Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite filmmakers to have been around in the last 20 years. When walking into his films, I either will leave ecstatic right out the gate as I did with “The Prestige” or later appreciating a movie far more than I initially did with “Dunkirk.” Maybe my future self will admire “Tenet” more than I do now. Meanwhile, the present me left the theatre with a bewildering headache. The ultimate sin Chris Nolan commits is his usage of sound mixing. No matter what his artistic excuse maybe, if I can’t understand the dialogue in the film, how can I engage with its story? Imagine if “Dunkirk” was loaded with crucial conversations that are critical to an incredibly complex narrative. Could you understand anything anyone was saying in that film? If you did, then you deserve to be a stenographer.
Halfway into “Tenet,” I was wondering when the film would end since I couldn’t follow what the hell was going on. To make matters worse, some of the essential expository information is told by Priya (Dimple Kapadia) in a thick accent. The spoken word aside, Christoper Nolan has run low on his time tricks. Dating back to “Memento,” Mr. Nolan was an absolute master at manipulating time in his films. Aside from his “Dark Knight” trilogy, time is a tool that Chris plays with an expert watchmaker’s craftsmanship. Sometimes his illusions within the narrative are almost unnoticeable; others it’s intricately interwoven into the story; here, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The entire point of the film is inversion. Time moving forwards and backward simultaneously, hence the movie’s title. If this sounds confusing, then Chris Nolan will make sure that you’ll watch his film multiple times because he wants you to. The idea is to spot the clues upon each viewing to overlook the thinly veiled James Bond-inspired plot. Taking the time travel element out of “Tenet,” the story is simple, a bad guy has a doomsday device that will trigger armageddon, so the good guy has to stop him. Everything else is how each event unfolds out of continuity but comes to a full circle in the end. It’s no secret that Nolan is a huge fan of James Bond. Trying to rekindle his fondness when viewing “The Spy Who Loved Me” as a seven-year-old, Mr. Nolan has been inching closer and closer to that very influence until he made his filmmaker stamped version of the infamous spy with “Tenet.”
“Tenet” is the movie a filmmaker makes when fishing for old ideas without any new ones. He reaches into his old bag of tricks to grab out what has worked before, resulting in an overly familiar package. Manipulation of time? Check. Epic action opening sequence leaving a series of questions later to be answered? Check. Intricately detailed, informative dialogue? Check. Bombastic score? Check. Although maybe not predictable, it’s a Christopher Nolan movie where you’ll get precisely what you like but nothing more.
In making John David Washington’s character Chris’ Americanized version of James Bond, the young actor brings the physicality but no real depth or presence. That’s not entirely Washington’s fault as there’s nothing about his character to latch onto within the screenplay. He’s supposed to be sophisticated and cunning like Bond. But there’s nothing to care about; there’s no goal driving the character on a personal level. What I can say is maybe Mr. Washington’s fault is that he’s just flat in the film. Aside from his athletic prowess, there’s no charisma in his words. Everything he says sounds almost as if he’s reading from a script!
The supporting cast, on the other hand, is mostly fantastic. Robert Pattinson, as Neil seems like the type of brandy sipping smooth British agent that I don’t know, James Bond may be like. Kenneth Branagh is shockingly convincing as a psychotic, terrifying Russian terrorist. Lastly, Elizabeth Debicki brings an incredible amount of vulnerability in her role as Kat. Everyone blends so well except for the lead. That’s most unfortunate, considering several blockbusters are written for a white protagonist in mind.
The spectacle of “Tenet” is enormous, as you may expect from a Christopher Nolan picture. The usage of film stock is something that can only be witnessed on a classic 70mm projector. The sound will shatter your eardrums, and the practical effects are mesmerizing. Finally, Christopher Nolan has learned how to direct action. Nobody looks like they’re play fighting like they were in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Each brawl is expertly choreographed. The extensive set pieces are breathtaking. When the 747 jet crashes into a hanger, it is done for real. When people are fighting backward, they’re actually fighting inversely. Chris Nolan’s stubbornness pays off immensely when it comes to his insistence on rarely using computers. Indeed the audience can tell when it’s real. I wish the director would display some restraint when it comes to releasing his film in theatres.
Why not release “Tenet” on-demand then bring it back to theatres when it’s safe? Ironic that Mr. Nolan has made a film about saving the world while delivering his movie during what seems to be the apocalypse. “Tentet” requires repeat viewings, so take advantage of that. Why make going to the cinema a life or death proposal? Why polarize himself? Another avenue Christopher Nolan could rediscover is his control in subtlety.
I miss the old Christopher Nolan movies. The movies that were scored subtly by David Julyan before Hanz Zimmer came in with his army of drums or Ludwig Göransson with his synthesizer. I miss Wally Pfister’s colorful naturalistic cinematography. Everything Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots is blue, attributing to Nolan’s color blindness. I miss the quiet presence his older films contained where the thrill was in the narrative’s pacing. I remember when Christopher Nolan movies were small in scale but large in rewatchability. I haven’t seen that Christopher Nolan since 2006 with “The Prestige.” I still very much admire his newer work. I’m one of the strongest defenders of “Interstellar.” However, somewhere along the way, Christopher Nolan has gotten lost in the financial and creative freedom that Hollywood has given him.
Being the Bond fan that he is, maybe Chris just needed to get “Tenet” out of his system. For its intricate plot, I’d be happy to see it once more. Perhaps twice or three times. When available at home, of course. Going to the theatre right now is scary, although I trust the venue I saw it in. “Tenet” isn’t a bad movie by any means, but I know Christopher Nolan is capable of so much more as an adroit storyteller. I want the classic Christopher Nolan again. Like Cob speaking to Saito when in limbo during “Inception” “come back, Christopher, come back.”