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Film Review: Tenet

27 August 20 words: Chris King

Christopher Nolan reaches for the stars and sadly misses with this confusing but beautiful epic adventure, says Chris King…

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Running time: 150 minutes

Over the years Christopher Nolan has brought us some of the best cinema of all time, with the director constantly trying to outdo himself with every film he’s ever made. Most of the time this ambition drives him to create yet more stunning and innovative cinema, and whilst Tenet certainly innovates and creates incredible stunts of the like we’ve never seen, its plot leaves a lot to be desired.

John David Washington (Protagonist; yes, that’s his name) and Robert Pattinson (Neil) hold this film together with two really good performances. Washington in particular is stellar, showing us everything he can do and with a bit more time to breathe this film could have been so much more. Every scene that isn’t a stunt sequence almost feels half-finished, with the Protagonist picking up the pieces of this mind-bending idea as he goes. 

The trouble with him not knowing what is happening, and no-one really explaining it to him, is that as an audience we’re confused on the details of inversion - the ability to change someone or something from going forward in time to backwards in time - and the cataclysmic event it leads towards. The film insists that using it on a global scale will be the end of everything, but why? 

Nolan is aware of this, with Neil at one stage saying: “Does your head hurt yet?” It feels like the film is revelling in its own cleverness, rather than explaining it to audiences and enabling them to truly get on board. Inception, arguably Nolan’s masterpiece, worked because we had a dream within a dream shown to us at the beginning of the film and then the plot moved on. Audiences knew how it worked, but with Tenet they are left so much more confused.

For a film about time, it feels as if Tenet doesn’t have enough of it

This is coming from someone who adores time travel. I love everything to do with that whole sub-genre of sci-fi and so I was excited to see what Nolan would bring to the table. The argument of closed-loop time travel — the idea that once you’ve time-travelled, you always had done it and every action is already decided and happened — versus the free will approach, which means you really can change the past, is one of the most interesting questions in the film. The trouble is, this conflict crops up halfway through the film as the Protagonist questions if he can actually do anything and is more of a side thought than anything else. It would have worked so much better if these questions were asked from the start and the answers drip fed throughout.

Arguably the most frustrating thing about this film is that we’re not given time to process what happens. The first third of the film sees the Protagonist flit from conversation to conversation as the plot dictates, but with no real time to himself or interaction that isn’t for plot reasons. He and Neil are friends, yet Neil just arrives when he has to. For a film about time, it feels as if Tenet doesn’t have enough of it. Viewers are constantly running to keep up and just as they understand it, something new happens and they’re back at square one trying to figure it all out again.

Tenet could have been truly epic. Its performances, stunt work and camera trickery were all incredible, but it’s let down by a confusing narrative and the lack of space for characters to breathe and develop. Almost everyone who isn’t Washington or Pattinson is one dimensional or simply has knowledge that drives the plot on because they have to have it. Sadly, this is a missed opportunity from Nolan.

Did you know? Nolan originally planned to have a sequence featuring the crash of a jet plane through a combination of miniatures and CGI. However, while scouting for shooting locations in California, the crew came across an array of old planes and decided to crash a real Boeing 747 to cut costs.

Tenet is in cinemas now

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