One of the most awaited films of the last few years, and the film that was prophesied to single-handedly save the cinema industry from the global pandemic, was Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender: Tenet. The film finally released in India a couple weeks ago, leading me and my family to venture, for the first time in almost 9 months, to a basically empty theatre in order to give it a watch in the way that Chris Nolan would heartily approve of. Tenet is hard to pin down to a genre, but sci-fi action seems to be the closest one could get. It follows a protagonist (the only name we ever know the lead character by) as he navigates a plot to end all of time armed with a word – Tenet – and the knowledge of a time-inversion technology that reverses the entropy of people and things, making them experience time backwards. The film stars John David Washington as the Protagonist, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, and Dimple Kapadia among others. It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Okay full disclosure: I’m writing this after having seen the film once. I haven’t watched any “explained” videos or anything like that, this is a review of a first time watch without the benefit of multiple viewings like I’ve had for Inception, for example. As such, I’m guessing there are a ton of things, little details that have undoubtedly mind-blowing implications, that completely went over my head.
All in all, Tenet was a lot smarter than it was good. The concept and the ideas are really quite extraordinary, more or less what we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s work. The syntax of it is extremely well written, it would have to be, in order to convey the conceptual background of the film. There are some unanswered questions about the rules of inversion, just like there are some things left unexplained about the rules of dreams and limbo in Inception. It was odd to see Nolan actually fall back on a line like “don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” or something to that effect. It sort of works though, some of the realities of inversion end up being kind of intuitive, harder to explain than it is to understand. That said, there are straight up rules that go unexplained. They never really explain how the glass in the adjoining rooms with the turnstiles are able to show the two directions converging on one point (or maybe they did and I didn’t catch it), for example. All in all though, the concept was well explained and really, really cool, making consistent sense as far as the larger picture is concerned, even when you just need to accept some of the minute details.
But there’s a serious problem with this film. Chris Nolan’s received criticism in the past for not knowing how to do rounded characters with emotional depth. Tenet is, I’m afraid, his most extreme example of that. For all the brilliance of the concept, the narrative of this film just doesn’t hold up. Kat’s character is extremely shallow and underdeveloped, and her relationship with her son, which basically the fulcrum of the entire narrative, might be the single laziest piece of relationship writing I’ve ever seen. Exactly no time is given to establishing a real connection there, save for one scene outside his school, where Debiciki, who was either badly miscast or wasn’t given enough on the page for her to work with, doesn’t come across as close to genuine. My heart needed to ache for her, and it completely didn’t. It wouldn’t have been such a massive problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the story hinges on her. The Protagonist and Neil (Pattinson) sacrifice a lot for her benefit, to keep her alive and to protect her life with her son. If they’d given her some proper depth, or if there had been some real connection between her and the Protagonist, it would’ve been fine. As it stands, however, a ridiculous weight is given to simply the existence of an unsold mother’s love and an aggressively ambiguous relationship between her and The Protagonist. What was salvaged from it was thanks to a strong performance from Kenneth Branagh; he was convincing enough as a douchebag, which made you feel for her predicament, but the relationship with her son remained superficial.
Branagh wasn’t the only good performance; the acting level was generally at quite a high level for a Nolan script. John David Washington does a stand-out job as the Protagonist, he gives a character that risked facelessness an honest perspective, and he’s easy to root for. Pattinson’s character probably had the most on the page as far as depth goes, and he certainly made the most of it (the last scene of him going back to join the blue team after saving the world once already, the goodbye scene, for want of a better term, comes to mind specifically as an example of his doing a great job communicating a history between him and the Protagonist he knows). Dimple Kapadia and Michael Caine do their thing well; not acting per se, but grasping the cadence of Nolan-exposition well (something Caine knows how to do pretty well by now). The only really poor example that comes to mind is Debicki, who just wasn’t given enough to work with. Her character is what drags the overall quality of this film down massively, and it’s a real shame that, given the weight her character has over the narrative, some more time couldn’t be given to providing her with some real emotional roots, particularly with her son.
What keeps the narrative engaging, in spite of the poorer character work, is still the concept. The hooks of the idea keep the story afloat. An ever-so-slightly vague doomsday plot aside, the stakes feel real and the flow of events is extremely engaging. There are a couple flaws, some of which are actually addressed. The Protagonist even asks Neil if the fact that they were even fighting this fight meant that they succeeded. The fact is, Neil’s dealt with the future version of the Protagonist at this point, so he should definitely know they succeed, if not in so many words (ignorance is ammunition and all that. It’s actually a pretty good line, and a good idea. That and the “what’s happened has happened” line that reoccurs. Strong ideas that root the story in something). There’s also the issue of the Grandfather Paradox, which The Protagonist and Neil tackle head-on in one of the several exposition-dump scenes (the same one as the previous example, in the cargo hold on their way back to Oslo after inverting). They make it so you can understand the intent of the future, you can see that they don’t have much more by way of options, but it still feels like a little bit of a Hail Mary. Seems kind of funny that a future that figured out how to invert time couldn’t figure out space-travel. The parallel with Sator was interesting though, and I really appreciate the irony of the fact that Sator’s chosen mode of suicide wouldn’t have done the job anyway. I wish he’d done it, it would’ve been a hell of an ending, although it would’ve deprived Kat of the one modicum of depth she had in the diving woman image. I suppose the knowledge that it would’ve been ironic will have to do, but it would be a lot easier to get over if Kat hadn’t jumped the gun and shot Sator early, which is, without a doubt, the biggest issue I had with this film. The dialogue she had with The Protagonist afterwards, where she says “I knew you’d find a way,” was just infuriating. As far as she knew, she’d just destroyed all of time out of frustration. It just doesn’t demand sympathy.
I haven’t touched on the music and the visuals much yet. The score is roughly typical of a Chris Nolan movie: beautiful in moments, overbearing often. You have to give it some credit, it certainly makes for a tone and an urgency. It does get a bit much every now and then, though. The visuals are very interesting, more interesting, I think, than any other Nolan film I’ve seen. I don’t know how hard or otherwise it might’ve been to achieve, maybe it was just reversing footage or something, I know very little about editing and visual effects, but it was really cool to see. Things like the boat that was moving backwards, against the waves, and the inverted fight sequences, etc. were really cool visuals that backed up the concept well.
The bottom line with Tenet is something I’m going to repeat: it was smarter than it was good. The concept and ideas were up to Nolan’s standard, but the narrative elements were, on this outing, the laziest I think I’ve ever seen from him. A good cast has always propped him up when he needed it in the past, after all, a similar criticism can and has been levied against Inception. In this case, while some of the cast were able to salvage their characters, some simply weren’t. Whether that’s the fault of poorer acting or if there just wasn’t enough of anything on the page, the result is the same, and that’s this films fatal flaw. I should reiterate that I’ve just seen it the once, after a few more re-watches to solidify my understanding of the film I might have a changed view. As a general view of Nolan’s work, I’ve never been sure that a film that needs to be seen a handful of times before its understood is an example of good storytelling, no matter how brilliant the final picture is. That said, the only film to which that’s actually been applied to before was Inception, which I honestly don’t remember my first view of, and this, which I think I understood pretty well on the first time around. If that turns out not to be true, I’ll just have to update this page after once I realise.
Until then, My view on Tenet is just, once again, that it’s a lot smarter than it is good (if it ain’t broke, I suppose), and is ultimately kept from greatness by alarmingly lazy character work. That said, it is still superlatively smart and intriguing from a conceptual standpoint, and absolutely worth watching.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 77/100