Tenet: Incredibly Ambitious, but Ultimately Disappointing
Writer/director Christopher Nolan has never been one to think on a small scale. Even in his smaller films ("Memento, "The Prestige"), the ideas tend to be bigger and more complex than you would think from the deceptively simple narratives, leading to intimate character pieces that leave you pondering long after. Then, of course, you have what most audiences know him for: his remarkable epics, which have encompassed the adventures of Batman, a mind-bending journey into dreams, a trip into unknown regions of outer space, and the extraordinary rescue of Allied soldiers on the shores of Dunkirk. Now he brings us what is perhaps his most ambitious project yet with "Tenet," a film that not only has him once again playing with the idea of time, but one that has him changing its very rules altogether.
Without going into too much detail (for the best way to experience a Nolan film is to know as little as possible), "Tenet" involves a Protagonist (John David Washington), who, upon completing a test operation, is recruited for a mission of the utmost importance involving bullets that have been inverted to where they're moving backwards through time. With the assistance of his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson), he traces the origin of the bullets, putting them on a path that will eventually have them fighting for the fate of the entire world.
Indeed, Nolan is not one to shy away from a large-scale epic with a multitude of moving parts, but as we've also seen throughout his incredible career, he's also not one to shy away from a narrative of remarkable complexity. Even going back to his first two features, "Following" and "Memento," he played with structure in such a way that had you wondering how the films ultimately fit together. However, things got even more complex with his ultimate masterpiece, "Inception," that asked audiences to wrap their heads around different layers of dreams and the temporal aspects involved. "Tenet" is similar in a way, but here, it's more so the flow of time and the interactions of the directional flows that you're asked to keep track of.
However, the somewhat unfortunate thing about Nolan's latest opus is that the convolution surrounding his narrative all seems so unnecessary, and merely serves to make a rather simple plot more complicated than it needs to be. Jumping back to "Inception" for a second, the intricacies of the various levels of dreams and their different temporal speeds served a purpose to the film's story, while the inversions of "Tenet," though necessary in general, felt a little more like a gimmick to have the characters repeat scenes from different angles, thus making it appear to be a more complicated puzzle, and again, one that ends up becoming more complicated than necessary. In fact, strip away the inversion aspect, and you have a pretty basic film about an agent out to save the world from a villain (Sir Kenneth Branagh) who feels like he came straight out of a James Bond film (and on a side note, this does indeed feel like the kind of Bond film Nolan would make, just with the heavy temporal aspect included).
With all of that said, it's hardly a bad film. It's beautifully made, with Nolan's usual technical prowess showing in every frame. There are action set pieces contained within that are extremely well done, including a fight we get to see both sides of time-wise, a freeway heist/chase, and an actual plane crashing into a hangar. If there's one thing Nolan knows how to do well, it's grand action sequences, as proven by (and not limited to) "The Dark Knight Trilogy," "Inception," and "Dunkirk." I wish I could say the same of the big climax of "Tenet," but unfortunately it's more easily classified as a messy action-extravaganza than anything else. Again, without going into detail, it's a sequence that should've been stunning and exciting, but it ends up being mostly numbing, while you're left scratching your head at some of the logic involved.
On the whole, while "Tenet" does have some things to like about it, it does ultimately prove to be one of Nolan's weaker efforts, at least from a narrative standpoint. Great puzzle films leave you wanting to go back and figure out how all of the pieces fit together, but it's hard to say that this one will make you want to do that. He plays with a fascinating concept, but the story just isn't as engaging as it should be, with the characters coming off as rather thin. What we end up with here is a film that's easier to admire for its craft than it is to particularly like. There is certainly quite a lot of ambition here, but it's sad to have to say that the result is just a little too disappointing. 2.5/4 stars.
Now playing in select theaters.
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