Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Pattinson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine
Producers: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Music: Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Running time: 150mins
What’s the story: CIA agent The Protagonist (Washington) is recruited by shadowy organisation Tenet to investigate who is trading in objects seemingly travelling backwards in time. His search leads him to Russian arms dealer Sator (Branagh) and Sator’s terrified wife Kat (Debicki).
What’s the verdict: It was inevitable. With hindsight literally being 2020 we should have known Christopher Nolan would experience his first failure in this annus horribilis.
All the signs were there. That underwhelming IMAX prologue. Trailers carrying a stale whiff of déjà-vu. Coronavirus threatening the cinema experience itself, and only Nolan’s $200m blockbuster standing between picture houses and Armageddon.
We needed one of Hollywood’s happy endings. But, we know real life does not do happy endings. Tenet is a colossal misfire, calling time on Nolan’s obsession with all things temporal.
Unfolding like a movie made by someone trying to ape the writer/director’s style, it has all the familiar trappings. IMAX splendour, the gorgeous cast, the exquisite tailoring, guns n’ glamour, globetrotting, for-real stunts, the screwy time stuff and the bwwwaaaahhhh score (this time courtesy of Black Panther composer Ludwig Göransson rather than Hans Zimmer).
Yet not even Nolan’s shadow Sam Mendes would deliver something this bereft of awe and excitement. Tenet has action set-pieces, but nothing (including a Boeing 747 demolition derby) approaches Inception’s spinning hallway, The Dark Knight’s underground truck chase or Dunkirk’s aerial dogfighting.
Reverse-time fighting and car chases sound dazzling but quickly fizzle out, and Nolan seems to think he’s coining time travel twists that have been story staples for decades.
The film opens with the Ukrainian national orchestra tuning up for an evening of opera, yet it repeatedly hits bum notes and falls flat when reaching for grand emotion. All of which is an issue for a movie whose stakes are nothing less than preventing World War III.
The story? It’s not about time travel, rather “technology that can reverse an object’s entropy”. In other words, objects that travel back in time rather than forward. The question is, who is sending these objects back and to what end?
There are answers. Kind of. Trouble is, you won’t care when you hear them. If you hear them, because Tenet doubles down on Nolan’s love of smothering dialogue in subwoofer hugging sound effects and bombastic percussion.
For a director so adept at relaying complex rules in audience-friendly fashion (Memento’s reverse narrative, Inception’s dream-time, Interstellar’s temporal relativity) here he seems uninterested in keeping his audience in the (time) loop.
When Clémence Poésy’s temporal forensic scientist serves up “inverse” exposition to John David Washington’s protagonist (billed as The Protagonist, groan) both act like they’ve been on the wrong end of a hippo tranquiliser.
Michael Caine (as a character named “Sir Michael…”, double groan) also plays Basil Exposition, as does Dimple Kapadia’s arms dealer.
But the film never properly establishes rules for navigating “inverse time”. Meaning audiences are likely to be left with badly scratched heads figuring out why stuff is sometimes reversed and sometimes not. Nolan was too busy ensuring his palindrome titled film was itself a palindrome (scenes are revisited backwards you see…) he forgot about such piffling details as coherence and entertaining paying punters.
The cast gamely try to keep things afloat yet are undone by the movie’s emotional inertia. BlacKkKlansman’s Washington wrestles with a character the film cannot decide is Jason Bourne or Roger Moore-era Bond, but deserves another shot at action hero stardom.
Robert Pattinson is charismatic in a weak Xerox of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt role from Inception. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s temporal soldier is simply wasted (and made up to look the spit of Tom Hardy).
As the heart of the film, Elizabeth Debicki struggles with a nothing role as Kat, wife/hostage of Kenneth Branagh’s evil Russian billionaire, Sator. She wants a new life with her son, he won’t let her… and… er… going down… now… eyes… heavy… sorry, recalling this is so tedious I dozed off. Branagh’s baddie should be threatening but sounds like a Compare the Market meerkat who’s rocked up to the cinema and realised it’s Thursday.
Final thoughts. With Tenet, Nolan has made his Bond film. Unfortunately it is Spectre by way of Guy Ritchie’s Revolver. Maybe Chris should pause the epic, time-bending movies and see what he can do with a $40m budget (Insomnia is an undervalued gem).
Oh, and Warner Brothers may have been better off releasing the easy, breezy fun-looking Wonder Woman 1984 if they are relying on word of mouth getting people back into cinemas.