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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Tenet (2020)

In the much-hyped new film from visionary director Christopher Nolan, John David Washington plays a time-bending spy battling to prevent a man-made apocalypse...

There are reasons to not like Tenet.

First off, it is macho as hell. Sure, there are female characters, but all are minor and few – if any – have agency. The film also does not pass the Bechdel Test, which feels pretty lazy in 2020, and features many of the same issues around poorly written female characters as all of Christopher Nolan’s other films up to this one.

Less superficially, the film is also rife with phallic and penetrative imagery. Without spoiling the film, there is a key machine that features heavily in the movie’s second two-thirds that is particularly womb-like.

While watching the film, I even started to call it “The Rebirther” in my head. Made me think of Ridley Scott's Alien a lot of the time.

And there are lots of big, tall, penisy buildings, many of which need to be scaled, some of which are shattered in dramatic style… windmills… all sorts.

And, like most Christopher Nolan movies, a really rubbish marriage sits at Tenet’s heart.

I got the sense, while watching it, that maybe he’s just working through some things.

Anyway, machismo aside, Tenet is also a rather brown film. Visually, it is very reminiscent of the much maligned second Daniel Craig Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. Lots of brutalist architecture, mineral-rich deserts, thundering water.

Like that film also, the movie uses a lot of tonal symbolism – white, black and grey, because – hold onto your hats – we’re telling a moral story here, maaan!

Don’t get me wrong, in that the film is fantastically designed. It’s thematically robust visually, and filled with astounding cars, suits, boats, interiors, and everything makes sense. It’s very Bond-y in that way. It just isn’t very pretty, unless you like Soviet-style modernism, and I did find myself longing for a bit more colour, particularly in the film’s climactic final act.

(This said, I felt the same way about Inception’s final big raid on the snowy mountain base – the characters all in uniforms that remove their individuality, a lot of powdery stuff going boom, etc etc).

Lastly, and probably most problematically, the film is wilfully complicated. I absolutely loved this, but there is a scene early on where Clémence Poésy’s Doctor Exposition (not the character’s actual name) tells John David Washington’s Protagonist (his character’s actual real name, not that he’s referred as it directly) to not worry about how complicated the whole premise of the film is, and to just go with it. On instinct.

It’s at this point that the film likely splits opinion. Either you can pay really close attention, and have been doing so up to that point, and are ready for all of the ideas, events and moments seeded in the film’s first third to come back around and land in the second part, or you can rely on instinct and try to just enjoy the mind-bendingly beautiful, extraordinarily intricate action sequences on a sensory level.

The film ultimately seems to smugly say, “You smarties? Good work. Keep going. And you dumb-dumbs? Just sit back and enjoy the light show, you hopeless morons.”

Being a chronically insecure nerd, I quite liked Christopher Nolan patting me on the head, and at no point did I lose the thread of what was happening. I have also heard complaints of dialogue being muffled or incomprehensible, and I don’t really take much stock with these complaints. The movie is essentially an extended exercise in catch and release. It relies very heavily on dramatic irony. It is political, post-modern, absurd, Brechtian at times, and Nolan is pushing to use all sorts of wilful filmmaking technique to push the boundaries of what a science fiction action movie can do.

At the same time though, if you’re not excited about seeing a technical showcase, and if you’re not up for being part of a wildly byzantine audio-visual test, then it’s quite likely you will either be left rather cold by the film, or you might even kind of hate it.

This, of course, is a massive shame, but it’s Nolan’s error not anyone else’s. It’s an extraordinarily arrogant premise, ultimately, but I don’t think you can genuinely push the boundaries of any cinematic form without being a pretentious arse.

And push the boundaries he does – of course. Some of the action sequences here are absolutely hair-raising and genuinely innovative. The opening is heart-in-the-mouth stuff (and feels, if I’m honest, a bit like a visual representation of what 2020 has done to the arts). A later sequence, involving a heist on a highway that features almost a dozen vehicles and which goes on for nigh-on 40 minutes when you think about it, left me shaking my head and wondering, “How?”

The big one though, and crikey is it big, is another heist featuring the ground-based crash of a whole real-world aeroplane. This sequence breaks out into lots and lots of smaller, equally brilliant moments, and as with much of Tenet there are wonderfully choreographed fights and physical movement sections within it that would be impressive on their own. Taken as part of a whole package, the whole thing is pretty marvellous – but there are so many layers to the trifle that it’s quite easy to get lost.

For the smarties, that’s fine. For the dumb-dumbs though, the question remains about whether the individual actiony ‘bits’ are good enough to stand alone as explosions, fights, acrobatic instances or witty one-liners.

It’s the combination of it all that gives a trifle its richness. If you try to enjoy the cream, custard, jelly, lady-fingers or sherry soaked fruit on their own, you might shrug and think, “They’re fine, but hardly a pudding of particular note…”

Credit to the film from my perspective in that I had no idea how long it was, or quite how much trifle I had eaten. I had not paid attention to the running time in advance, and when the film finally came out on streaming earlier this week (after my having missed it at the cinema due to fears of plague) I watched it after work and couldn’t believe, when I checked the clock, that over two-and-a-half hours had passed since it had started.

I really needed to brush my teeth and get to bed!

Suffice to say that I found it incredibly tense, involving, wildly entertaining, and so needlessly complex that it genuinely became funny. Intentionally, I would add – in that the film is about free will and inevitability, and to what degree we are all fated to do what we do and be who we are.

Within this, it is really about climate change. To what extent is humanity destined to destroy itself?

Nolan’s answer is a little cryptic, sure, but it’s optimistic too. Unquestionably, there will be selfish, rich, pathetic baddies like Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator (Branagh, by the way, is the best he has been in years here) – and in him we can see Zuckerberg, Bezos, Putin, Xi and their ilk. But there will also be stoics about who are willing to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Give Greta Thunberg a gun and a time machine. It's clobberin' time!

The ultimate hilarity comes from the idea that we ought to be comforted. It is inevitable, Nolan says, that things will be fine. It will look like it won’t, but it was always destined to be.

This cockiness, on top of all the rest of it, was cheering to me. As was seeing John David Washington being an absolutely amazing black hero in 2020’s biggest film, supported admirably by Robert Pattinson being a shifty, slippery Englishman who one can only read as a bit of a Bond proxy.

Suffice to say that I loved it. Not as much as The Dark Knight or The Prestige or Dunkirk, but a hell of a lot more than the now-rather-dated Batman Begins, the utterly soporific Insomnia, the bludgeoningly pompous The Dark Night Rises, or the mawkishly sentimental Interstellar.

Is it better than Inception? Probably not.

Is it better than Momento, though? Definitely.

And that one has bullets going backwards in it too, if you remember.

Almost feels, dare I say it, that old Mr Nolan might have gone full circle…

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