Nolan's latest continues his complex exploration of time
Director Christopher Nolan has been a staunch defender of the original cinematic experience; of sitting down in a dark theater surrounded by strangers to experience a film. It was therefore fated for his newest film Tenet(2020) to be the first major studio release to bring audiences back to theaters after exhibitors closed due to COVID-19.
Tenet is a spy thriller. We follow a nameless spy (John David Washington), who after a mission gone wrong bites his cyanide pill. Instead of dying, however, he wakes up on a ship and is informed that he now no longer exists and is to work for an organization that is studying the inversion of time on objects. This inversion of time shows bullets that have come from the future, and we discover how time itself is reversed around these objects; possibly presaging a sinister future.
Nolan has always been fascinated with time and has made it a central theme in all his films, including his first student-made Following (1998). In Tenet we get Nolan’s boldest leap into understanding the concept of time, and how it can be played around with in our reality. Without wanting to spoil too much, Tenet generally is fascinated with what would happen if one object was moving backwards through time while everyone and everything else was moving forwards. It is the relationship between these two crossed planes that fascinates the director, and which provide much of the visual and plot’s appeal for the movie.
It was truly impressive to learn that Nolan chose to do most of the film with practical effects, reportedly using less CGI than some romantic comedies. This makes the time-inversed scenes all the more involving and effective; they truly prove to be hypnotic. As for the logic of this science fiction, like in Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) there is a sizeable amount of research done into physics in order to bring about the most realistic portrayal of the film’s concept. While many have called Nolan to direct a future James Bond film, Tenet proves that the 007 franchise would be too restraining for the ambitions of the British auteur on screen. Viewers will therefore be grateful to see him completely unleashed here. The film proves to show Nolan has matured well as a director, the action scenes are certainly more gripping an involving than the choppy ones in Batman Begins (2005), and the Brit has also grown to trust his audience even more by throwing difficult concepts at them.
However, Nolan falls into a trope that has already plagued many of his previous films: that of lacking to infuse emotion in his characters. In some of his other films, Nolan has been able to give his characters some semblance of an emotional motivation, such as Cobb and his children in Inception (2010) or Cooper with his daughter Murph in Interstellar. In Tenet, however, Nolan seems to stray very far from personalizing his characters. In fact, this appears to be on purpose as he doesn’t even name his main character. David Washington is able to provide enough swagger to the Protagonist to make his scenes appear magnetic, but unfortunately the script doesn’t provide enough material for viewers to truly care about him. This could very well be Nolan’s way of commenting on how the Protagonist is a simple cog in the bigger plan of fate and time, but it also alienates viewers from the film’s stakes. Robert Pattinson, who plays the Protagonist’s sidekick, is able to provide more energy to his character so that he becomes likeable, and one is invested in his well-being. And this is largely thanks to the actor’s performance than the way the character had been crafted on page. The British thespian has proved to have a meteoric swing and trajectory ever since he finished the Twilight (2008) saga, and it makes one only more excited for his take in The Batman (2021)
That the cerebral trumps the emotional has become a custom of Nolan and therefore viewers should be forewarned by now (no pun intended) when watching his films. Certainly, Nolan is able to bring his usual level of complexity to this film, so that you are too invested in deciphering the plot to focus too much on the other flaws, and that is essentially what an entertaining film should do. This allows the director to get away with many flaws as well as lending a film the incredibly value tag of “rewatchability” and more specifically, the motivation to do the latter.
Thus, as a whole, Tenet proves to get the job done of making you think and ponder its concepts long after you have left the theater. However, Nolan’s impersonal approach to the characters make the larger plot’s stakes seem uninvolving, and the character motivations rather unconvincing. Overall, Tenet is another Nolan triumph and the director’s originality and daring in the cinematic sphere should still be admired and encouraged to continue.