Tenet: Inception 2
Tenet is the kind of film where characters say things like, "in an hour from now, they had this briefing," or, "I'll see you at the beginning" with all the nonchalant affectation of a checkout operator asking how your day's been so far. The screenplay is peppered with dialogue so nonsensical (sometimes inanely so) and the narrative so incomprehensibly convoluted that my initial reaction was to penalise Tenet (as if my opinion had any real weight) for bordering on inaccessible. However, in classic Nolan style, he wore me down over the course of 2.5 hours through the sheer scale of the audacious action sequences and a fascinating commitment to making the illogical seem logical in a way I haven't seen since, well, Inception. I've come out of critically-lauded art house films understanding less, so why should an impressively ambitious action/espionage thriller have different standards? Does my lack of initial understanding make it an objectively bad film? While the time-altering lore of Tenet hasn't been fleshed out to the same degree as the dream layers in Inception, there's a lot to respect about this filmmaker who has handled such a preposterous premise with deadpan sincerity.
Providing even the briefest plot summary for Tenet is as intimidating a task as writing episode recaps for Twin Peaks: The Return, but I'll try. The Protagonist (no, really - there wasn't time in this 2.5-hour-long film to give him a name), played by John David Washington, is thrust into an impossibly secret, time-manipulating organisation, membership of which can be subtly communicated by the use of the word "tenet" and a delightfully analogous hand gesture. He is tasked with preventing World War III, alongside his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), but to prepare for this, he is schooled in a process called 'inversion,' which involves reversing the entropy of objects or people so that they can move backwards through time. (Keeping up? Me neither. We learn this through a meaty meal of exposition from scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy) very early on, but you'd be forgiven for wanting to watch that scene a couple more times before progressing.) Turns out, the man wanting to bring about the end-of-times is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, avec gloriously sculpted beard), a Russian oligarch with contacts in the...the future. He is keeping his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) an emotional hostage, unless she promises to sever ties with her son, because she unwittingly gifted him a fake Goya. Things explode, punches are pulled (literally) and a 'cello is stomped on in the most horrifying moment in cinematic history (I hope it was a cheap one).
Here's the thing: as clumsily demonstrated by my intentionally ineffective synopsis, anyone who comes out of an initial viewing with no questions and an exhaustive understanding of everything they just witnessed, saying things like, "I don't get what the big deal is, it wasn't that confusing," is either simply lying or Christopher Nolan. In the same way that Inception took me several viewings to fully appreciate and track all the plot strands, I believe Tenet deserves at least another chance to settle. There is simply too much oblique, circuitous storytelling to assert an authoritative understanding of its narrative after a single attempt. The exception is, of course, if you don't like oblique, circuitous storytelling, in which case you are more than free to not like this film. I just found myself totally enamored with its gutsiness. (EDIT: I can confirm that a number of pieces fell into place after a second watch; I heartily recommend you give it another chance if the first try didn't quite sell it for you. Round two was like watching a different film.)
I hasten to add, deliberately obfuscating a narrative is not inherently good or clever. I am merely choosing to defend its potential by harkening back to what I think was a universal experience 10 years ago; all of us exiting the cinema after watching Inception with similar misgivings about how much we had understood, but choosing to love it anyway. In a sense, similar in futility to the Grandfather Paradox posited in Tenet (the question of whether or not you would still exist if you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your parents were conceived), it is both inevitable and unfair to compare it to Inception. For me, Inception totally redefined what an action movie could be. Thrilling, epic sequences with seamlessly-integrated CGI could work in tandem with highly intellectual, conceptual, character-driven storytelling. Jessica Kiang of the New York Times describes the subsequent experience of watching Tenet perfectly:
...Nolan is, by several exploding football fields, the foremost auteur of the “intellectacle,” which combines popcorn-dropping visual ingenuity with all the sedate satisfactions of a medium-grade Sudoku. Within the context of this self-created brand of brainiac entertainment, “Tenet” meets all expectations, except the expectation that it will exceed them.
Is Tenet better than Inception? No. But when the latter is the near-perfect apotheosis of grand scale action cinema spectacle with brains, that's hardly damning.
Frequent Nolan-collaborator composer Hans Zimmer is absent for this outing due to his conflict with Denis Villeneuve's Dune, my next most hotly-anticipated film. Stepping into his shoes is the Oscar-winning Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, 2019) and this may be the one facet of this film that far, far exceeded my expectations; Tenet's score is utterly brilliant. Göransson had enough nous to inject some textbook Zimmerisms (low brass bwaahs, single-pitch ostinati and a penchant for major sevenths) to keep the fan-base happy, or possibly even at Nolan's request. However, the score as a total musical experience is a far more exciting achievement in electronica than anything I've ever heard from Zimmer. One cue in particular would feel right at home at a deep house rave. In interviews, Göransson has sung the praises of Nolan's intricate musical knowledge and this film (like Inception) is a testament to the result of giving film music its rightful place in the production hierarchy, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought. Nolan meets and creates with his composers months before shooting begins, and it shows.
My main point of contention with Tenet is the absence of any real heart or humanity. The Protagonist's fondness for Kat evolves into a significant catalyst for many of the film's magnificent set pieces, but this connection feels more implied in the script than actually present in the chemistry between these two actors. This was a real shame, since Nolan has previously showed his ability to flex real emotional muscle; no matter what you thought of Interstellar, it's hard to deny its deeply human element and the fact that not awarding Matthew McConaughey an Oscar for THAT SCENE was a hate crime. Now, that's not to say that relationships (romantic or otherwise) are a necessity to create a sense of stakes, but when the film explicitly reveals that as fact and then fails to show much evidence of it, that's cause for disappointment.
Additionally, in perhaps trying to be too clever for himself this time, Nolan somewhat shoots himself in the foot by leaning a little too hard into loosely structuring the film as a palindrome (like the film's title). On paper, the concept works beautifully and he almost pulls it off, but (if you're paying attention) he thwarts his own trickery out of necessity. A (again, loosely) palindromic structure requires that we see part of the ending at the beginning, albeit in reverse. But in the same breath, we couldn't have probably the most technically impressive scene without it - two characters brawling, one moving forward in time and the other moving backwards. Later on, we see the same scene again but in reverse. When you realise what's going on and try to shift your focus between the two assailants, it's genuinely mind-blowing.
Despite the almost frustrating level of complexity to Tenet's narrative, it's also probably Nolan's most comfortable outing. He explores the concept of time in basically every film he's made; we're not covering any revolutionary ground here. In that respect, I'm a little surprised he wasn't more sure-footed with the concept and left me with so many questions. However, a question I'm most certainly not left with is, "do I want to see it again?," because that's a no-brainer.
Tenet is in limited advanced screenings this weekend and has a general Australian cinematic release on August 27.