Current Issue #487

Film Review:
Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s cerebral epic was originally intended simply to out-Inception Inception, but now, in the age of COVID-19, it’s become the hallowed movie that, it’s hoped, will save the industry.

Endlessly delayed, rescheduled and fretted over, this is finally being released in a considerably more staggered way than usual for such a 150 minute, $200-million-dollar-plus, name-cast blockbuster, with Australian audiences amongst the first to see it. And wonder what hit them.

While Nolan’s Inception and Interstellar were infamously tricky yet made a certain sense if perhaps viewed more than once (although a ‘correct reading’ of both isn’t entirely necessary, of course), this goes further and tries for what is, essentially, a frustratingly intricate tale of time travel – albeit time travel of a particularly convoluted and baffling kind. And, crucially, it both lacks the grace and emotion of Inception and the philosophical beauty of Interstellar and, in the end, winds up feeling a little cold.

An unusually abrupt (and, for Nolan, loud) opening sequence depicts a terrorist attack in Kiev, and it’s here that we meet the unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington, Denzel’s son), who’s assisting with the CIA operation. A few jarring scenes later and he’s been rescued by some secret organisation headed by Victor (Martin Donovan from Nolan’s remake of Insomnia), who’s the first to helpfully (or maybe not) use the magic word ‘Tenet’.

In the manner of this director’s beloved James Bond pics, the Protagonist whisks off to get some crucial info about guns that go ‘gnab gnab’ instead of ‘bang bang’ from a scientist named Laura (Clémence Poésy), whose function in the plot recalls ‘Basil Exposition’ in the Austin Powers comedies. He also travels to India with the enigmatic Neil (Robert Pattinson, always relishing the chance for weirdness), where formidable Hindi star Dimple Kapadia’s Priya has some relevance or other to what’s going on.

A potentially fake Goya painting also leads the Protagonist, by way of a London lunch with Sir Michael Crosby (briefly played by Nolan’s favourite actor, and no need to Google him), to tormented art expert Kat (Australian Elizabeth Debicki), who lives in fear of her unprecedentedly dangerous Russian husband Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, also in Nolan’s Dunkirk and putting on a restrained accent). And, while technically you’d expect the Protagonist to fall for Kat, they instead have an oddly less-than-intimate connection, which doesn’t help warm up the chilly narrative or make us like the Protagonist much at all.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that there are things herein that prove almost extraordinarily spectacular, including the crashing of a real 747 into an aircraft hangar (no spoilers needed because it’s in the trailer), a back-and-forth-in-time car chase that makes similar moments in The Matrix series look like child’s play, and a final battle that, like Inception, ropes in a heaped handful of fantasy subplots. And yet, unlike Inception, do we, ahem, care?

A flick you’ll want, however desperately, to like more than you actually do, this is surely the most Nolan-esque Nolan offering of them all, and it’s full to bursting with all of his signature trademarks: much wearing of masks (which now appears prophetic and means that sometimes the dialogue is hard to hear); manipulations of time and perspective that go right back to his Memento; and a daring refusal to properly explain anything. And yes, certain viewers aren’t going to like that. At all.

However, as divorced from those many concerns, the question seriously needs to be asked: is this really the movie that’s going to save the industry from COVID-induced oblivion? That’s one spiraling plot point even the most dedicated Nolan fan would have trouble penetrating.

Reviewer Rating
6/10

Tenet (M) is in cinemas from 27 August

DM Bradley

See Profile

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox