TENET - Alfie! What's it all about?
3 out of 5
To be fair, there is unusual emphasis on the success of Christopher Nolan's new film, TENET. It is being lauded as the film that will save cinemas during 2020, until the next saviour comes along - probably the forthcoming No Time To Die. For a film to carry that additional burden is unfair. Having said that, TENET is probably one of the first films that many cinemas-goers will see, or that will entice them back into the cinema. This is largely because of Nolan's back catalogue: Dunkirk or The Dark Knight trilogy. However, Nolan's back catalogue has a number of mind-bending, audience-provoking films: Memento, The Prestige, Inception, etc. Apart from the former, the latter selection expects the audience to be able to keep up, to pay attention and not be spoon-fed with lots of exposition. Therefore it's a surprise that TENET is a film that really does ask audiences to pay very close attention as a lot of exposition is laid out, more on that later.
In terms of story, I'll be brief. In TENET, a CIA operative known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is given a secret mission to prevent World War III. As he moves deep into the world of international espionage and arms dealers, he investigates how a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) came into possession of a time-based weapon of the future. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, and Clémence Poésy co-star. Half the film runs forward in time and half the film runs backwards in time - all at the same time. Confused? Do try to keep up.
Much is made early on of the word "tenet" - it's a code word (or is it a shadowy organisation?) that will unlock doors, identify friends, etc. After one or two uses it's discarded and not used again. It's omission would do nothing other than ruin the palindromic title of the film. One of the highlights is the film's opening sequence, a terrorist raid at an opera. It's up there in terms of pace and tension comparable to any Paul Greengrass Bourne film or pre-title Bond sequence. Along the way you will learn about Freeports (who knew we had two in Ireland?) and entropy (I knew a little and now I know more). At times the film felt like a trip through Wikipedia. Surprisingly for Nolan, the exposition is lazy. It follows the "so what do you know about...?" trope as one character asks another before launching into a full blown explanation. At one point in the film Robert Pattinson's character suggests the team get some sleep. For one brief moment in the film I empathised.
It's an interesting choice to have your lead actor without a name but this is what Nolan does. John David Washington makes a believable lead and really impresses as The Protagonist. He has enough screen presence and sincerity to carry the confusing lines (more on that later) and the physicality to deliver in the action sequences. Pattinson is in good form, growing in stature and delivery. While watching him I could clearly see how he is a good choice as Bruce Wayne in the upcoming The Batman. Kenneth Branagh is completely wasted. It was clear that, as with a large portion of the audience, he had no idea what was happening and just delivered the lines perfunctorily. He is mis-cast as a Russian villain.
Of all the leads, Elizabeth Debecki's character Kat was the most troubling. With an undercurrent of domestic violence, which is never really explored, her role seems to be to move the story along, to help the men get from point A to point B. Her character felt under-developed. Nolan favourite, Michael Caine appears in a wonderful cameo with lines only Caine can deliver.
The other problem I have with the film was the sound, specifically the voices. Yes, for a good portion, some of the characters are wearing masks and we have the Chris Nolan Bane-phenomenon. However for other portions, characters were walking along streets talking and my fellow cinema attendee and I found ourselves asking each other - what did he say? I have read one review which suggested watching it with sub-titles on. So I know it was not an issue in the specific cinema I saw it in but is inherent to the film. When you're laying out a plot as convoluted as this, we need to be able to hear what is being said.
Also, given the running time, I suspect some key plot points found their way to the cutting room floor saved for an extended Director's-cut version. This is a concern. I believe it's a problem that the story cannot be coherently told in 90-100 minutes. For a film to need repeated viewings (with the sub-titles on) is surely a failure in story-telling
There is no doubt, the cinematic master of time manipulation Christopher Nolan has created the Rubik's Cube of time travel films. It's mentally exhausting and only some will get all the pieces to line up. Many time-travel fans love to study and analyze the genre's fictional rules, and this offering is juicy. It will likely become the template to compare others against. Nolan expects a high level of intelligence from his viewers. While much of the film is a whirlwind of "what?," the ending suggests that much of the complexity isn't as relevant to the overall point. You can enjoy it at the level of your choosing. If you want to crunch around in the minutiae, there's ample material, but if you want to jump to the take away, then it plays much more like a James Bond movie with a lot of complicated dialogue. It definitely sets up the possibility of a sequel, and it seems like the detail dump is meant to entice viewers to visit cinemas again and again.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and the production values are magnificent. Nolan is a top-notch world builder as we know from Inception. Similar viscerally exciting special effects and design exist in Tenet. And the not-so-subtle message that comes with naming the lead character The Protagonist is worthwhile: you are the hero of your own story.