Christopher Nolan’s latest film, ‘Tenet,’ falls short of previous work, confuses viewers

John David Washington (left) and Robert Pattinson (right) in "Tenet," released Sept. 3, 2020. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

By John Terhune
BU News Service

Three years after the release of “Dunkirk,” perhaps his most grounded film, Christopher Nolan returns to the puzzle genre that has made him one of the most prominent directors working today. “Tenet,” which reached U.S. theaters last week after the COVID-19 pandemic thrice delayed its opening, is something of a spiritual successor to “Inception,” Nolan’s most commercially successful non-superhero work. Yet, while it echoes many of the cerebral themes and visionary set pieces that have attracted legions of fans to Nolan’s movies, “Tenet” convoluted plot ultimately proves to be a heavyweight for the audience to bear. In fact, the film is less a piece of entertainment and more a physics problem.

The film’s basic premise is that unknown antagonists from the future have developed technology that can reverse the flow of time for people and objects. John David Washington stars as an unnamed C.I.A. agent who was recruited to stop these future antagonists and their present-day accomplice, Kenneth Branagh, from destroying the world. Who are the shadowy foes threatening our very existence? What is their plan, and why are they attacking us? Some of these questions get answers, and some are hand-waved away. All that matters is that the guns will shoot backward, and the time loops will be plentiful.

The prospect of following intersecting timelines will likely thrill fans of Nolan’s work. After all, the director has explored this concept to a significant effect on scales both small (“Memento,” “Dunkirk”) and grand (“Inception,” “Interstellar”). The issue here is that “Tenet” goes out of its way to make it difficult for viewers to understand what’s going on. 

Elizabeth Debicki (left) and John David Washington (right) in “Tenet,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Moments after the protagonist accepts that he’s part of a “temporal cold war,” he’s racing across the globe to…do something? Nolan continues his frustrating tradition of burying large chunks of dialogue so far beneath a bass-blasting score that it renders them indecipherable. Combined with the film’s breakneck pacing, it means viewers will spend most of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime trying to figure out what’s going on.

It’s unclear whether Nolan wants the audience to pay much attention to the movie’s logic at all. When characters say, “Don’t try to understand it – feel it,” and, “What does your heart tell you?” it’s easy to imagine the director imploring viewers to get out of their heads and go along for the ride. This, after all, is what made “Inception” so spectacular: even when that film’s logic proved inconsistent or nonsensical, it still had the feel of an uneasy dream collapsing upon itself.

“Tenet,” on the other hand, isn’t likely to make viewers feel anything besides confusion. How is one supposed to look past the film’s dizzying (and perhaps incoherent) logical turns when Nolan insists on bombarding the audience with rule after rule, twist after twist.

We don’t know why anyone is doing what they’re doing for most of the film, but “Tenet” makes sure to explain various micro-details of Nolan’s world. It’s essential that we know that heat makes one colder when time is reversed. Because “Tenet” always emphasizes logic, rather than heart, the viewer feels that his task is not to experience, but to decode what’s happening — a job that will require several viewings, if it’s even possible at all.

Why does Nolan make these choices, even as he seems to recognize that they aren’t a recipe for a compelling film? Perhaps he can’t resist the unique and occasionally spectacular action sequences that his layered worlds allow him to craft. Indeed, some of “Tennet”‘s set pieces come close to making the whole enterprise worthwhile, especially a time-shifting brawl in the second act. Yet even here, “Tenet” can’t stand up to Nolan’s best work, as the film’s time reversals are too alien for the brain to comprehend in real-time. The action sequences are supremely interesting, the way optical illusion videos are interesting, but they don’t match the thrill of the rotating hallway fight in “Inception.”

In the end, the film’s true bright spot is not its heady ideas or glorious set pieces, but its star. Washington is having the time of his life, and his energy is infectious. The former football player projects a dominant physical presence that helps to sell the film’s fight scenes. Yet even when he’s not running, grappling, or bungee jumping backward through time, Washington swaggers through “Tenet,” flirting and quipping like an American James Bond. Robert Pattinson continues his hot streak with solid work as the protagonist’s mysterious partner Neil, and the pair’s onscreen chemistry goes a long way toward rescuing the film from itself.

Still, it’s hard not to see “Tenet” as a missed opportunity. Nolan is one of the few directors making original blockbusters today, and it’s a shame that the execution lets down the right ideas here. Hopefully, next time, Nolan will remember not to get lost inside his logic games.

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the composer of the score of the film.

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