No wonder Christopher Nolan thinks Tenet can save cinema. That’s a doddle compared to the challenge faced in his film, which, we’re frequently reminded, is a proper whopper. Prevent world war three? Bigger. Avoid armageddon? Worse. To spell it out would be a spoiler, but think 9/11 times a hundred, to quote Team America: World Police, a film Tenet faintly resembles. The fate of a few multiplexes is small fry.
Lucky, really, because Tenet is not a movie it’s worth the nervous braving a trip to the big screen to see, no matter how safe it is. I’m not even sure that, in five years’ time, it’d be worth staying up to catch on telly. To say so is sad, perhaps heretical. But for audiences to abandon their living rooms in the long term, the first carrot had better not leave a bad taste.
Our protagonist, the Protagonist (John David Washington), is an agent for an international undercover organisation who’s promoted during a new cold war (“ice cold”). “That test you passed,” a flunky tells him, “not everybody does.” We’re never told exactly what the test was, but the implication is clear: this is not a man who’d have trouble recognising an elephant.
Then follows the first of many scenes in which a supporting actor who may or may not have a background in nuclear physics blinks through 500 hours of exposition about how the future is attacking us with bullets that go backwards. First up is Clémence Poésy, who talks about inverted weapons and the detritus of coming wars so listlessly you want to giggle. Next, Michael Caine, who says: “I presume you’re familiar with the Soviet-era closed cities,” over steak and chips.
Less lucky are Dimple Kapadia’s epigrammatic arms dealer and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, stuck with reams of militarese detailing “temporal pincer movements”. As for Robert Pattinson’s raffish wingman, brilliant and dapper and apparently based on Christopher Hitchens? Pattinson is never less than watchable. And his affectations can be a welcome distraction. But he still just seems like some bloke who’s got drunk in Banana Republic’s scarf department.
All these encounters eventually lead to Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch whose Blofeld stylings Kenneth Branagh eagerly embraces. “Just tell me if you have slept with my wife” is his opening gambit, quickly followed by “How would you like to die?” (a rhetorical enquiry; Sator only does one sort of murder, which sounds time-consuming and involves testicles).
But Branagh’s ham spoils as the promising camp of his first scenes flattens into bog-standard rottery. The more we learn of our antagonist’s plans for humanity the harder it is to care whether he pulls them off.
Some of this is weariness: for all Tenet’s technical ambition, the plot is rote and the furnishings tired. Eastern European heavies lumber about with pliers and meat-cleavers. Clocks literally tick. Synths groan deeply on the soundtrack. No one shoots anyone without elaborately speechifying first. Extreme lengths (remote catamaran) must be pursued to ensure confidential conversations. The luxe locations titillate for a bit, but there’s something tonally off about the aspirational, How to Spend It aesthetic (Sator’s Italian villa, in particular, really overdoes the busts).
Washington doesn’t help. A naturally charismatic performer, he’s weirdly muted and muzzled here (as a sidenote, Tenet will surely go down in history as a film shot during peak-beard). The spark he’s supposed to have with Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) isn’t there, which makes for a motivation problem. Kat does at least have some agency, unlike Nolan’s previous litany of saintly dead spouses, but her drive is primarily about safeguarding her relationship with a young son we barely see and, when we do, seems less than winning.
Tenet’s real engine is its action sequences, in particular one involving a cargo plane and another multi-car chase. They’re good; they have to be. As the eagle-eyed have pointed out, Tenet is a palindrome, which means it’s possible you’ll see some of the same scenes twice. Yet, for all the nifty bits of reverse chronology, there’s little that lingers in the imagination in the same way as Inception or even Interstellar’s showcase bendy business.
You exit the cinema a little less energised than you were going in. There’s something grating about a film which insists on detailing its pseudo-science while also conceding you probably won’t have followed a thing. We’re clobbered with plot then comforted with tea-towel homilies about how what’s happened has happened.
The world is more than ready for a fabulous blockbuster, especially one that happens to feature face masks and chat about going back in time to avoid catastrophe. It’s a real shame Tenet isn’t it.
• Tenet is released in the UK on 26 August
Source: The Guardian