Great films and stories can grow from ‘high-concept’ premises, and Christopher Nolan’s own INCEPTION is an example of just this. To reach that level, the film needs another focus, whether grand and philosophical or small and personal. TENET, however, ends up something of a Rube Goldberg machine of a film: a wondrously complex set of mechanics that is fascinating, but also an incredibly convoluted way of masking what is, in essence, a thin and poorly executed story.
The film opens on John David Washington’s ‘Protagonist’ taking part in a CIA operation at Kyiv’s opera house. Another masked operative appears to reverse a bullet into his gun during the mission, killing an antagonist and helping the Protagonist. After being captured at the mission’s conclusion, and taking a suicide pill, the Protagonist is awoken and enlisted in a secret organisation – Tenet – fighting a war with future enemies, a fight which uses ‘inverted’ weapons and people to move backwards in time. The future’s operative in the present is Sator (Kenneth Branagh), whose abused and blackmailed wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), is recruited to help the efforts to take her husband down.
To further detail the extensive plot would merely confuse things, since TENET is a film that thrives on momentum more than anything else. To its discredit, the central conceit often robs the film of that momentum. More importantly, this obsession with story mechanics serves to obfuscate character dynamics and motivations.
In the best of Nolan’s other films with fluid concepts of time, there is a personal element to hook onto: an emotional core around which the concepts turn. In MEMENTO, it is Shelby’s grief over his wife, and his spiralling obsession; in INCEPTION it is Cobb’s guilt, and desire to return to his children; in INTERSTELLAR, it is Coop’s love for his daughter. Many strands attempt to provide the same human element for TENET, such as the Protagonist’s protective instinct for Kat, or Kat’s maternal motivations. However, the mechanics are inefficient, generating a lot of heat and noise on the screen, but not a lot of metaphorical light on the characters.
“A car chase is probably the film’s high point, representing the neatest demonstration of the central ‘time-reversal’ concept, coupled with an impressive action set-piece, the mechanics of which are only possible within it.”
A car chase is probably the film’s high point, representing the neatest demonstration of the central ‘time-reversal’ concept, coupled with an impressive action set-piece, the mechanics of which are only possible within it. More importantly, however, the motivations of the Protagonist and Sator – the central players in that sequence – are evident throughout. This clarity of narrative and characters is absent at other points in the film, with the most egregious fog of confusion descending upon the film during the climactic battle.
The story would perhaps find clarity elsewhere if the sound mix allowed the film to pause and breathe. Ludwig Göransson’s music is suitably intense, but also misused; it pulsates over the top of expositional dialogue scenes and interstitial moments that act as plotting signposts. Although Nolan’s least elegant moments on film have often relied on needlessly explanatory dialogue, they often represent pauses to keep us informed of character dynamics and motivations. TENET doesn’t allow for these beats, and the more emotional and philosophical concerns are muffled, both figuratively and literally.
For all its high-mindedness, TENET is essentially a wild theme park ride. For many, that will be enough. However, the more intimate films of Nolan’s recent past will prove more memorable; films where intricate structuring, though sometimes over-plotted or explained, was in service of the character motivations and themes. Some eleventh-hour attempts are made to solidify climate-change themes, but the questions rattling around during TENET are related to precisely how things happen or the logic of causality between events, not what drives those performing them. The performances seem curiously emotionless as a result.
“…the questions rattling around during TENET are related to precisely how things happen or the logic of causality between events, not what drives those performing them. The performances seem curiously emotionless as a result.”
The exception to that is Kenneth Branagh thesping to his maximum as the malevolent Sator. The Hollywood Russian accent is straight out of the cliche pile, but Branagh is a whirlwind of malevolence; a temporal tempest snarling through threatening dialogue. His scenes are also where Nolan finds a tonal groove rather than simple bombast – the close-ups of Sator’s rage-fuelled assertions of dominance building threat superbly in a way that the action scenes fail to do.
TENET represents the clearest example in Nolan’s filmography of structural intricacy suffocating the story. Such a smothering is always a risk in time-travel films, but the best uses of time travel’s logical paradoxes highlight character drama or develop peril. The approach of TENET is the polar opposite of, say, LOOPER, where a time traveller angrily dismisses puzzling over the mechanics in the dialogue.
TENET revels in the creativity of finding a logical way for the likes of a ‘temporal pincer’ movement to play out. However, when it’s unclear why the characters are pursuing those tactics and how they feel about it beyond the ticking clock, time simply drags rather than reverses.