Christopher Nolan continues to achieve an exceedingly rare feat in Hollywood: directing big-budget films while possessing creative carte blanche. His cerebral auteurist vision has generated several critical and financial darlings, with efforts like Inception, The Dark Knight, and Dunkirk reaching a rare level of success. Nolan’s prosperous run hasn’t been without some passionate detractors, with many leveling fair critiques about his lack of emotionality and aggravating style choices (his booming use of ADR often masks essential dialogue). His latest project Tenet showcases the director pushing his trademarks to their limits, crafting a bombastic blockbuster that thrills, yet leaves something to be desired.
Describing Tenet through a simple plot synopsis is not an easy feat, but I shall try my best. The film follows the protagonist (John David Washington), a special forces operative who has been recruited to join a mysterious spy operation. Working alongside Neil (Robert Pattinson), the two look to take down Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian arms dealer harboring a world-threatening device and holding his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) captive. All isn’t quite as it seems though, with the protagonist delving into a mysterious realm of time inversion to save the world outside of real-time.
Tenet is a fascinating beast, as it complicates itself with an endless loop of mind-bending physics while grounding itself in the familiar trappings of espionage thrillers (the numerous James Bond comparisons are spot-on). The plotting’s mechanical nature will frustrate many, but I found the complexities to be endearing in their over-baked nature. For Nolan, this is his means of enhancing the spy formula, conveying the intrigue and deceit baked into every narrative beat through the ephemeral lens of time inversion. Like a great showman, he keeps the audience on their toes while slowly piecing together the narrative puzzle.
His showmanship is also on full display with the film’s visceral craftsmanship. Nolan always directs with a certain grandiosity, a presentation choice that feels tailor-made for the film’s globe-trotting narrative (Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematographer is opulence to the extreme). Every detail is impeccably constructed, with the slick suits, wide-ranging locals, and hard-hitting setpieces all delivered with the director’s typical panache. The time inversion elements add an inventive wrinkle to the action, showcasing a whirlwind of movement that leaves audiences in awe (several scenes had me in disbelief as to how Nolan pulled them off, especially due to the lack of CGI). I’d be remised to forget Ludwig Goransson’s pulsating techno score, which accents these frames with a liveliness that’s rarely seen in tentpole blockbusters. It’s all a true feat in craftsmanship, with Nolan conducting a masterful concoction of technical elements for audiences to embrace.
Tenet is as striking as a big-screen spectacle can get, but the issues arise once audiences dig under the surface exterior. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson certainly enhance their roles with a daft charm and suave confidence, yet none of the character work here feels very inspired. Nolan’s screenplay places the crux of the emotional core on Elizabeth Debicki’s character Kat, who works to regain her strength and independence after enduring an abusive relationship. While noble in its intent, Kat ends up being far too inert and simplistic to render an intimate connection with audiences, continuing Nolan’s struggles to write nuanced female characters. It also feels contradictory to the film’s largely cold and procedural nature. I wish the script went all-in with its steely delivery, which could have served as an apt reflection of spy work’s deceitful nature (Michael Mann’s cold delivery and verbose style in Miami Vice and Heat represent their distinct lines of work perfectly).
I also think Tenet missed the boat on having deeper thematic ruminations. There’s a vague depiction of our Post-911 landscape, as impending threats linger under the surface while governments work vehemently to prevent the unpredictable. Certainly an interesting concept on paper, yet it’s an idea that’s rarely conveyed with depth onscreen, lacking the deft substance of Nolan’s previous endeavors. For a movie that packs several mind-blowing frames and an engaging premise, it’s a shame that Tenet lands with a certain emptiness that restricts it from joining his iconic pantheon.
Tenet is more of a base single for Christopher Nolan, although even his weakest efforts still provide an exhilarating jolt of blockbuster craftmanship.