I like Christopher Nolan films. In fact, I really like them. Memento is a smart, creative thriller and Batman is about as good as a superhero movie can be. Dunkirk is the only film I’ve watched as an adult and cried in. For his sci fi efforts, I gave The Prestige an 8 and Inception a 9, meaning I rate both are in the top 25% science fiction films of all time. Interstellar is one of only nine films to score a 10 on my list. Given this context, it’s extremely disappointing that Tenet mostly quite shit.
Nolan might be a victim of his own success. I’m reminded of Quentin Tarantino, who once made great films. After reaching mega stardom with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, he had fewer people around him to tell him the hard things he needed to hear. Someone needed to tell Quentin that Kill Bill should have been one film, that both Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds desperately needed an edit and that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never should have been made. Well, just like Tarantino, someone needs to tell Nolan to stop being so self indulgent and to take a step back from his own nonsense before its too late.
Tenet is a film about time travel. It is fixated on bidirectional chronological leaps, asking you to follow along through its bizarre narrative through the eyes of the protagonist. I would share that character’s name but I cannot. John David Washington’s starring role is simply named The Protagonist. No one dared tell Nolan how self-involved and stupid that is, of course. The most inventive part of Tenet is that some scenes feature action in which people and objects are propelling through time in alternating directions. You’ve definitely never seen a gunfight or a car chase quite like this, and at its best it is mesmerising to watch even if your brain can’t always quite keep up with exactly what’s happening. Tenet is playfully experimental with the concept of time and sets up some remarkable moments that are stunning to watch but often difficult to follow. The film’s climax demonstrates this best. It centers on a large battle with hundreds of military personnel engaging in combat in opposite chronological directions – helpfully labelled with coloured armbands to help you comprehend what the fuck is happening.
Ultimately Tenet is a bombastic action film that looks impressive but utterly fails to deliver much substance beyond that. The plot is straight out of a bond movie, complete with doomsday weapons, globetrotting set pieces and mysterious Russian villains, though good luck if you plan on keeping up with the narrative detail. You’ll need to read through a variety of online theories to make any meaningful sense of the gibberish that Tenet tries to play off as clever. Tenet is best enjoyed if you don’t attempt to take it too seriously. It’s innovative, slick and mind-bending in the same ways that Inception managed when it first came out, but anyone expecting much more than a visual playground of inverted explosions will be disappointed. This could – and should – have been so much better.