Tenet (2020)

Tenet
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Michael Caine, Himesh Patel, Dimple Kapadia
Seen on: 31.8.2020

Plot:
A special operative (John David Washington) is captured in a mission that goes very wrong. He manages to swallow a suicide pill – only to wake up recruited for a very special program. A program he knows nothing about except that there is something weird going on with time and he has one code word to find information: Tenet. Things soon point him to arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) – but that’s only the beginning.

Nolan has made some good movies, but Tenet isn’t one of them. It’s pretty much incomprehensible drivel that’s much too preoccupied with its own coolness. If you’re looking for an example of style over substance: this is it.

The film poster showing the Protagonist (John David Washington) twice, mirrored along a diagonal line, once facing forward, once backward, once wearing a suit, once a uniform. Both times he is aiming a gun.

Tenet isn’t a bad film, exactly. On a technical level, it’s stunningly made and looks gorgeous (although, as so often, I would have wanted the fight scenes to slow down so I could actually follow what was happening and appreciate the time shenanigans that goes into them). The casting is excellent. Washington is perfectly slick, Pattinson is utterly charming, Branagh hams it up, Debicki gets everything possible out of her underwritten role and any film that surprises me with Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a win for me.

It is on another level that the film is in deep trouble. For one, the dialogues are often completely incomprehensible. Not only is the movie obsessed with explaining itself to you in science babble at every possible turn, it does so mostly with such a weird sound mix that you often only catch every second word. It’s like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, only every character gets a turn here. Now, arguably one could say that explanations aren’t all that important and it’s more essential to just go for a ride with the film. But if that’s what the film wanted to achieve by making itself so hard to understand, why does it consist of mostly explanations? It’s frustrating for casual viewers and I almost dread the discourse that will spring from it where thousands of fanboys will dissect everything.

The Protagonist (John David Washington) walking through a vault with his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson).

I don’t have a problem with not understanding a film the first time round – if it is emotionally engaging and draws me in, I am very willing to watch it again and see if I understand it better the next time around. Or even if it is simply not there to be understood. But Tenet, on the one hand, at least pretends to be a film that can be understood (if only one is smart/dedicated/great/whatever enough) and on the other hand simply lacks any kind of emotional draw. In the end, I was just not engaged enough to even care if I understand it or not.

It’s a film that is all concept and style, and loses the essential part of storytelling in all of that: that stories are emotional. Stories are about people (in the loosest sense). Stories need an emotional core. Without it, they are cold and empty. And that’s ultimately what Tenet is.

Andrei (Kenneth Branagh) pressing Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) against a glass wall. She is wearing a breathing mask.

Summarizing: too cool for its own good.

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