Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is as fun as it is incomprehensible

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is as fun as it is incomprehensible

Years ago, when I reviewed Interstellar, I compared Christopher Nolan to Pink Floyd. It was probably a little simplistic in the end (Memento is not The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, though I don’t remember making that specific point, either) but I still stand by the general idea that Christopher Nolan is the most progressive (as in progressive rock, not as in left-wing and open-minded) director working today. Inasmuch as prog fans enjoy prog for the dexterity and prowess of the playing and the complexity of the time signatures and songwriting, Christopher Nolan fans enjoy him because he is a pompous, maximalist director both narratively and visually. 

The original Pink Floyd comparison was done by someone who, at the time, had very little space in their heart for progressive rock and perhaps too much space for the vague concept of “three chords and the truth.” Though I still find Interstellar unbearably corny and completely out of touch with human emotion and I do not really care about anything that Pink Floyd has released since the Syd Barrett years, I have opened my heart up to progressive rock to some extent. I still cannot stomach symphonic pomposity, but once you wrap your head around the fact that the excess is the point, it helps tremendously. In that same sense, excess is very much the point of Christopher Nolan movies, which reach their prog apex and transcend into avant-garde soupy chaos with Tenet, his most fun — and most completely incomprehensible — film in quite some time.

Traditionally, this is the part where I give you a short rundown of the plot in order to better situate you for the rest of the stuff I’m about to say. Tenet makes that difficult. I could go and read what others have said and try to piece together an actual description of the film, but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? Here’s what I gathered: the Protagonist (John David Washington) is a secret operative with an even more secret government operation who has been thrust into the middle of what is shaping up to be World War III. According to a bunch of suits and scientists, WWIII is going to centre around time-bending, due to some sort of unclear technology that allows people in the future to reverse the course of bullets. All of this mess eventually leads the Protagonist to direct contact with Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, hamboning it up like nobody’s business), a Russian arms dealer who holds the key to all of this time-shifting business and seems also pretty hell-bent on killing himself and taking the world with him.

The Protagonist hooks up with a rakish dandy (Robert Pattinson) who helps him do things like rappel up a building to get some intel and eventually with Sator’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki), who wants nothing more than to escape his wrath and take her son with her. Cue a lot of elaborate action setpieces in which some things go backwards and others do not. Because time is an extremely slippery concept in the world of this film, death is never quite final or quite as deadly, air is sometimes impossible to breathe (you can’t really reverse-breathe, after all) and so on and such forth.

Where Nolan often revelled in the complexity of his narratives and justified them through existing concepts of science or philosophy, here he attempts to take it a step further by drawing brand new paradigms and sketching out “new” concepts of time-travel that are, frankly, completely baffling. Though it’s clear enough what the goal of each scene is (Tenet is basically, if you boil it down to its simplest, a heist movie) within the scene, it’s often impossible to discern how obtaining access, say, to an underground vault holding various paintings is going to actually stop WWIII. Tenet is thus practically impossible to describe or even synthesize to yourself; imagine the most convoluted Mission Impossible was also periodically about time going backwards, but kept all the globe-trotting in.

This absolute overdose of spatiotemporal mumbo-jumbo has two distinct results: it furthers the no-human-has-ever-seemed-less-human nature of much of Nolan’s work, and it makes Tenet more outwardly fun than some of his other efforts. As with Interstellar and Inception, the characters here are impossible to identify with as even human-adjacent; the Protagonist even textually refers to himself as the Protagonist, which is a very good idea for a Christopher Nolan parody that he has taken from us before we could do it. A supposed connection between Washington and Debicki barely registers at all, but at least the film doesn’t attempt to plumb the depths of emotion that Interstellar did. It’s more outwardly a blockbuster and less of an elevated, $200-million mindfuck, even if it makes very little sense.

Lushly photographed and filled to the brim with sartorial porn (Washington and Pattinson sure change their outfits a lot considering the fate of Earth hangs in the balance), Tenet is, to its infinite credit, very watchable. For how convoluted and overwritten it is, the film remains fairly gripping from a purely technical standpoint, and its action scenes are predictably pretty sturdy and a little more grounded than one might expect considering the nature of the film. (I did not expect, for example, to see Washington take a cheese grater to a dude’s face.) It begs the question exactly when all of this is going to be enough for Nolan — when, exactly, this ever-growing obsession with arcane, complex sci-fi thriller may veer off in a different direction. For the time being, though, this Christopher Nolan movie is unmistakably the work of Christopher Nolan. I don’t know which Pink Floyd record it is, though — this might be his jam band movie. ■Tenet opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Aug. 26. Watch the trailer here:

John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki star in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

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