Tenet Shows Christopher Nolan’s Brilliant Best and Frustrating Worst

Two sides of the same spinning top.


Christopher Nolan’s latest epic Tenet is now in cinemas, and while it hasn’t arrived to single-handedly revive the flagging theatrical industry as many were hoping before it was hit with a series of inevitable delays, the $220m blockbuster nonetheless outperformed modest box office predictions after raking in almost $150m already despite large swathes of the industry remaining shuttered.

Nobody else but the man behind Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk could have made a movie like Tenet, which in this case is a double-edged sword. As frequently thrilling and jaw-dropping as the mind-bending thriller can be, it also highlights the problems that have continually dogged the filmmaker’s output.

Nolan is one of the very few directors in Hollywood that can open a movie based entirely on the strength of their reputation and nothing else, and for the most part audiences know what to expect. There’s twisting narratives, a refreshing reliance on practical effects at the expense of CGI, thunderous sound design and tactile action sequences that 99% of his peers would simply recreate via green screen and visual effects.

Tenet delivers all of these in spades, but not all of it works. At various points, characters tie themselves in knots trying to explain how the ‘time inversion’ concept works, but the exposition typically ends with them essentially telling us not to think about it too much.

Nolan is known for making smarter and more complex blockbusters than your average Michael Bay or Jon Favreau, two of his only peers in terms of both budget and box office. However, the exposition in Tenet almost always stops the plot in its tracks, as if he was writing the script in the expectation that we wouldn’t be able to understand his brilliance.

To be fair, Tenet is often very hard to follow, particularly a second-act sequence that’s a real head-scratcher when the movie goes all-in on the inversion of time. For the most part it isn’t as difficult as Nolan thinks it is for us to keep track of the major players and plot beats as the narrative essentially doubles back on itself and we experience familiar events from a new perspective.

One of the major and largely unfounded criticisms of Nolan’s post-Batman Begins career is that he struggles to direct action, and Tenet comfortably blows these accusations out of the water. The choreography required to have two characters brawling in a corridor while one moves forward through time and the other moves backwards is mind-blowing, and the fact that the fight scenes were all achieved in-camera using long takes is nothing short of mesmerising.

In an era where CGI is often a lot cheaper and less time-consuming, Nolan’s decision to buy a jet and crash it into a hangar for real results in one of Tenet’s most explosive moments, and reminds you of the unbridled joy that some good old-fashioned big screen destruction can bring to your inner child.

The climactic battle features what Tenet calls a ‘temporal pincer movement’, as two teams of good guys set out to save the day, one moving forward through time and the other moving backwards, but both with the same goal in mind. A sequence so complicated could have easily devolved into incomprehensible nonsense, but Nolan ensures that it all flows together as one cohesive sequence, which is an incredible feat in itself.

Having dispelled one of his supposed flaws, Nolan unfortunately leans heavily into another, as none of Tenet’s characters are memorable in the slightest. John David Washington doesn’t even get a name, and is referred to in the credits as The Protagonist, but the actor nonetheless proves that he’s inherited his father’s movie star genes and will soon join him at the top end of the A-list with an impressive blend of charisma and physicality.

Robert Pattinson is little more than the dapper exposition machine that gets the majority of the movie’s very few laughs, Kenneth Branagh does decent work as the one-dimensional villain in part due to the expected Shakespearean gravitas he brings to the role, while Elizabeth Debicki is given the thankless ‘damsel in distress’ archetype. Despite the actress’ best efforts, there isn’t much material for her to sink her teeth into besides the required beats that we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Big ideas, even bigger action, reams upon reams of exposition and a roster of talented actors cast as painfully underdeveloped characters; Tenet is peak Christopher Nolan without a doubt. The filmmaker leans into the very worst of his tendencies while simultaneously outdoing himself when it comes to sheer scale and imagination, with the end result a singular and stunning epic that also feels strangely cold and detached at the same time.

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