Movie review: Action-filled ‘Tenet’ leaves you hanging
The time-twisting “Tenet” - Hollywood’s first blockbuster release in about six months - is a lot to take in. Ambitious? Certainly! But big and bold is what’s expected from Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”). The term “as expected,” however, seems a tad too pedestrian a description for a writer-director of his stature. “Tenet,” as the teens would say, is so “extra” - as in trying too hard. It’s so excessive in its mind-boggling complexity that Nolan may have even outfoxed himself attempting to play Jedi mind tricks on us.
In telling what’s basically a Bond-meets-Bourne spy thriller, Nolan stays true to the basic tenets (sorry, couldn’t help it) of his oeuvre (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”) exploring concepts of time, place and identity. John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) - known simply as The Protagonist - is tasked with saving the world from “something worse” than a nuclear holocaust. The architect of said destruction is Satar, a Russian madman played with Shakespearean-level menace by Kenneth Branagh. Aiding the Protagonist is his sidekick, a rakish bloke filled by a scene-stealing Robert Pattinson. Satar’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki, terrific, as always) ends up caught in the crossfire, a pawn between good and evil. Also in the fray is the great Hindi actress Dimple Kapadia as an arms dealer and Nolan regular Michael Caine does his requisite cameo as a British intelligence officer advising Washington on the finer points of tailored suits. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy and Himesh Patel round out the strong supporting cast.
As it globe-trots between London, Italy, Ukraine and India, “Tenet” is stuffed with epic set pieces. There are exploding jumbo jets, high-speed chases, a tense catamaran race off the Amalfi Coast and the opening opera siege in Kyiv is as well-executed as that bank heist in “The Dark Knight.” Nolan knows how to stage exquisite action, but “oohs” and “aahs” of blowing things up good can only go so far. Nolan’s narrative redefines “cluttered,” as he plays with the physics of time, dabbling in concepts such as inversion and entropy. Just when you think you got it figured, Nolan drops in some business about an algorithm. Wait … what? The gist - I think - is time is circular, not linear (like the Time-Turner in Harry Potter, maybe?), where the past is the future and the future is the past. Follow? Me neither; but isn’t it clever that “Tenet” is a palindrome? Posey’s character, a scientist, says early on, “don’t try to understand it, feel it.” That’s good advice.
Like always, Nolan is chasing the nexus of science and emotion, and while he got us there in “Interstellar,” he doesn’t succeed at locating real humanity here. There are moments that are supposed to be affecting, but the characters are too thinly drawn to elicit emotional investment. The relationship between Washington and Debicki is too ambiguous to matter - a real head scratcher. On the plus side, Washington is a bonafide action star. He and Pattinson display genuine buddy chemistry in propping up a script laden with clunky exposition and boring, existential musings. It would be helpful, too, if Ludwig Göransson’s synthesized score wasn’t cranked so loud it washes out the dialogue.
Devotees of the director will vehemently go along for the ride. Except, they’ll have to do it in a movie theater because that’s how Nolan wants “Tenet” to be seen: on the big screen. It should be noted that my job is to report on the movies that are playing in our area and “Tenet” is indeed showing in South Shore cinemas. It is, however, your call on whether you should actually go to a public space to see it in the age of COVID-19. The Boston press screening took place at the ShowPlace Icon in the Seaport District with three writers and a studio rep, spaced out in the big Dolby auditorium, where Nolan, with a huge assist from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, makes you feel like you are in the middle of the action.
It’s exhilarating in size and scope, a visual stunner, fueled by eye-popping effects of exploded buildings suddenly reassembling like a shape-shifting Transformer; or bullets swirling through the air in reverse motion; or vehicles speeding backward down freeways. It’s movie magic. But is it worth risking your life to see? That’s entirely up to you.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh.
(PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language.)