Tenet

Tenet

The most uncompromising film Christopher Nolan has made yet: a $200 million dollar art flick. I wasn't surprised to see one couple walking out at my (theatrical) showing. It is visceral, loud, relentless, personal, and surreal. And better for it.

Nolan's film is also surprisingly conservative, supporting free will (alongside predestination), patriotism, tradition, and an ordered universe with a single timeline that emphasizes moral responsibility. It’s hard to have a more conservative storyline than folks in the future literally trying to kill their grandparents (us).

At one point our protagonist even says someone without faith in God isn't even human! The villains are also climate change extremists who think that by annihilating us they can alter the future and save themselves (why they don’t just travel back themselves I don’t know, but go with it). Kenneth Branagh plays their representative in the present, a suicidal wife-beating (Fitbit wearing) egotist whose only regret is bringing a son into a world. Extinction rebellion indeed.

I was reluctant to see this, disliking Nolan, the trailer - and pretty much everything he's made outside of Memento and The Prestige (the more character focused works) - but Tenet shows his unique visual style maturing and fearlessly employing a blank cheque to give the world a heartfelt artistic daydream of brutalist architecture, gentlemen's attire, military fetishism and rhythmic thumping bass on the big screen before that cheque probably gets revoked.

It's designed to be felt, and for such an emotionally dead director that's quite a thing! It dabbles in upper-class chic like a good yacht rock video.

Claims of the film being incomprehensible are overblown. A team of special agents, led by audience-surrogate John David Washington and Robert Pattinson (in his most likeable performance yet), must find a bad guy and retrieve a McGuffin before the world ends. It's a Mission Impossible heist. The time aspect is just an excuse to make inventive and stylish action scenes, but the sci-fi supporting style is there, if you dig into it. If you do, that’s when the film may become a head scratcher, as with all time travel movies. Make this mistake and you'll miss the rollercoaster because you're working out how the track was welded together. I just trusted that the plot was logical, and thoroughly enjoyed Tenet as a 2.5 hour stunt-filled music video featuring Nolan's upper class imagination.

Thankfully Zimmer picked Dune over this and Mandalorian composer Ludwig Goransson stepped in, bringing fresh air to Nolan's "ain't broke don't fix it" attitude. Goransson must be exhausted (even the released soundtrack is 90 minutes long), for large parts are stunts and music melded together. Seen in a music video context, the fact Nolan's dialogue is sometimes hard to hear makes sense. It's just another sound, along with the gunshots and bass as an instrument. Try imagining the bizarre end section of the track "Sator" played so loud it shakes a large theatre, while a sleek vehicular heist takes place on the big screen, and you may understand the primal, rhapsodic effect this film strived for, and mostly succeeded at, at least on the big screen.

Some of my complaints about Nolan persist. I don't think he's a very good action director/editor, which is a problem in this genre. His fights lack grace and elegance, being from the Bourne school rather than the Asian/Snyder school, and he's far better at building tension than a pay-off. Tenet bypasses this weakness by staging everything as a heist film though, where building tension is the name of the game, and although Nolan still can't make a beautiful action scene, he knows how to compensate for it by using real stunt work and props. The jumbo jet scene is great.

Other gripes involve tacky sequel-baiting, the sole female character being more of a pawn/trophy, and the opening scene, which plonks us straight into a frantic action scene before we've had time to know or care about what's going on (it also shows a potential massacre in an auditorium, which is in rather poor taste given Nolan's Dark Knight history). But the film settles down and finds its humanity, and my gripes didn't stand in the way of the film's best quality: an artist sincerely pouring his (moral) passions onto the screen, realism be damned.

We know we're in the realm of dreams when the main character lives in an offshore wind turbine. Finally Nolan overcomes literalism and begins to play with poetry.

I also enjoyed seeing Nolan coming back to his sheltered London private school world, and being so unabashedly earnest to keep using the phrase "temporal pincer movement". There's a sweet honesty to it, unlike some of his his previous works that bogged everything down with corny philosophy or visual coldness.

After a lot of practise, Nolan's execution has become so refined and vibrant the movie can stand on its own as piece of pure style. Combining that poetic daydreaming with James Cameron technical geekery forms an excellent blend, and though it may lack depth and coherence, Tenet sings to the emotions.

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