I can remember once waking up in the middle of the night during an unbelievably vivid and intense dream; I woke up marveling at the plot and intricacies of my dream and made a voice recording on my phone so that I wouldn’t forget the dream and so I could contact the relevant film studios and have my dream turned into a movie. When I listened back to the audio recording I had made the next morning, it was a rambling garble on nonsensical phrases and concepts which in the harsh light of day, was nowhere near as cool and exciting as I had thought it was the night before. And for some reason I kept saying “Marmaduke”.
That’s what I think must have happened to Christopher Nolan in making his latest action flick “Tenet”; he found an idea which he was obviously enamored with and kept going further and further down more and more rabbit holes so that the original concept was barely distinguishable. The basic premise is that certain objects, for example bullets, are able to have their “entropy” inverted so that they travel backwards through time. A CIA agent known only as the “Protagonist” (John David Washington from “BlackKkKlansman”) is entrusted with the mission of tracking down who is supplying the weaponry, and ultimately discovers that not only can objects have their entropy inverted, but entire worlds too. What follows is a mess of incoherent storylines and characters which are sometimes going forwards in time and sometimes backwards, some admittedly cool action sequences, erroneous plots surrounding arms deals and blackmail which never really find their feet, and time travel twists and turns which establish boundaries in one breath and then blatantly defies them in the next.
Performance wise, they’re fine across the board, with Kenneth Branagh playing a sadistic Russian oligarch and Robert Pattison does well as a cool and seasoned spy. The biggest disappointment for me was Washington in the leading role; for some reason all the James Bond-esque dialogue and tough guy swagger just seemed stupid coming from him. I couldn’t quite figure it out, but as the film progressed he only became more annoying to me and struck me more as someone’s irritating little kid who insisted on coming to the pub with his older brother rather than a cool CIA spy on his way to save the world.
For me, this is the least impressive of Nolan’s recent blockbusters, and the most obvious parallel to draw is with 2010’s “Inception”. It too was an action packed thrill ride with a mind bending central concept which was designed to intrigue its audience with its ingenuity, but with one key difference – the universe in “Inception” was predicated by laws and rules, “Tenet” doesn’t seem to be following any at all. I know that the director would have most likely researched the shit out of the science behind the film and that if the plot is explained with mind maps and arrows that it probably all adds up, but I don’t care. If a screenwriter can’t take an original concept, especially something concerning far out scientific exploration or time travel, and express it in a way that at least reasonably digestible then they’re not doing their job properly. A big part of this I think was the fact that the dialogue was often not loud enough or clear enough to hear over the resounding explosions or gunfire, so perhaps I missed some exposition in there. Even so, it really shouldn’t have been this difficult to follow the basic plot points of an action flick.
What was disappointing to me is that the initial concept of an object’s entropy being inverted was abandoned pretty quickly once we learn that entire timelines can be inverted. I was looking forward to the Protagonist learning how to handle inverted weapons and use them against the baddies, because once the backwards world crops up, the film in many ways falls back into the same standard time travel tropes that have been explored in everything from “Back to the Future” to “Family Guy”. Once I had seen the film, I read up a bit about it and was surprised at the amount of secrecy surrounding the script; each actor allegedly only read it once, in a sealed room and weren’t allowed to talk to anybody about it. Michael Caine was only allowed to read the lines for his five minute cameo, not the rest of the script. Having seen the film, I really couldn’t understand why; the premise is cool, but I didn’t think it was groundbreaking, not in the same way as “Inception” or “Interstellar” anyway.
There are some impressive and typically Nolen-esque moments throughout; particularly a car chase in which one of the vehicles is travelling backwards and a number of backwards fights, and these are visually incredible and very exciting. But for me, these stand alone moments weren’t enough to string together what in my mind ranged from indulgent and incoherent plot points designed to be confusing rather than gratifying, and a barrage of time travel cliches which had been done to death years ago.
By Jock Lehman