Movies: Tenet

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-03-03 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

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Tenet is one of those movies that thinks it's a lot smarter than it really is. And that's a shame, given that director Christopher Nolan is neither stupid nor untalented. It's just that with this film, he's used his intelligence to talk himself into making foolish choices for it. As a spy story, a Bond installment with the serial numbers buzzed off, it's passable. As science fiction, or even fantasy, it's — to borrow a phrase from another field — not even wrong.

A failed mission leads to a new life — and a new mission.

The film involves an unnamed CIA operative (John David Washington), who attempts suicide after an opera-house raid in the Ukraine goes pear-shaped. His handlers are impressed with his devotion, and they benefit from having a dead, untraceable man on their roster. His new assignment is to uncover something called "Tenet" — an organization that has learned how to modify objects so that they move backwards through time. E.g.: bullets pop out of stone walls and jump back into the guns aimed at them. A man named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) has apparently commandeered the time-inversion technology for his own ends, and so the protag and a comrade (Robert Pattinson) and Sator's estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki) all try to join forces to stop him.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it revolves around rules that seem to have been laid down for the sole purpose of being violated. I'm not talking about the way a story lays down rules as a preamble to breaking them creatively. Even SF that borders on fantasy works as long as it respects its own construction. The Matrix (well, the first one, anyway) made fair effort to map out how its world worked, how its rules could be bent or broken, and what the consequences of same would be. The rules were the story, and in a way that opened up its possibilities instead of straightjacketing them.

Making sense of "the detritus of a future war" with some new comrades.

With Tenet, we never get any good intuitive sense of how time-inverted things work, or don't work, and so there's no way for us to register the significance of what's going on in the moment. Because the idea is so brainless at its core, the movie always feels like it's playing unfair, and so it doesn't register as adventurism, just mere cheating. (Did Nolan feel a "conventional" time-travel mechanic just wasn't snazzy enough for the likes of him?) People defend this kind of thing by drawing allusions to Nolan's Memento, which did gain on repeat viewings, and uses a similar inverted-chronology device. But Memento was about a paranoid state of mind where inconsistencies are acceptable, not a thriller plot that unspools if you sneeze on it the wrong way.

Even as a spy thriller the movie isn't all that great. Some of the movie's best touches, like how the protagonist breaks into an apparently impregnable vault, are rendered lifeless ahead of time because the movie does one thing thrillers should never do: spoil the fun. Too often the movie tells us what's going to happen ahead of time, in painful detail, instead of letting us share the surprise of watching it unfold.

Sator, the antagonist, and his estranged wife, both asset and obstacle.

Also annoying is the way the movie assumes if we'll swallow the science-fiction stuff, we'll let ourselves be snookered in other ways, too — e.g., when a canister of knockout gas somehow manages to put a whole opera house full of people to sleep in mere seconds, or when a man who's spent at least weeks in a medically induced coma is doing pushups one scene later. It's not the cheating on the details as such, but the way such cheating is unearned, since it manifests as a symptom of the movie's general arrogance.

Nolan's movies have worked less and less for me the more he tries to play the role of the (roughly speaking) Hitchcock-to-Kubrick grandmaster he clearly sees himself as. The Dark Knight films went from good to great to "nice try". I liked Inception, although I confess I have felt little urge to revisit it since I first saw it. Clever and well-staged as it was, it was synthetic and sterile when it should have been organic and raucous, and the supposed emotional core of it felt flat. Tenet is every bit as superficially sleek. At the end of the day, though, it's just a fancy excuse to shoot a bunch of scenes in reverse.

Where it all heads, or where it all came from (who can tell the difference?).

Tags: Christopher Nolan Science Fiction Repair Shop movies review science fiction thrillers

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