Release Date: September 3, 2020
Director: Christopher Nolan | MPAA Rating: PG-13 | LeavittLens Rating: 6.5/10
For years Christopher Nolan has developed a distinct brand of cinema. While not necessarily formulaic, each of his films carry similar themes and execution, from his now infamous cross-cutting climaxes to his insistence on non-linear storytelling, his in-camera inventiveness to his color-schemes (or lack thereof). Indeed, these sorts of ‘Nolanisms’ have become internet-famous, and he has impressively managed to elevate the summer blockbuster from near-mindless eye candy to thoughtful and experiential cinema. He remains one of the few working directors who still commands an opening-night ticket independent of his film’s cast or central idea. He has managed to capture me with his previous films, all of which I have enjoyed, and each rewarding repeat viewings.
In many ways, the latest addition to his canon displays the best of what he does well: beautiful cinematography, impressive action and stunt work, a mind-bending and original premise, and a terrific score. However, with each successive release, some alarming trends are exposed, and for a director touted as being unendingly inventive and imaginative, Tenet falls short in more glaring ways than his previous works.
The film does not waste time in sparking audience adrenaline: immediately we are thrust into a thrilling, undercover CIA operation at an opera house, where we meet ‘The Protagonist’ (John David Washington). Fittingly, he serves as the protagonist for the duration of the film, which sends us on a globetrotting journey, filled with art curators (Elizabeth Debicki), Russian oligarchs (Kenneth Branagh), general global espionage, and some time-warping detective work. He is joined by a fellow agent named Neil (Robert Pattinson), whose presence adds immensely to the mind-bending journey. If only viewed as an exercise in genre expression and advancement, Tenet succeeds mightily: it provides a unique spin on the spy-thriller that self-referentially hearkens to the suaveness of Bond and the stunt work of Mission: Impossible. However, Nolan’s insistence on including challenging plot devices ultimately bogs down–and often distracts–from what otherwise is a highly enjoyable romp. This becomes clear primarily in three areas: the lack of character depth and motivation, the ineffectiveness of the script’s exposition, and the inexplicable lack of audibility. It is worth noting that these sorts of problems would remain less obvious if this were Nolan’s first film; however, these remain regular issues across his filmography, to the point where it seems that his substance is unable to keep pace with his escalating spectacle.
Lack of Character Depth
With Tenet it seems Nolan is becoming aware of the common critiques of his work, yet stubbornly persistent in them. Indeed, naming your protagonist ‘Protagonist’ seems to be a willing effort at character shallowness. While John David Washington brings an innate likability to the screen (his work in Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman was as terrific a breakout as an up-and-comer could have), he is not given much to work with here. His character is committed to his work as a C.I.A. agent, to the degree that he is willing to die, yet we are never given any insight as to why. His lack of depth is matched by the film’s main antagonist, Andrei Sator, played by Branagh. With exceedingly broad evil intentions aimed at destroying the entire world, his only perceivable motivation stems from a one-dimensional extreme narcissism. To be clear, the character work isn’t all bad: Pattinson in particular adds to every scene he is in with a magnetic flare and smooth presence, and Debicki serves admirably as Sator’s disenchanted and abused wife. Yet the lack of richness from the film’s two main opposing forces leaves the stakes fairly lacking as the film moves towards its finale.
This has been a regular problem for Nolan in a variety of his other films: Interstellar and Inception come to mind in particular. It seems as if Nolan identifies his characters less as full-formed drivers of his films but instead as vehicles for his own ideas to pilot. While said ideas are regularly substantial enough to hold up in this relationship, it nonetheless produces a feeling of disappointment with each passing example, and Tenet seems to forego effort to combat such disappointment.
Another common tendency in Nolan’s scripts is explicit exposition through his characters. He often varies its delivery in order to hide it, using a mysterious telephone conversation in Memento, Michael Caine narration in The Prestige, a character’s lack of knowledge in Inception, or a more obvious (and unintentionally humorous) whiteboard in Interstellar. This sort of exposition has seemingly become a necessity in each of his films as their plots become exceedingly challenging to grasp, and for the most part this explaining has allowed his work to remain approachable in the past. He effectively creates and explains his worlds in order to keep his audience on track.
Just as with each of the aforementioned examples, Tenet is loaded with exposition. Characters are constantly naming events or other characters for the sake of the audience, filling in gaps in conversation to increase obviousness of an important plot point, or otherwise repeating statements in order to reiterate their essentiality. Yet through all of the exposition, immense confusion remains a staple of this film: for the first hour the audience remains largely disoriented, as the Protagonist’s mission is largely unknown and the rules of the world unclear. While this may be an attempt to vicariously place the viewer into the mind of the Protagonist (who is discovering things himself along the way), the lack of a firm foundation nevertheless leaves the final act wanting.
To be fair to Nolan, I did see this film late on a weeknight as a pre-screening, so I considered the possibility that my mind was perhaps not in the right frame at the time. However, my problem was echoed by those who saw the film with me, and is similarly identified by other reviewers (here and here) who have been able to see the film in its opening week.
Lack of Audibility
A staple of Nolan’s films is his often terrific scores. His usual partner, Hans Zimmer, has worked in tandem with the director on embodying certain essential themes in the sounds of his movies. Whether this is found in the chaotic scratchiness of the Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight, the unnerving pressure of a ticking clock in Interstellar, or the earphone-shattering booms of Inception, Nolan’s soundtracks often match the epic scope of so many of his works. While he did not partner with Zimmer on Tenet (due to Zimmer’s forthcoming work on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation), the soundtrack remains powerful throughout, perpetually amplifying the action. Such power often comes at a cost, though, as the dialogue in many films is overwhelmed and even inaudible at times.
Tenet is perhaps the worst offender of any of his films in this way, to the degree where it seems intentional on his part. A filmmaker of his caliber certainly has terrific resources to utilize for his sound-mixing, and thus it seems that his singular vision remains fixated on inaudible dialogue adding to already confusing plot lines. Particularly in a film filled with constant exposition, this takes away from the watching experience on more than one occasion.
Good, Not Great
All of these factors are not necessarily as surprising as they are disappointing. It is impossible to ignore Nolan’s obvious talent; he is one of the few filmmakers today who can craft an entirely original idea, embody a striking and beautiful aesthetic, innovate on major genre conventions, and employ noteworthy Hollywood stars, and Tenet accomplishes all of these with flying colors. Yet this is also what makes its pitfalls so glaring: it would seem that someone of his caliber and vision would show growth over the years, particularly in the technical areas (is Christopher Nolan the Russell Westbrook of Hollywood?). Perhaps this is a contributing factor to why he remains Oscar-less despite multiple nominations, all critiques of the award process aside.
All in all, it seems that Tenet is par for the course for Nolan, a movie with enough technical wizardry to satisfy the cinephile and enough big-tent appeal to satiate the casual moviegoer. Yet for a film touted for its creative time-bending, it also seems clear as the closing credits roll: Nolan is undeniably stuck in his ways.