Warner Bros Pictures is betting big with ‘Tenet’, the first blockbuster to hit cinemas since COVID-19 came into our lives.
Ironically ‘Tenet’, while a spectacle, is far from a crowd-pleaser. The plot is hard to follow, the characters play it cool with very little humour and there is a villain who is vicious and repulsive.
Visually the film is dour too, with cold overcast European landscapes and rocky deserts for the finale. A crowded and colourful India makes an appearance, but we’re mostly confined indoors. . . And haven’t we had enough of that?
That is not to say the film is not engaging, it will make you unpack what you think happened and certainly makes the case for repeat viewings. Subsequent watches might reveal riches for the audience and certainly the studio would like that.
It is also a film that is unapologetically on-brand for filmmaker Christopher Nolan. If you like his work, you should get a kick out of this.
There is his usual confusing non-linear narrative and the vague explanations about the film’s time-travelling exploits. One character in a very meta exchange advises someone not to think about it too much.
There are also the large set pieces, shot on location and mostly done for real, that we have come to expect from the filmmaker. Yes, they do crash a jumbo jet into a building, but even sailing out amongst the Nysted Wind Farm is something to savour on the big screen.
Where this film might fall short is in the performances, which is surprising given the cast assembled.
As The Protagonist, John David Washington – so great in ‘BlacKkKlansman’ – is physical and conveys the calmness of an elite professional who is both resolute and non-demonstrative. That might be the problem, John is seldom able to convey feelings as directed by Nolan. A determined glare, a glint of humour in John’s eyes are littered throughout but we’re not sure why he cares so much about Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat other than morality. That suits the character and the world he is navigating but makes it harder to connect with The Protagonist.
Elizabeth too is doing a variation on a role she did in ‘The Night Manager’, as the disillusioned woman of the tyrannical villain who is used to gain access to him. Faring better are the supporting cast, in particular Robert Pattinson who brings a real understated warmth to his role as it goes along.
Nolan is clearly a fan of the 'James Bond' thrillers and there are echoes of them throughout, except those films are fun. In ‘Tenet’ the stakes are too high, the palette too downcast and the characters either too vile, desperate or cool to be having fun. Somebody should have told Nolan.
Yet there is so much ambition in this film that you cannot help but feel some gratitude.
It has real spectacle, is telling an original story and not spoon-feeding it to you, and some of the effects are downright nifty. If John David Washington holds The Protagonist at a remove from us, he still is one of the coolest heroes to spend two hours with.
You won’t leave the cinema fist pumping the air and feeling uplifted. More likely you’ll scratch you head and weigh up another trip back to the world of reversed time.
‘Tenet’ isn’t perfect, but it may grow in stature and until then, however it arranges it, it is well worth your time.