‘Tenet’: Christopher Nolan’s Time-Bending Thriller Features Mind-Melding Action Spectacle, But Lacks Humanity [Review]

VRRRRRONNNNKKK! That sound you hear is at once the declamatory score to several enormous action setpieces in Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Tenet,” and the sound of “Tenet” itself, crash-landing like a shipping container full of plutonium in the depleted cinematic desert of 2020. HHRRRRRUNNNNNK! 

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“Tenet” is here, and in some senses, it feels right for the times. This is, after all, an itchy, restless, paranoiac film, in which a crew of operatives messes around with the properties of time itself in order to try to avert a worldwide disaster. Perhaps, though, it is the film’s misfortune to arrive during a planetary disaster that feels considerably less slick and urgent than anything on offer here: audiences may find themselves wondering why the film delivers no jokes or why everybody is so immaculately groomed at mankind’s eleventh hour?

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The story, insofar as it can be discussed without enraging spoiler-averse Nolan fans, revolves around a nameless character played (ably, if without much oomph) by John David Washington, who, at the start of the film, is working in a paramilitary unit during an attack on a Kiev opera hall. From here, Washington’s character will be assigned to various missions across the world, alongside Neil (Robert Pattinson, looking far more like a Quentin than a Neil). It soon becomes clear that the pair will have to come face to face with the evil billionaire Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who mistreats his much younger wife, Catherine (Elizabeth Debicki), and has wicked designs on… well… this is where the film gets a bit “physics,” and the plot becomes cryptic to the point of confusion and many audience members will find themselves understandably lost. At any rate, this prompts a great many audacious heists, chases, and fist-fights that twist the laws of time and space.

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Your attitude to the movie’s metaphysical, time-bendy component may depend on your patience towards lines like, “What’s happened hasn’t happened—which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world,” or “One man’s probability of death is another man’s possibility of a new life,” or “We’re the people saving the world from what might have been.” As soon as “Tenet” gets talky, it falters.

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What you’re here for, after all, are the action sequences, which are as phenomenal as expected and mercifully low on dialogue. The scene at the opera is a bold opener, Nolan’s camera reverse-panning back from the action to set the scene, and then whirling in and around the action, amongst the spectators and musicians and fighters, managing to pick out a purpose in the frenzy. Even more extraordinary is a sequence involving a whole plane driving into a warehouse, filmed at first from below to seize the magnitude of the event and then from overhead to capture the full insanity of the stunt. This bravura scene is all the more accomplished for being revisited, later, from another perspective, upending our impressions of what we had been watching. As ever, Nolan’s blending of special effects with real-life derring-do is seamless and pulse-quickening: this helps him devise some quite mind-melting scenes where the ordinary rubs up against the impossible.

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This is big, intelligent blockbuster-making, drawing on gleaming production design and extraordinary locations. Nolan masters his shot selection (although the rhythm of the film is too hectic) and the textures and colors are immaculate, giving us a metal and concrete dystopia, liable to bend or splinter at any time. The sheer mechanics on display here can be riveting: this is a film of hangars, picked locks, cogs, and clunking machinery, and Nolan indulges his fondness for the hypnotism of process

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But throughout all this, the nagging question of what is at stake will not die down. For us to care about the conflict at its heart, and to be invested in its resolution, shouldn’t we give a damn about someone, at least one person, onscreen? How can you create suspense in a world where nobody has a personality? The closest Nolan gets to creating a character is in Catherine, but she is still a wretched attempt at a human. Her motivation appears to be saving her young son, but Nolan barely bothers to show her with him. We simply have to take her maternal love as a given. Sator is given a glimmer of a traumatic backstory, but not a chance at becoming fully fleshed out. Branagh’s inadvertently hilarious performance, complete with a Russian accent reminiscent of a James Bond villain, doesn’t help matters inordinately. The film’s humanity is destroyed by its dialogue: the unblinkingly didactic script (“You’re familiar with the Manhattan Project?”)  would be purgatory for any actor but even more awkward, somehow, is the lifeless, will-this-do quipping. “You did get my pulse above 130. No one’s done that before, not even my wife,” Branagh sneers to Washington at one point. Oh, who doesn’t love a baddie with a Fitbit? 

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The thrill-a-minute aspect of “Tenet” is often to its own detriment. An issue with many action films is the sheer amount of action and spectacle is so overwhelming, there’s no time for the audience to settle in, savor what is presented, and, in effect, enjoy the film. Nolan’s fidgety editing skips breathlessly from one setpiece to the next, with lines of dialogue often spilling from one tightly clipped shot into another, so anxious is he to keep the top spinning. We desperately need a pause; some downtime to counterbalance the exhilaration. This would involve the camera dwelling on a face or some scenery, with love or delight; would involve writing a love affair, or a childhood regret, or a gag. It could be something as simple as a dinner scene that extends beyond one minute. 

“Tenet” is, as breathless as it can feel in its best bits, ultimately, no more and no less than a consummately arranged film about a group of people who arrive, get the job done with enormous skill and at great expense, and leave. “Tenet,” itself, succeeds at a similar mission, and will surely please audiences whose opinions hinge on just how professional and polished a movie is. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for substance and characters to go along with that style, no amount of pseudo-science and time-manipulation is going to help transport you there. [C+/B-]

“Tenet” arrives in select theaters around the world on August 26 and in North America beginning on September 3.