Michael Hayward's Blog

Review: Christopher Nolan's "Tenet"

Michael Hayward

Midway through the climactic set piece in Christopher Nolan’s new techno-thriller, Tenet, uber-villain Andrei Sator, played with relish by seasoned thespian Sir Kenneth Branagh (who sports the obligatory three-day stubble affected by cinematic uber-villians everywhere nowadays), addresses himself to his cowering wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a hostage on Sator's fabulous uber-yacht, and snarls a line of Russian-inflected dialogue, in a convincingly venomous tone.

Branagh’s line, delivered somewhat contemptuously, is: “You don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, do you?” At which point Kat bows her head and laughs in a charmingly self-deprecating manner, admitting, in effect, that no: she doesn’t, or at least: not entirely. His line, and her response, caused at least one nineteenth of the audience at the mid-week matinee screening of Tenet (that is to say: me) to laugh right along with her, a sound muffled somewhat by my COVID facemask. For I was in exactly the same boat (so to speak) as she was – at least in terms of my comprehension of Tenet’s storyline thus far.

At that late point in the film, three parallel plotlines are taking place simultaneously onscreen, interwoven like the three strands of a complex braid. We could refer to this particular strand as “the less incendiary strand,” since both of the other strands involve the detonation of mind-boggling quantities of high explosives, and the firing of innumerable rounds from the muzzles of innumerable automatic weapons, a firepower roughly equivalent to that wielded by the army of a small, particularly pugnacious, nation-state. And what, exactly, is going on so explosively in the other two story strands? A complicated military maneuver described by one of the film’s protagonists as “a temporal pincer movement” – as if that term explained everything.

Onscreen explications like this are the key problem with Tenet’s complicated script, which repeatedly and aggressively ignores that basic principle of story-telling, one which writers are urged to obey every time they face a blank page: “Show, don’t tell.” Tenet is based upon a single, spectacularly high concept: that time can flow backwards, towards the past, as well as forward, towards the future; or possibly even both, simultaneously. And since the full implications of this tweak to the basic laws of physics are not immediately apparent to the novice, viewers have a lot to puzzle out.

To assist viewers with their puzzling, Nolan’s film relies far too heavily on explanatory dialogue, moments where the frantic onscreen action is allowed to slow briefly, long enough to allow one character to hurriedly explain to another just what the hell is happening around them. Bad script-writing, perhaps; but, on the other hand: thank god the characters themselves have difficulty understanding the film’s central premise, because without their onscreen explanations to each other, we, the viewers, would be almost entirely lost.

The unintentionally comic fragment of dialogue quoted above is uttered on the deck of the uber-villain’s uber-yacht, which is anchored… well: we’re never quite sure exactly where the fabulous yacht is anchored, for the world of Tenet – that is to say the geography and the chronology of the world in which Tenet takes place – is only tenuously related to the world in which we live.

Tenet-space appears to be constructed more-or-less exclusively from an assortment of photogenic, exotic, eye-candy-like fragments of geography. Without a Tenet atlas I can’t be entirely certain, but all evidence suggests that there is very little “ordinary” landscape in the world of Tenet, since very little physical space seems to separate the film’s elaborate set pieces. Mumbai and Oslo, London and Kiev, appear to be effectively next door to each other, so effortlessly do the principals move back and forth between these cities. And Tenet-time? Well, anyone who has watched the film’s trailer knows that time in Tenet does not behave like time in our world. And as much as I would like to try and explain how time works there, I am as yet unable to do so – since I have so far seen the film only once.

Which leads to the following, not unreasonable question: can an intelligent, first-time viewer of Tenet expect to make sense of the storyline in a single sitting? The only possible answer is “No, of course not!” – a response which at least helps us to better understand Nolan’s basic approach to his self-scripted epics. Anyone who has watched Nolan’s earlier high concept thrillers, Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), will know that effortless comprehension is an unreasonable expectation for a first viewing of Tenet.

But Nolan wrote and directed those two earlier films, and has made this new film, for a different kind of audience. Nolan’s ideal viewer is someone who is willing, perhaps even eager, to tackle a complex and nearly-incomprehensible storyline, a tale whose plot hinges on a startling central premise – a puzzling, possibly even a mind-blowing premise, one that will shatter the viewer’s until-now-comfortable (but probably incomplete) understanding of the physics of the world that they live in. Nolan counts on the fact that his ideal viewer will, over repeated viewings of his film, work diligently at solving the central cinematic puzzle, spotting the clues, and gradually teasing out the layers of meaning, until – eureka! – a form of understanding has been achieved.

Watching Tenet is unlike the experience of watching any other new film release; perhaps the closest parallel is the playing of an eagerly anticipated new video game, a game written and programmed by a team of technically-sophisticated adepts who have worked on it in seclusion over a period of years. Such games are constructed with multiple levels, and offer a carefully-calibrated sequence of clues and other intermediate rewards. Players of these games expect them to be complex puzzles, and are prepared to work hard at finding the solution. Anything less, anything easier, would be an intense disappointment. I have no doubt that, in much the same way, fans of Nolan’s Tenet (and there will be many of them) will work away diligently until, after repeated viewings, they finally master this latest film.

My rating? Seven out of tenet.



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