“Does your head hurt yet?” … “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Key characters in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” utter those lines in the director’s latest jigsaw puzzle gussied up as a feature film. The meta moments land for all the wrong reasons.
For those who found “Inception” too knotty, too obsessed with explaining itself “Tenet” will be a cinematic torture chamber. For everyone else, “Tenet’s” brief but memorable highlights will be lost in a sea of narrative muck.
This is the movie we waited all summer to experience? “Tenet” is so very, very 2020.
The mystery behind “Tenet,” in a way, remains even after you’ve endured it. John David Washington stars as the Protagonist, a CIA agent who takes part in a bravura, and bewildering, opening sequence. Terrorists have overwhelmed a Ukrainian opera house, and our Protagonist is one of the dozens of armed fighters attempting to take out the terrorists.
Nolan deposits us in that opera house, our pulses racing along with the various characters as we try to suss things out.
Confusion sets in within the first few minutes of “Tenet,” and it’s not all bad. There’s a mystery afoot, and we’re deep inside Nolan-land so there’s an instant level of trust. The visuals stun, the cameras swoop to majestic effect and the sonic tapestry makes even rudimentary scenes pop … at first.
We soon learn a bit more about the unfolding story. It concerns World War III, or something akin to it, and a mad billionaire who holds the world in his grip. It’s up to Washington’s character, and a fellow spy played with panache by Robert Pattinson, to prevent the end of, well, everything.
That’s just a thumbnail sketch, one leaving out the film’s signature gimmick. Think time travel on a microscopic scale.
Nolan teases this element at first, employing it to both bend our minds (done and done) and spice up an otherwise ordinary fight sequence. The auteur leans more heavily on the device as the interminably long movie unfolds.
The final action sequence is completely incomprehensible. Does Nolan even care?
Through it all, his signature touches keep our interest -- barely. His casting choices remain spot on and oh so very zeitgeist-grabbing. Elizabeth Debicki makes the most of a critical role, albeit one with little emotional resonance.
She loves her child and will do anything for him. Whoa … whoever thought about using maternal instincts as a plot point? This Nolan fella is on to something!
Washington suffers a similar, disappointing fate. You can see why the rising star could be an ace action hero. He’s unflappable here, dishing out violence like his pappy in his prime (or two years ago). What he isn’t, alas, is a character. We know nothing about him, nor does he seem to have any discernible flaws that might make him interesting.
Maybe Nolan doesn’t care about characters. They’re essentially but pawns in his, “OMG my screenplay is even crazier than I thought!’ prime directive. It’s exhausting. And while a few smart lines emerge so do absolute clunkers, some laugh-inducing or doused in cinematic tropes.
You’re often distracted by the visual smorgasbord engulfing the screen -- better served in IMAX, but still a narrative Neutron bomb.
Like “Inception,” “Tenet” characters spend gobs of screen time explaining to us, and each other, what’s happening. That’s a rookie screenwriting tic that Nolan can’t stop repeating.
— Film Mavens (@FilmMavens) August 28, 2020
Time travel is always tricky to capture, filled with plot holes and logic chasms. Who can even start tracking what’s right, or wrong, with those elements here?
Kenneth Branagh wolfs down the gorgeous scenery as a Russian baddie who, at the very least, commands our attention. He’s the most fully realized soul on screen, hardly a great sign when the cast is flush with fine actors trying to make a mark.
We get the obligatory Michael Caine appearance -- this time a short but puckish cameo -- as well as other flourishes like a throbbing, in your face score. It’s part of the presentation, an audacious attack on our senses that keeps us off balanced and intrigued.
For the first quarter of the film you’ll be leaning forward in your chair, eager to suss out the crackpot story oozing from Nolan’s noggin. There’s even a Bond-esque vibe lurking around the edges, but Team Nolan strips his story of human trappings.
And, once again, we’re straining to hear what’s spoken throughout the film. Blame the gas masks worn by several characters during the story. Still, after the Bane Incident of 2012 you’d think Nolan would know we need to hear every syllable for a chance to make sense of it all.
Then again, what could possible clear up this 2 hour, 31 minute smoke bomb of a movie.
HiT or Miss: “Tenet” is a feast for the senses, one that actively alienates viewers with its pea soup narrative and cardboard characters.