I realise that I’m a year late (or is it early?) to the conversation about Christopher Nolan’s latest and Nolanist movie, Tenet, but I made a stand last year about not going to the cinema when it was clear that my country was opening things back up due to more concern for the economy than, say, human life. Which I felt I had to stick too or be labled a hypocrite blowhard for something other than hating Zack Snyder.
I also realise that it has been available on VOD services for some time, but despite my genuine love for Christopher Nolan’s work (give or take an Interstellar, which was admittedly much more enjoyable the second time), Tenet just didn’t spark my interest. The trailer was typically cool, the cast was impressive, and with Nolan you know that he will do everything in his power to utilise real stunts over CGI. Supposedly, and according to an expensive advertising campaign, Tenet is cinema at its best, but now that I’ve finally seen it, I think I would have to argue the opposite.
Tenet is the type of movie that is in every big director’s career: a movie that is built up of all of the director’s idiosyncracies, themes, and motifs, that ultimately serve to work against the movie itself. Think Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or David Lynch’s horrific Wild at Heart, works that crumble under the weight of their director giving life to every good and bad idea he has, without fear of reprisal from a studio or audience. Nolan is a blockbuster name, one of the few directors (others include James Cameron and Steven Spielberg) who has become so successful in mainstream blockbuster cinema that he’s gone mad with power.
If Dunkirk was Nolan showing everyone that he can make a tight, character-driven, spectacle-heavy and dialogue-lite movie, Tenet is him back to fueling his worst tendancies as an artist. Everything that fans and critics complain about in his work is in this movie: exposition dumps, a distinct lack of emotion, convoluted plot that makes the mechanics seem a lot more complicated as a result, and worst of all, flat characters. The action is still superb – in fact, this may be his best work shooting hand-to-hand combat that didn’t involve Joseph Gordon Levitt Spidermaning through a rotating corridor.
The set pieces save Tenet from being a total bust, but you have to wade through the sludge of the rest of the movie in order to enjoy them; the third act of Tenet, especially, is laughably bad. Every set-piece up to this point is solid with glimpses of spectacular, but the raid on the Russian town that holds the algorithm (just one instance of the inescapably silly jargon in the movie) shows a lack of understanding of blockbuster movie-making that a director like Nolan really shouldn’t be perpetrating. Nolan has forgot that empathising with and rooting for characters that are played by famous actors is much easier when you can see their faces. Instead, Nolan has an army of camouflaged soldiers attacking a location that is a dirty and desolate, with the explosions going backwards and forwards in time meaning that you never know when a hit actually counts. This isn’t Batman, who has a century of iconography as a masked character – the third act is the point to drive the movie home, but there is just not enough to care about when you can’t see these bloody people in the first place.
Then there’s the exposition, and, man, it is punishing. Nolan should have gone back to one of his greatest works, Inception to fix this problem; Inception, by its nature as heist movie in dreamspace, needed a lot more explanation than the ususal blockbuster. Nolan accounted for this by teaching us about the plot as Elliot Page’s Ariadne learns about it. For everything we the audience are told, Nolan gives us a small but interesting demonstration which will seed a bigger development later on in the movie, and an emotional, character-driven response to it. Tenet instead has John David Washington’s Protagonist (no, really, that’s what he’s called) and a bunch of beautifully-dressed functional characters explaining the mechanics of the next set-piece, sounding bored out of their minds while Nolan swings his camera around them and turns the volume up of the dub-step heavy score.
Tenet is boring, and I never thought that I would say that about a Christopher Nolan movie. The action, while good, lacks the immersion that you get when the characters are worth caring about, and the runtime feels twice as long when it’s stitched together with exposition scenes that destabilise the thrill of the action that it’s trying to set up. The movie is a mess, but I’m afraid that Nolan is to successful and influential to see where he failed here. It’s happened before – after all, we are getting multiple Avatar sequels. Someone needs to tell these directors to calm down for the sake of their art and, selfishly, my enjoyment.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Indian Times)