Odin O’Sullivan reviews Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s newest blockbuster.
Christopher Nolan is one of the few modern directors who could be considered a “blockbuster auteur.” Tenet is his most recent film, with many heralding it as the saviour of the cinema industry post-lockdown as Nolan’s films rarely fail to draw a large audience. Despite this being Nolan’s eleventh feature, it feels comparatively amateurish to some of his earlier, more structured work. It is no secret that Nolan has a predilection for exploring the abstract concept of time in his films but in Tenet he finally appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.
While his previous films with a temporal focus, (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk) all managed, with varying degrees of success, to utilise time as an engaging narrative convention, Tenet fails to build that intrigue. The premise of “inversion” is poorly and quickly explained in many different disjointed exposition scenes. This could be forgiven, as not every abstract concept must be fully understood to enjoy a film, if it were not for the sound mixing. The dialogue is often so difficult to hear that the audience doesn’t even get the chance to understand the concepts Nolan is attempting to explain. Often muffled under masks, whispered in crowded areas, mumbled through a bad Russian accent or just completely undermixed, the dialogue, for which Nolan is so often praised, is a mess.
At every turn Tenet, a film supposedly obsessed with the recurring and cyclical nature of time, drops in characters, lines, references, and Chekhov’s Guns that are never returned to. Add to this a rake of completely bizarre cameos, including Michael Caine showing up only to eat a plate of chips and tell the protagonist to get a better suit, and it begins to become tedious. Some truly excellent action sequences are a welcome respite from all the time-based navel Gazing, but not enough to distract from the self-indulgent nature of the film. The performances, when they could be heard, were strong, with both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson playing convincing secret agents, but Elizabeth Debicki’s two-dimensional, child-obsessed Kat once again showcases Nolan’s inability to write convincing female characters.
Often, when great directors are given creative carte blanche, they go on to make their masterpiece. Tenet is certainly not Nolan’s.