how long the tension can be built and maintained, just how much air the balloon can take.
Unlike in Inception however, Tenet holds no structure to accommodate such a stretching manoeuvre, the moment when all the pieces are supposed to click is a damp squib, there is no great revelation, or a lurking second and third layer to Tenet to be discovered.