Tenet review: Can Nolan save cinema?

The weight of the film industry sits heavy on Christopher Nolan’s shoulders. Tenet, originally scheduled for a lucratively-timed July release, was delayed, indefinitely postponed and eventually opened on Wednesday 26th August.

In the whirlwind of corona, the film has been dealt with the task of filling socially distanced seats in cinemas across the globe. If there was any filmmaker to do it, it would be Nolan; a master of crafting high-concept, big-budget films with arthouse sensibilities. He creates awe and intrigue in equal measure, reinvigorating the superhero genre with The Dark Knight trilogy and injecting life into sci-fi with the equally dazzling Inception and Interstellar.

The plot 

Continuing his career-long obsession with time, in his latest feature the Protagonist (played by John David Washington), must go on a mission that will take him across the globe and back in time (or forward through time?) to stop a plan to end civilisation. Basically, time is running out, and if this sounds cliché, it’s because it is. Kenneth Branagh plays a cookie-cutter Russian oligarch villain (Andrei Sator), and our nameless protagonist must team up with well dressed, charming confidante Neil, (Robert Pattinson) to stop him.

These classic spy-tropes are cleverly used to situate the audience in a familiar world, before plunging us into one that is unknown. We don’t learn much about these characters, and unlike Nolan’s previous work, we aren’t inclined to care too much about them either; they are used as vessels to explore his ‘time inversion’ concept. Whilst this approach worked effortlessly with Dunkirk – where the stakes and the importance of the action was made plain by the context – with Tenet, at times it was difficult to know where to look and what to think.

Early on, during one of the many lengthy expositional moments, our protagonist is told ‘not to understand it, but to feel it’. In a scene which almost breaks the fourth wall, Nolan himself tells the audience to just enjoy what they’re seeing, rather than trying to unpack how it works.

And for a while one can enjoy the spectacle of Nolan’s Tenet. The technical prowess of the film can’t be doubted. Nolan’s emphasis for in-camera, practical effects makes for awe-inspiring highway chases and airport infiltrations. When we start seeing the time inversion at play, Nolan is breaking new ground, pushing our expectations and the boundaries of what cinema can be.

Clueless rather than curious

On first viewing, it can be hard to enjoy any of this spectacle. That’s not to say that the film’s complexity is a bad thing, or isn’t something that more blockbusters should strive for, but when it literally leaves you clueless rather than curious, it doesn’t help the film. Even after seeing the film twice in the space of three days, there are moments that leave me scratching my head.

For all of Tenet’s deliberate emotional coldness, Nolan does have one emotional strand to hook audiences in. One that he has used before: estranged parents. Inception’s Cobb wants to get back to his children in America, Interstellar’s Cooper has to travel through space to return to Murph, and in Tenet, Barbara (Elizabeth Debicki) has to get her son back from the evil Sator. But while Interstellar and Inception build their plots around this central theme, this story arc is shoe-horned early on and is never really explored. It serves as the only thing the Protagonist and Neil fight for (along with saving the world), yet it never really means anything.  

For all the film’s glaring complexity, one of the other main issues I had was understanding the dialogue. Character’s voices were muffled by facemasks (timely), drowned out by Ludwig Goransson’s bellowing techno-inspired score, or simply just mumbled by the characters.

For a film that is so technically proficient, it seems bizarre that the sound-mixing is an issue. A part of me feels like this is Nolan playing with us, deliberately concealing dialogue and hiding plot points; pushing the audience even harder to work out what’s going on. But if Nolan can pull off the technical feat of inversion, surely he can make the dialogue understandable?

The IMAX Experience 

After seeing the film twice, once in IMAX and the other in the Camden Odeon, I can confidently say that the film makes more sense after repeated viewings. Conversations that I zoned out of during my first watch, I managed to catch the second time. Tricky concepts were more understood and small hints at scenes to come made the film more digestible.

Seeing Tenet on the largest screen in the UK was so grand it almost made me forget all of its problems. This is a film that should be seen in the cinema, and for cinema’s sake, needs to be. Even if you don’t understand it, Tenet is impressive.  

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