New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN MUDDLES HIS FAVORITE MOTIFS IN “TENET”

Original caricature of the cast of TENET by Jeff York (copyright 2020)

 The motifs that filmmaker Christoper Nolan loves are evident throughout his latest epic TENET. There’s a tenacious hero similar to those in MEMENTO and THE DARK KNIGHT, a twisty plot playing with physics like in INCEPTION and INTERSTELLAR, and rug-pulls played close to the vest like the ones in THE PRESTIGE and DUNKIRK. Even Nolan’s beloved “good luck charm,” veteran star Michael Caine, makes his 7th appearance here for the director. But unlike most of those previous Nolan cinematic successes, this one gets bogged down two-fold. First, it comes close to feeling like the filmmaker is parodying himself, and worse, he struggles mightily with narrative coherence. TENET has some great set-pieces, a game cast, and a compelling premise, but the parts are better than the sum.

The biggest problem occurs with that compelling premise. The Protagonist (John David Washington), yep that’s what he’s called here, is lured into a caper by the CIA that involves no less than a world of spies, arms dealers, double-crossing allies, the threat of world extinction, and a time/plane continuum that would curl Doc Brown’s hair. The threat from the future has to do with powers-that-be from then who want to affect the past for their own benefit. We never find out exactly who these overlords are, but they seem to want to meddle in everything from wars to arms profiteering.  

It’s a clever time-traveling premise, sure, but it’s not that original. After all, such time travel narratives have been popping up onscreen for decades and decades with some very memorable protagonists along the way like Rod Taylor in THE TIME MACHINE, Michael J. Fox in BACK TO THE FUTURE, and Bill Murray in GROUNDHOG DAY, just to name three. Nolan is clearly in love with his take on the tried-and-true trope and spends oodles of time having characters explain throughout that much of his screenplay becomes positively boorish.  

Wasting that much time on exposition is never a good idea, just as it is asking for trouble to call your main character “The Protagonist.” If Nolan had just let the modern-day characters interact with all their past and present versions, it would be a lot more fun. Who really needs the quantum physics explanation? And who needs it over and over again? 

It’s a shame too because when the story plays like a time-traveling James Bond movie, it’s a ton of fun. There’s a megalomaniac villain named Andrei Sator played with sly menace by a bearded Kenneth Branagh. Sator’s moll is a tall, cool drink of water named Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a Bondish girl who could give Honor Blackman a run for her money. And Washington’s tenacious, determined spy even has a Felix Leiter-esque partner in British intelligence agent Neil (Robert Pattinson, having a blast throughout the romp). It’s fun to see Washington and Pattinson run around and fight the bad guys in their slick, Savile Row wardrobes too, but watching them stop to chaw over the latest plot points isn’t one of the film’s strong suits.

At one point in the film, a character tells another one that it’s best to be ignorant about all that’s happening within these crossed planes and multiverses. Perhaps that’s a sly in-joke pf Nolan’s making, one as self-conscious as giving your film’s hero a name like “The Protagonist.” Washington even brings up such status a second time in the film, suggesting that Nolan didn’t trust us to get his joke the first time. If you’re going to be a cheeky Brit, no need to guild the lily.

There’s a lot to be enjoyed here if you don’t think about it too much. A gonzo car chase with one car chasing another whole going backward down the highway is a hoot and a half. Additionally, Nolan cleverly riffs on all those bombastic endings in the likes of 007 climaxes like the one in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Debecki has real movie star grace and presence, Branagh’s surprisingly deft at portraying an absolute rotter, and God knows Pattinson sure can brood and wear a scarf with panache. As always, Nolan trots out eye-popping visual effects too in scene after scene, but all those great parts don’t quite add up to a cogent thrill ride. 

Is Nolan trying to out-do himself, going for more complex adventures each time out now to the point of over-thinking things? Or doesn’t he know when to leave well-enough alone? DUNKIRK was very strong and didn’t need Nolan’s self-indulgently hauling out a cheesy, timing twist in the third act. Matthew McConaughey’s ride through space in INTERSTELLAR was already one helluva mind-f**k before Nolan starting laying on the Kubrick cosmic library schtick. And here, he drains the fun out of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s quippy military man by loading him down with way too much third act exposition. Less is almost always more, even when it comes to cinematic virtuosity, and it’s high time Nolan realizes that. 

(PERSONAL NOTE: I saw the first public screening of TENET at Chicago’s landmark Music Box Theatre and it was a wonderful experience. Safe, respectful, and enjoyable from the beginning to the end. Not only did the managers there get one of only seven 70 mm prints to show, but they enforced social-distancing and mask-wearing with great calm and authority. I’m still wary about COVID-19 and congregating in public, but if everyone was as thorough about it as the staff at The Music Box Theatre, we’d finally flatten this damn curve.)

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