‘I’ ON CULTURE
The movies are back! Let’s give, well, two cheers for the first big theatrical release, Tenet, from director Christopher Nolan. Movie fans have been drooling over this one since the first trailers came out. We were supposed to see it in April, but a pandemic got in the way.
Think of the movie as a James Bond flick on a whole bunch of hallucinogenic mushrooms. There’s a good guy, more or less, and a sidekick, maybe less. And, of course, a really evil villain with a strange accent. Just like James Bond. But this film is far trickier. Nolan is crazy about time. One of his first films, Memento, actually went backward in time. And Inception was all about going back through memories. This one, however, involves the (as far as we know) impossible notion that some things can move backward in time. Even the title of the movie is a palindrome… it reads the same forward and backward.
The Protagonist (John David Washington) is on a CIA mission gone bad and bites on a cyanide capsule to avoid capture. Normally, that would end his part of the movie, but suddenly he is awake and asked to join a super-secret (compared to the CIA?) group that is somehow defending the past from the future. Since this is scientifically impossible, Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, takes a lot (and I mean a real lot) of time explaining how all of this could happen, and why somehow it is wrong to expect that interference from the future is wrong. (I would assume they would try to fix things going wrong rather than causing messes, but then I was not the writer). At any rate, Protagonist, who has no other name, since that might get in the way of the confusion, starts working with Neil (Robert Pattinson), who seems to be in the film mostly to be the person either explaining the plot or having it explained to him. We spend too much time having things explained, particularly the concept of inversion, by which some ammo from the future can arrive at a particular place and time to kill a target. Well, I think that’s what the point of the film was.
The villain, a Russian arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) has a somewhat lonely and rather nuts wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and if you’ve been to at least one Bond movie, you can figure out that sub-plot. So we have all the regular elements set up: stoic good guy who never quite understands completely what is going on but bumbles through things well, sidekick who is of no particular value but allows for explanatory dialogue, evil if somewhat comic villain and a gorgeous woman who is mostly around so people who do not want to see handsome men in exceptionally well-tailored suits have a bit of an eye feast.
There is some great action here; Nolan has become expert at that. Cars flip wildly, jets rip through hangers, people rappel off high buildings — all the action shots an adrenaline junkie might want are present, with the occasional treat of having them run backward. But the characters, except for Debicki, are so emotionless that it is hard to actually feel something for them.
The focus is on the plot and all of its twists and turns. Usually, that is great. I love movies and books like that. The problem is that the concept is terribly muddled. There are fights where some of the people are moving forward in time and others are moving backward. I love science fiction, and time travel is fascinating, but understanding this film might be impossible.
The cast suffers from this. Washington and Pattinson project cool and they dress really well. But I got the feeling that after a while, they really weren’t certain of what was going on. Branagh’s Russian accent was awful, but he at least seemed beastly. Debicki was gorgeous and desperate but there was no real reason given for why she had gotten into the whole mess.
In summary, this is an interesting mess. It has a load of action for those who miss it. It has glitz, and it has stars. It has a twisty, complex script. But it just never holds together. Nolan has done several really great films. This is not one of them. See it when it gets to television.