Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey
Tenet represents the best and worst part of the cinema experience. After an extended hiatus from the big screen, it seems fitting that Christopher Nolan’s latest twisty-turny thriller is the blockbuster being used to entice people back into the theatre.
On the one hand, this film has all the ingredients to be a massive success. The musical score is epic, the action sequences breath-taking and the 2.5 hour run-time zips by at an incredible pace. However, for every positive aspect, this film also brings with its own issues that are hard to look past.
For one, that aforementioned pacing is far too frenetic to really understand the full narrative the first time around. Despite scribbling a litany of notes in the dark, I – like many others I presume – came away from this more than a little confused.
The other problem comes from the audio. I’m not sure what happened but the sound mixing is atrocious. Dialogue is muffled – partly thanks to close-up scenes of masks and breathing apparatus obscuring the mouth – and the score distractedly bleeds into speech. Whoever sound mixed this picture was clearly working from home.
Tenet’s key ideas are difficult to explain without spoiling large parts of the story. While watching however, I found myself drawn back to Doctor Who’s monologue surrounding time in the excellent episode, Blink. For those unaware, the monologue goes like this:
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”
Timey-wimey indeed; Nolan’s wibbly wobbly thriller plays with these ideas of cause to effect constantly. It’s big, bold stuff and all of this is projected through the inclusion of inverted objects.
What begins as a simple idea of catching bullets and stealing paintings, soon progresses to a concept so horrific and mind-bending that – if complete – could cause the end of everything, everywhere, forever. A total collapse of time itself. No pressure then.
The protagonist tasked with trying to prevent this happening is John David Washington who takes on the role of… well… The Protagonist. Alongside his trusty partner Neil the two begin with a scene that borrows heavily from The Dark Knight. An opera is invaded by armed police and as bullets rain down, all of this crescendos into an explosive finish.
It’s a breathless, adrenaline-soaked opener and when we’re given space to catch our breath, the main narrative comes into view. I won’t spoil anything here but the gist of this ties elements of a heist together with an apocalyptic countdown. Despite the big, bold ideas, most of the film’s screenplay follows the usual narrative highs, including a big battle at the end.
Thematically at least, Tenet has a lot going for it and this intricate puzzle box really benefits from repeat watches. Only, instead of films like Butterfly Effect, Inception or Coherence, this film feels intentionally designed to force you back into the cinema in a bid to understand what you’ve just watched.
This is, of course, different from an intentional foreshadowed bite of dialogue or an Easter Egg notices a second or third time around. This will inevitably split the movie-going community in half. After all, why should someone spend double the money to understand something they should the first time around?
This task is made all the more difficult by the sheer lack of empathy toward characters. The Protagonist is a nameless mystery and his lack of back-story really makes it difficult to warm toward him. More of why is explained later on but I can’t help but feel even red herring nods to a life once lived would have been welcome.
Neil is about as close to an empathetic character as we get here and even then, he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to tie to his past.
Lending a feminine ear to the group is Kat, who winds up integral to the main narrative. She’s enslaved to her oppressive and overbearing husband Andrei Sator. Thanks to his sway over their son, Kat starts to lose all hope. That is, until The Protagonist arrives and promises to save her.
Out of all the characters here, she’s the one who has the best arc and the more emotional segments in the movie.
Ultimately though Tenet feels like a “Greatest Hits” picture stitched together by various different films to form a familiar yet distant patchwork. There’s shades of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who era, Inception, Interstellar and even Looper at work.
The ensuing cocktail is something that’s both bitter and sweet. Too strong and too weak. And ultimately something that never quite hits Nolan’s high notes.
Having watched Tenet twice and done a fair amount of research online, it’s fair to say this is not one of Nolan’s strongest films. It’s a picture that almost radiates an air of pretentiousness and relies far too heavily on its (admittedly excellent) set pieces to drive the film forward.
When it comes to the final conflict you’ll either be fully checked out or fully invested in the story. There really is no two ways around it – this is going to be a very polarizing film for a lot of people. After all, there’s a reason The Guardian has three reviews up for this with wildly different scores.
Despite its ambitious reach, this is one movie that overreaches a tad too far. Props to Nolan for the ambition though and one of the cinema’s best aspects comes from its desire to push boundaries and try new things.
Ironically though, this is actually a movie that perhaps would have served better as a VOD title. The ability to throw subtitles on wouldn’t go amiss and there’s enough Easter Eggs and puzzle pieces to almost necessitate a second viewing. Only, should you really have to invest another 2.5 hours into this to get the full picture? Only time will tell.