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Film Review: No Matter How You Spell It, “Tenet” Is a Dud

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 26th, 2020

Film poster: “Tenet”

Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020) 1 out of 4 stars.

Christopher Nolan has made films I adore (Batman Begins, Memento), films I like (The Dark Knight, Inception, The Prestige), films that I kind of appreciate despite their significant problems (The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk, Interstellar), and one that I merely tolerate (Insomnia), Until now, he had never made a movie that I loathe. Welcome to Tenet.

Starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Elizabeth Debicki (Vita & Virginia) and Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), the narrative mess that is Nolan’s latest starts with frenetic confusion, then layers garbled exposition on top, bends time and motion to spread a veneer of mystery over it all, and ends right where it began, which is nowhere. Filled with the director’s hallmark intricate set pieces, the film offers intriguing visuals that engage the eye, if not the brain. But underneath it all is an empty premise, which promises much but delivers nothing.

l-r: Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Warner Bros. Pictures’ TENET, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Washington plays the unnamed “Protagonist” (as per the credits). He’s a U.S. government agent whose opening near-death experience leads to recruitment into a special branch of a very secret service created to prevent the end of the world. Pattinson joins him as another colleague in the know. The threat? A future technology, somehow brought back to our present, that allows people and objects to move backwards in time. It’s a little more complicated than that, actually: to the person or object so affected, their own timeline moves forward, yet flows in the reverse direction from the normal world. Two parallels universes coexist, each in temporal opposition to the other.

If this sounds interesting, it is, to an initial degree. There’s a definite cool factor to the conceit, and the action sequences that follow from it no doubt took quite a lot of planning to execute properly, both on screen and in post-production. It’s also a welcome change to have an African American actor at the forefront of such an enterprise, like the Black James Bond some 007 fans have hoped for. Unfortunately, the gobbledygook that surrounds the entire affair, usually spoken in either breathless whispers or overly grave tones, ruins what attractions there might be to the film’s charms. And despite the copious explanations of what is going on and how it works, at no point does any of the plot make any kind of sense whatsoever.

l-r: Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in Warner Bros. Pictures’ TENET, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

The addition of the scenery-chewing Branagh as Sator, a Russian mob boss married to a British woman played by Debicki, only adds insult to cinematic injury. While Branagh’s early work once showed promise of a great career as both actor and director (see Henry V), he long ago went down the rabbit hole of easy money and overdone performances, his participation in a project almost a guarantee that he will be the worst thing in it. Tenet is no exception. Even more problematic is that it’s never clear exactly what purpose his character plays.

Sator’s meant to be a broker, of sorts, between the future and now (I think). Is not the real villain somewhere far ahead (or behind, depending on which side of the timewall one sits), with Sator but a middleman? And what of the Indian arms dealer, played by Dimple Kapadia (Finding Fanny)? She seems like a vital part of the mix, yet I still don’t fully understand her role. Sator’s abusive marriage also contributes nothing, dramatically, other than a potential love interest for Washington and one of two important women in the film to balance the otherwise very male cast.

l-r: Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh in Warner Bros. Pictures’ TENET, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

I tried very hard to follow the story, but at some point I became annoyed that Nolan simply couldn’t tell a better one. I love complex narratives – even ones that start seemingly convoluted but then allow one to tease meaning from within their depths – but not self-important ones. Whoever had the idea to release the movie at first only in theaters, I’m glad I didn’t take their bait. Tenet is not only not worth risking your life for in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s not even worth your time, backwards or forwards. Love your palindromes? The film is a dud.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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