Tenet is the latest film from the monumentally overrated writer-director Christopher Nolan. The plot centres around the prevention of World War III and more importantly time-inversion, hence the palindrome title. The story has been kept under wraps with no one disclosing too much information other than this short synopsis, so I’ll go into a little more depth without any spoilers. Tenet stars John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington and therefore another case of nepotism in Hollywood) as “The Protagonist”. Since this is a James Bond-esque spy movie disguised as a sci-fi thriller, the Protagonist, an ex-C.I.A. agent, is hired by a mysterious organisation in order to avert the end of the world (or existence as we know it). Washington’s character after being recruited by Martin Donovan, dressed by Michael Caine, and informed by Clémence Poésy (the time-based “M’s” and “Q’s” of the piece) he discovers that objects can be “reversed”. Reversed items have a reversed chronology when people interact with them (a bullet is caught by a gun rather than fired or something is picked-up rather than dropped). The Protagonist then travels the world à la Mission Impossible to discover who is creating these reversed objects, how that will lead to humanity’s demise, and to try and thwart the plans of the main antagonist, Andrei Sator played by Kenneth Branagh.
Before the public begin singing Nolan’s praises, I’ll point out that it only took Christopher 22 pissing years and an international public outcry against whitewashing and unequal casting for him to cast a black man as his lead. I wonder if this script called for a black actor specifically? I doubt that it did since it took a reported five years to write (and 2015 was a time of overt whiteness). Black, nameless protagonist aside, what about everyone else? Is there anything else progressive about Tenet? The answer is a resounding “no”. In true spy-cliche form, we have a Russian oligarch as the bad guy who beats his “beautiful” white, English-accented wife and wants to destroy the world. If it were not for the time inversion, this would be a very hackneyed plot. The baddies are both foreigners; a Russian megalomaniac (Branagh) and an Indian arms dealer named Priya (played by Dimple Kapadia). Thankfully, they don’t team-up like a less-convincing Pinky and The Brain, instead they have separate narratives that converge over the two and a half hour runtime.
In addition to the bad-guys, Himsesh Patel’s character (a brown, bearded male) is only brought into the story in order to crash a plane into a pentagon-shaped vault, and that 9/11 reference makes Tenet a not-so-subtly racist movie. And speaking of the War On Terror, if you replaced the Protagonist with a white actor, say Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio, the line “Mission Accomplished” which is spoken at the end whilst assassinating a brown antagonist would look entirely different. There’s a few digs at Washington’s appearance throughout the film too, which makes the movie a little classist as well (Britain doesn’t have a monopoly on snobbery but America enjoys including it in their movies it seems). The fact that Michael Caine (who looks very old and infirm with a soft palate or false-teeth problem) is included in the cast, Nolan is against old white men retiring… ever. God forbid the old guard is replaced by new blood.
Tenet also stars Robert Pattinson as Neil, the Protagonist’s educated and posh-man-boy side-kick and Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, the estranged wife of Branagh’s character, who looks like a cross between Lady Di and an alien grey, and whose sole purpose is to be someone the Protagonist can save… how very modern… not. Whilst on the subject of Kat, when trying to prevent “World War III” would an ex-spy prioritise the life of one single woman over billions of people? Well, in one scene, the Protagonist goes to great lengths to save Kat which makes the storyline feel like a tired, twentieth century concept. Make Debicki a princess and Washington a plumber and you basically have Mario Bros.
This plot, albeit contrived, would be perfectly adequate for a spy movie but Nolan instead decides to add unnecessary elements to it. Tenet dances around forged paintings, tax dodging at “free ports”, a nuclear disaster, not to mention a handful of conspicuous scenes which means the story is very predictable. If you recall John David’s dad in Déjà Vu, you’ll remember that as an audience member, once you see certain objects like an upturned ambulance or a floral dress, the narrative which is structured around time, moves ever forward toward these objects and their current state, creating unavoidable predictability. Tenet, with it’s “mystery woman” diving off a yacht flashback and reverse gunshot/fight scene with a “mystery” gas-masked assailant, only serves to make the film entirely foreseeable.
Predictability isn’t the only problem however, there’s also the impossibility of key scenes. After the reverse car chase, the Protagonist, Neil, and Kat are travelling backward in time but they don’t interact with anyone in reverse. The film also tells us that characters have to carry “reversed” oxygen as you wouldn’t be able to breathe in the forward world in a backward state but Kat specifically, never wears a face mask when interacting with people including her husband Andrei who is travelling forwards. SPOILER AHEAD: We’re also told that characters cannot interact or come into contact with their reversed selves (Timecop anyone?) but the leads have fights with themselves. What’s the point in giving the audience a set of rules and then abandoning them? When Neil says “I changed gears half way”, that applies to the entire film. And while I’m at it, when Sator sets fire to some fuel, we’re told the reverse state of fire and an explosion is the formation of ice! Really? The reverse state of fire is err… sudden fire and then no fire, ice wouldn’t ever come into the bloody equation 😆.
Speaking of Andrei, Kenneth Branagh’s oligarch character who plots revenge on the world after suffering from the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, is a not-so-subtle Russian cliché and very familiar to fans of spy films. If you had the misfortune to witness Branagh’s appalling Russian accent in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, you’ll be shocked to find him cast in another film in essentially the same role. A lack of freshness is therefore another problem here and given that Christopher Nolan is heralded as making “original” movies, you’d be surprised by the lack of originality. Nolan seems to have been watching Chernobyl, old James Bond movies, and Princess Diana documentaries whilst penning this story (probably sat in his huge mansion thinking he’s sending emails and texts to the future when all that exists is the present 😉). Add to this, the fact the red-team/blue-team incursion finale looks almost exactly like a scene from Edge Of Tomorrow (Live Die Repeat) and you have a so-called original film that’s not that original.
Whereas The Matrix‘s bullet-time was impressive back in the ’90s, in the ’20s, watching something filmed in reverse isn’t that extraordinary, even when mixed with certain actors going in the other direction. A fight scene between a character moving forwards and one in reverse doesn’t look remarkable either way you watch it. The end result resembles The Pharcyde’s “Drop” music video, albeit hundreds of millions of dollars more expensive.
There’s also a scene with a window separating the entering and exiting of the time reversal, reverse entropy, revolving-door machine thingamabob, in which a conversation could have been cleverly written to make sense on both sides of the glass. Instead of a filmic version of Smoothe Da Hustler and Trigger Tha Gambler’s lyrical palindromes in “My Brother My Ace”, Tenet doesn’t possess this kind of back-and-forth, which given that it took five years to write, should have been worked on.
Since the title “Tenet” is a palindrome, I expected the narrative to be cleverly-crafted so that from the mid-point, the story is told in reverse and the end is the same as the beginning. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen. Although the central car chase is the centre-point and it is shown both forwards and backwards, this is the only “wow” moment (palindrome intended). Once this scene occurred, I thought “Yes! Christopher Nolan has finally done it!” but instead of working backward to the opening orchestra scene, the story went in a different way entirely, a direction that was impossible. Similar to Avengers: Endgame which contained an entire scene where they bashed Back To The Future and other time travel movies but then set about doing the exact same thing, Tenet also abandons its pretence of “time inversion” and the Grandfather Paradox; namely, you cannot kill-off a character who exists at the start of the film. This is supposed to be about the inversion of time, therefore the objects and characters cannot have a different outcome to what’s already been shown to us. You cannot therefore, bump-off someone who is central to the forward narrative, because if you did, they wouldn’t be able to continue their dastardly plot (cough, cough) and in turn would nullify the Protagonist’s mission.
Since the narrative wasn’t a palindrome, were any palindromes included in the story? I didn’t for instance see a rotavator, a racecar, a kayak, a radar, music by Abba, or someone’s mum, dad, and nan drinking Oxo and taking Xanax anywhere in the film! There wasn’t any scene in which a posh bloke named Otto shouted “pip pip madam” to which a posh bird named Hannah replied “tut tut”. There was “Rotas” (Sator’s Freeport company) which was “Sator” spelled backward, but that was it. Very disappointing.
Aside from the story, the visuals are standard Nolan fare. Christopher Nolan’s father was an advertising executive and Chris was also influenced by advertiser-turned-film-maker Ridley Scott. Nolan’s visual style is therefore very ad-exec-y; very monotone, very neat, and littered with suited, rich gents and their expensive cars, yachts, and mansions. If you take away the tinkering with time, what you’re left with is an immaculate set and wardrobe but little in the way of substance. There’s only so many times you can watch a rich, upper-class man (or someone dressed as one) save the day without getting bored or gipping on your popcorn. The fact that this hero is black makes no real difference. This is just another Inception with elements of Batman Begins to please the spelunking, BASE–jumping crowd 😉.
After The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a satisfying film. Tenet may be a marked improvement over Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises but there’s still a feeling of declining quality and one-trick-pony-ness. A sci-fi plot should be intelligent, an action scene should be exciting but not here. An airplane crashing whilst still on the runway can look impressive, just watch Jan De Bont’s Speed but when almost the same thing occurred in Tenet, I felt no goosebumps at all. At least Ludwig Göransson’s score was a nice change from the usual Hans Zimmer contrivance, and with his use of electronic synths, rapid and bassy drums, and reversed sounds, the soundtrack complimented the narrative and visual aesthetic. That was until the utterly shite song played during the final credits (“The Plan” by Travis Scott) which in terms of Hip-Hop is backward garbage which is kinda apt.
It’s estimated that Tenet would need to make $450 to 500 million in order to break even so the fact that I was sat alone in the cinema doesn’t bode well for this movie. I might go and watch it again to see if the continuity matches up in the earlier scenes and to watch John David Washington who is very likeable and talented, but unless a larger group of people pay to watch this flick, Tenet is not going to save cinema (that is of course, unless the overpriced Mulan on Disney+ is a flop too). Tenet is a damn sight better than Unhinged, so if you are going to the movie theater, this is your best option. Money-making blockbuster or mediocre failure, Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly deified (another palindrome) not only by his fans but by most mainstream critics but his god-like status in Hollywood in my opinion, isn’t warranted. Hopefully Tenet is the middle movie in his filmography and he begins working backward until he makes another Memento. Although the way in which the supposed palindrome was constructed in Tenet, I doubt that’ll happen.