Tenet (2020) is Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious project yet. Period. Ambition not in terms of scale but complexity. It almost feels as if his career was heading towards this and this was the logical next step. It’s one of those movies that a Nolan purist can walk out of and be certain of one thing. That Nolan had an absolute blast making this movie. With the least amount of VFX amongst all his big-budget movies, Tenet is more grounded yet equally mesmerizing.
Nolan doubles down on his strengths and weaknesses alike. If you had issues with cold characters in his previous movies, you would have much stronger opinions about Tenet. Each character, including the Protagonist, is devoid of any personality or motivations apart from maybe “saving the world”. Kat (played by Elizabeth Debicki) much like Cooper from Interstellar and Cobb from Inception is working towards a normal life with her kid. But we never see her interact with her kid, and their relationship is just meant to be taken at face value. Be it an oversight or a deliberate move, Nolan has made his characters more nondescript than ever before. This is one of the primary reasons this movie will just not hit the same highs with most audiences as Interstellar or Inception did.
Why is this a recurring theme with Nolan? Why has he not improved his character work and instead chosen to double down on the expository characters? That’s primarily because he believes his characters exist in a world that moves people around instead of it being moved by people. Be it a man stuck in multiple dreams trying to escape or a man sent on a mission to find another planet with a sustainable life. These characters aren’t necessarily familiar with free will and are almost thrown in the situation around them. Yes, it does feel like a hack and this is going to make people mad.
With Tenet (2020), Nolan emphasizes that his universe is ruled by Time. His take on time manipulation with Tenet is a deterministic world full of paradoxes. One simply cannot control time and must witness events unfold with minimal changes in outcomes. I can’t go further without spoiling the plot but your opinion on Tenet highly depends on your agreement with Nolan’s take on time manipulation and that people are just not in control. Ultimately, it won’t matter what characters want because time might just not allow it.
Performances by the entire cast are pleasing. Despite such elementary characters, all actors embody them with as much personality as possible. John David Washington especially does a great job with a wide range of emotions in his performance. Kenneth Branagh is also very entertaining as a typical Russian oligarch. The mesmerizing cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema together with the empowering score from Ludwig Goransson makes for some of Nolan’s most technically proficient set-pieces yet. The stunt team and pyrotechnics department have done an excellent job. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such awe-inspiring set pieces of such technical brilliance that almost feel like real magic. But that’s unfortunately the other hurdle for the movie that’s going to turn away most heads.
These set pieces aren’t as grand as the Black Hole in Interstellar or the upside-down world in Inception. These are twisted variations on seemingly simple sequences. Understanding the structure in these set pieces will require more than one viewing for most audiences. It’s something that takes a lot more time to fully comprehend than the movie offers. Most audiences will be forced to just enjoy them visually without truly understanding how it’s happening in the story. Pretending to enjoy something you don’t understand especially at the cost of probably seeming stupid is going to frustrate people. Things are also harder to understand with the weird sound mixing hindering clear dialogues.
Nolan has always been a fan of telling stories that require multiple viewings. So far, his movies have been easy to understand at the core if not with all the specifics. Tenet’s core concept is his most inaccessible idea yet and until you fully understand that this movie will not go easy on you. I’m sure he did it with the right intentions, hoping audiences would be willing to go to cinemas repeatedly but the global pandemic makes that very difficult.
With Tenet (2020), Christopher Nolan gives us his most intricate and complex story but also his weakest written characters yet. Fueled by his technical prowess is a highly mesmerizing and intriguing movie that can possibly feel heartless but is exactly what I went in expecting.
Watch the cast and Nolan talk to BBC about the movie, here.