What’s most endearing about Christopher Nolan’s work is his ability to deliver complex concepts to his audience without dumbing them down or compromising the overall quality of the story hes trying to tell. Whether it’s the ideas driving the central plot forward, the narrative flow, or the visual/audible execution of his projects; he’s never been a director obsessed with spelling it out or shoehorning it in for those watching. This, for the most part has been a success for Nolan, so much so, he’s been met with consistent financial success for almost two decades. For the most part, Nolan’s body of work has been far from straight forward; opting instead to adopt narrative puzzles over digestible and formulaic structures. For all their complexity and profundity, however, the execution of his projects has been more than sufficient in communicating his ideas and non-conventional structures in a manner that has been surprisingly digestible. In an ironic twist, by choosing not to spoon feed, he’s been able to free up a large bulk of his time demonstrating the mechanics of his narrative riddles via the medium he’s working within. This in turn has allowed for a level of clarity and engagement that would have most likely collapsed had it been spelled out via the film’s dialogue.
Which is why it’s all the more frustrating that Tenet fails in this respect. Although Nolan continues to adopt a puzzle-like narrative stuffed with larger-than-life concepts, his ability to communicate these ideas through the medium of cinema doesn’t quite work as smoothly as it has done in past projects. For a start, I think this comes down to the point I made above regarding his habit to show not tell. This time around, we don’t quite get this. Instead, Tenet spends far too much of its runtime having characters explaining what’s going on. There’s discussion after discussion concerning how the “turnstile” technology creates inverted objects, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator’s (Kenneth Branagh) plans to blackmail his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) as well as end the world via some sort of death switch technology, and Neil’s (Robert Patterson) timey-wimey involvement in the Protagonist’s (John David Washington) career. There’s an awful lot going on in this film – both from a narrative and a conceptual perspective – and while the film does give plenty of visual exposition for this, it also hits us around the head with characters explaining things for a hefty part of its runtime. It’s difficult not to find yourself throughout Tenet, desperately trying to keep up with everything that’s been said by the various characters populating its plot. You shouldn’t have to take a notepad to any film, although there were times in which I wish I’d had one, just so I knew where we were amidst everything. Right from the get go, the plot moves at breakneck speed, throwing intricate sci-fi concepts at situations at you, only it fails to pick you up and sweep you along in the puzzle-oriented rollercoaster it intends to take its audience on.
The difficulty to fully immerse with Tenet’s overall plot and central ideas makes other flaws within the film slightly more glaring than they may have been otherwise; particularly when it relates to the main characters driving the narrative forward. For example, the film’s characters. Individuals with sketchy backstories isn’t uncommon for this director’s style of storytelling, and while that may be fine when the story is sucking you in in other areas, it can be quite a pain when you’re finding it difficult to properly engage with the wider events of a movie. Considering we know barely anything concerning the characters making up this fictional space (with exception to Kat’s history of selling fraudulent art and loving her barely-plot-present son, but even then, that’s all we really know about her). Without anyone to anchor ourselves or relate to, it’s difficult to fully immerse ourselves in a world that’s already somewhat alienating due to the overabundance of plot friends and unfamiliar concepts that feel somewhat out of reach.
I think this point gets to the central problem behind Tenet. It just feels too alien for the most part. The mounds of dialogue, the fast-moving narrative and the emptiness of its main characters keeps you at a distance. As unfair as I think it is to compare this to previous works found in Nolan’s back catalogue, I can’t help but do so. While the likes of Inception and Interstellar managed to suck you into their worlds, Tenet never quite hit that mark. As a viewer, I never felt immersed in this weird and wonderful landscape Nolan conjured into existence. Which is a huge shame, because this was a film I really wanted to be swept away by. It just never quite manages to achieve this. While I walked away with a general idea of what the overall shape of the plot was, there were just too many details that I felt had washed over me; creating a sense of frustration and bewilderment that I seldom feel after seeing a Christopher Nolan film for the first time.
All of this isn’t to say Tenet is a bad film. It’s certainly a flawed one, but beyond its failure to fully immerse you, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had with the film on an aesthetic level. It’s a gorgeous piece of cinema, one that’s been crafted from the ground up by people who clearly adore the medium they’re working within. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is a pleasure on the irises, Ludwig Göransson’s electrified score captures the desperation & rapidity of the plot’s ticking time bomb, Nolan’s fastidious attention to detail never fails to inspire awe, and the action is easily the most impressive available to us in film at this moment in time. It’s a gorgeous and stimulating piece of work to marvel at. While we may not be able properly board this striking vessel, we can still marvel at its ingenuity and craftsmanship from the outside. For all its faults, the work put into crafting Tenet makes it extremely difficult to dislike this feature. It’s frustrating and alienating as far as cinematic experiences go, but I can’t say it made me board, which is an impressive achievement for a film that I struggled to engage with for a majority of its runtime.
Many have said Tenet needs to be watched more than once to fully appreciate the bigger picture of the story it’s trying to tell. While I am all for films that have replay value attached to them, I still think they need to work to some degree on their first viewing too. Layering features with easter eggs and bonus subplots is a great way to add longevity to a film’s viewing experience, however that doesn’t give it a free pass when fundamental elements fail to work on first viewing. I’ve only seen Tenet once at the time of writing this piece, and while I enjoyed the film on a purely visual spectacle, I can’t help but acknowledge its flaws when it comes to its characters and overall narrative execution. I’m sure by the second viewing, I’ll be able to walk away with a far clearer understanding of exactly what’s going on in terms of its overall plot and concepts. As a first time viewer, however, Nolan’s latest film is a good looking mess that failed to fully absorb me upon its initial viewing.
Pretty, thrilling and a touch too convoluted for my liking. This James Bond/sci-fi mash up doesn’t hit home in a way I’d hoped, but it’s certainly worth a watch despite its flaws.