Maybe if the ability to invert time were to exist in 2020 we’d see the leaders of the world sprint backwards to January. They could’ve made face masks compulsory from the start, warned Wuhan about the spread of the coronavirus, and maybe then Trolls World Tour could’ve been released as planned in March. As it is, the film industry has been inverted, with streaming services experiencing record viewing figures, as blockbusters have been knocked to the wayside.
For a return to traditional cinema-going, there are few directors you’d rather experience than Christopher Nolan, with a heavy emphasis on experience. Aside from only perhaps Denis Villeneuve, there are very few contemporary filmmakers with such a dedication to the pure spectacle of cinema than Nolan. His playful toying with cinematic techniques and structure harks back to the dawn of cinema where films were shown at amusement parks for the pure enjoyment of the show. Inceptions corridor sequence, Interstellar’s journey through the black hole and even Tenet’s ingenious use of time are each cinematic marvels, but little more than that.
Tenet’s central premise shows scintillating promise but deflates due to the pressure of its over-inflated self-worth. It’s a simple enough idea, dressed up with so much scientific jargon that the original concept becomes lost. Much like many of Nolan’s films, the key concept here is the theme of ‘time’, and specifically time inversion. Its basics are simple enough to understand and are nicely summarised in an exchange between a government scientist and the lead ‘protagonist’ (his actual character name) played by John David Washington. The scientist turns to him and says: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it”.
The line transcends the film and seems to have come straight out of Nolan’s mouth. Though, strangely, it doesn’t seem to be within the director’s interest to even try and let us understand the film due to the hilariously busy sound mixing. Just as you think you might have caught what on earth the concept of the ‘algorithm’ is, the end of the sentence is interrupted with the thunderous crash of a wave, the flutter of a pigeon or just an inconvenient loud horn. Where Tarantino seems to be winking at his audience every time the bottom of someone’s foot appears on the screen, it seems as though Nolan finds some strange self-satisfaction in confusing his audience with loud soundtracks and inaudible dialogue.
The problem is, as much as Tenet shouts and demands admiration for its ambition, there is simply far too little to grab a hold of. Concepts fall apart when you try to seize the sense of them and characters are so paper-thin that they rip apart when you try to dig deeper than their stereotypical surface. This is hindered further by the dialogue itself, in which Nolan paints every character with the same brush, making them each sound like ‘the smartest person in the room’. Whilst Nolan can successfully execute and conduct a complicated action sequence with precise tenacity, Tenet shows that he can rarely slow down, dig deep into character and explore authentic dialogue.
It’s a frustrating experience, in both Nolan’s obvious ability as a filmmaker, as well as the ingenious core concept that flashes glimpses of true brilliance. The basic principles that Nolan constructs for the central ‘time device’ is clever, unique and tangible in the real world, leading to some breathtaking set-pieces that, in part, redefine genre filmmaking. It’s just not supported by an adequate narrative framework, it’s an overwritten jumble of extraneous characters and a flapping plot.
Tenet is a powerhouse of lubricated pistons, clever pulleys and levers that is awesome to watch function, but ultimately produces nothing at all. Where audiences still wonder if Inception’s totem is still spinning, few will care if the true meaning of tenet is never solved.