Tenet (2020)

*. There’s a scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me where Basil (Michael York) tells Austin not to bother worrying about the mechanics of time travel. “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself,” he says, before turning to the camera and saying to the audience “That goes for you all, too.”
*. Advice worth heeding when watching any time-travel movie. Despite that warning though, and despite writer-director Christopher Nolan’s admission that he wasn’t making any case for scientific accuracy in this film, and despite the scientist who just shows up to give us the basics before telling the Protagonist “Don’t try to understand it,” plenty of people have approached Tenet as a problem to be solved, a puzzle to be decoded.
*. Making sense of Tenet is impossible, but I don’t want to suggest that the people who put so much effort into mapping it out are idiots. Trying to figure things out is one of the big attractions of movies like this. Personally, I felt lost from the start. I didn’t understand how objects could be inverted within a universe where the laws of physics were all going the other way. I didn’t understand why anyone who’d been inverted would experience some things going backward but not others. I mean, the whole universe would be going in reverse, the whole film playing back. Depending, that is, on one’s frame of reference, if there is a frame of reference. I didn’t understand the logistics of the “temporal pincer” at all. And while I accept that the Algorithm was a Macguffin, I couldn’t see why it had to take such an industrial form. Aside from turning it into the kind of thing you could carry around, which it needs to be in order to make the plot work.
*. That said, I was on board for Tenet, at least for the first little bit. We start off with Nolan in full James Bond mode. A terrorist attack on the Kiev Opera House. An attempted break-in to a high-security storage facility in Oslo, achieved by piloting a jet into its back wall. A fight in half-backward motion. I was grooving to the concept, even if I didn’t understand a lick of it, and was suitably slack-jawed at all the money dripping off the production.
*. But Tenet is a movie that gets smaller as it goes along. We hit the first slowdown with the introduction of the Bond villain, a Russian oligarch named Sator played by Kenneth Branagh. Sator is, I’m afraid, an almost unimaginably dull character, made even more dour by Branagh’s ridiculous performance. I don’t know if his Russian accent was made worse by his determination not to move his lips when he’s talking. I have to think Nolan told him to play the part restrained, but the bottom line is that he’s a total bore. He sails around the world in a giant yacht. He does stupid rich-person things like race catamarans. He says stupid rich-person things to his wife like “If I can’t have you, no one can!” This movie needed a good villain and they really struck out here.
*. Even his nefarious plot has become a cliché. Sator is only the latest in a long, long line of bad guys looking to destroy the world in order to save it from environmental catastrophe (though the motivation here actually comes from people in the future and Sator is only their tool). I guess Nolan had to come up with some threat to life as we know it and this is what first came to hand. Apparently saving the planet has become firmly established in Hollywood’s mind as equivalent to mad schemes to exterminate the human race. Think Zobrist in Inferno, Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Dr. Isaacs in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. I can’t say I like the politics here.

*. Then there’s the action. I mean, this is a Bond movie in all but name. But despite the resources behind it I found the action and stunts inferior to the latest entries in the Bond, Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, and John Wick franchises. Basically Tenet only has one new thing to show us, the forward-backward business, and once we get used to that after the first fight then it’s shot its bolt. That’s the only card they have to play. I didn’t find cars flipping back onto the road or explosions playing in reverse to be all that interesting, or even interesting at all.
*. Characters? The name of the Protagonist tells you all you need to know there. He’s a blank. I like John David Washington here, but he doesn’t have any particular identity. There’s a Bond girl played by Elizabeth Debicki who he has even less chemistry with than Bond has with his pick-ups, so the plot seems totally unmotivated. The Protagonist is trying to save the world and he lets himself get sidetracked saving the life of a woman he barely knows. Robert Pattinson is a bright spot, but as he remains a mysterious figure until the end we can’t invest that much in him. Sator, as I’ve said, is a total bore. Michael Caine shows up to . . . well, he shows up.
*. Actually, Caine’s unnecessary appearance underlines a problem I had with the movie, and with Nolan more generally. If I were a producer or head of a studio this is a guy I would run away from. Yes, he makes movies that are very successful, but he’s got a real problem with spending money. The problem being that he likes to spend it. He likes to spend a lot of it, and for no other purpose but to spend a lot of money. I mentioned the racing catamarans. Why is there a scene with racing catamarans? I don’t know. The whole scene had no purpose at all. But it’s the kind of thing you get in a Bond movie so they threw it in.
*. Put another way, this movie had a budget of $200 million and I think it would have been better with a budget of $20 million. There’s a whole lot of expensive stuff going on here that it doesn’t need, where what it’s really lacking is more intensity and a clearer sense of what’s going on. As I’ve said, there are people who like to explain, or try to explain, the ending. But the fact is that when you’re watching the ending I don’t think it’s possible to have any clear idea of what is happening. This makes it very hard to care, beyond being basically cognizant of the fact that there’s a bomb and a countdown and they have to grab the Macguffin before time’s up. It would have been a lot more compelling if we’d known what the hell any of it meant, or if any of it mattered. Because given the way the time-travel stuff is presented I wasn’t sure any of it did matter, either at the end or the beginning.
*. Christopher Nolan is considered to be one of the most talented directors working today. I think Memento may be his best movie so far. This helps underline what I mean by more not always being more. I mean, Inception was bloated and overrated, but it had its impressive moments and at times became sort of interesting. But did Nolan really need to spend this much money, not to mention five, or in some reports 20 years working on the screenplay here? For some bog-standard Bond shenanigans implanted with a bit of time-flipping nonsense? What was he spending all that time thinking about? Or was he just scouting locations and imagining yachts, and wind farms, and catamarans?

30 thoughts on “Tenet (2020)

    1. Alex Good

      I like Memento. It’s clever and well imagined. I think it’s my favourite Nolan film, at least that I’ve seen. This movie . . . well, if you liked Inception I think you’ll like it. I really thought the time-travel paradoxes ended up being too much though, to the point where I was lost at the end. And Branagh is a drag. Basically I liked the first part of the movie and then it stalled out for me.

  1. fragglerocking

    I’ve stayed away from this one as my movie buddy (Phil) has a hard time with time travel movies. I’m quite happy to let the ‘what’s the heck’s?’ go over my head and enjoy the visuals so really enjoyed Inception. Memento is a fab movie and I must do it again. I remember Branagh being a Russian baddie in the Jack Ryan movie which he directed, doesn’t sound like he got any better at it.

    1. Alex Good

      If you try to figure out the time travel angle in this one then you’re a goner. You just have to go with it. But even going with it I still felt it was played out after the first hour. Branagh is a plank here. They could have used Dr. Evil.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Yeah, the score is good. Stands out on a few occasions. The actual sound mixing has received some negative comments. But then I watch movies with subtitles on all the time anyway because I gave up on actors mumbling their lines. Either that or I need to get my hearing checked.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I hear you with the accents. The moment I gave in and switched to subtitles or closed captioning was about ten years ago when I was watching the original British run of The Office. Maybe you wouldn’t notice, but to a North American ear it was really hard making out what Ricky Gervais and the rest of the cast were saying.

        It doesn’t matter how good your sound system is for some movies. One of the last movies I saw in a theatre was Blade Runner 2049 where the sound was cranked so loud the speakers were shaking and every time a gun fired you felt it in your teeth. But in quieter scenes I was missing whole lines of dialogue because the actors were just muttering whatever it was they were saying. I missed out on one key plot point because of it.

      3. fragglerocking

        I have difficulty with South USA accents but not North ones, even cope with a Noo York one, I’m OK with Irish but not so good with Scottish, and can’t understand a word from Ashington natives and that’s only up the road from me, they should come with subtitles. Sound mixes are really hit and miss on movies I can’t remember much about BR2049, yet another pointless sequel IMHO.

  2. Over-The-Shoulder

    It doesn’t sound good – at all. Always thought Nolan is much better with a small budget, like Memento. Not a big fan of John David Washington, mainly because of that BlacKKKlansman film, which was utterly awful. I would like to skip, but I imagine, at some point in my life, I’ll watch it.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Haven’t seen the KKK movie yet. Been holding off. Like I say, this one starts off strong but just hits a wall. And I thought visually there was less to it than Inception, or in terms of the action in any of the other big action franchises I mentioned. Which leaves it with the time-travel story, and that turns into the usual ball of yarn that’s not worth trying to straighten out. But I’d still recommend checking it out at some point. I mean, it’s not some total piece of crap.

  3. Tom Moody

    Phil Dick got into the same trouble with Counter-Clock World, where time in the book flows backwards but the narrative is linear (as in forward). At the climax he has bullets being sucked back into firearms but that probably should have occurred at the beginning. Still, it’s Dick, and fairly brilliant. I enjoyed Tenet quite a bit but the affectlessness of the lead actor didn’t help — the man has no range.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I haven’t read that one. Will look for it! I know there are tons of explanations online about how the flow of time in Tenet is supposed to work, and I checked out quite a few of them, but at some point they all break down. I did like the way they just sort of waved their hand at the whole question of the whether the plan of the Future People was going to be successful. Apparently even they didn’t know. But then how could they know? It was just something they were trying, and who knows what the results were going to be. As far as I can tell the whole concept would just splinter reality into an infinite number of parallel universes. But by the time I got to the end I couldn’t think about it any more.

      Yeah, Washington is bland. But I actually thought that was OK for the part. I thought he really needed a crazy villain type to play off against though to make it work, and Branagh is even more wooden.

  4. Tom Moody

    I just saw it a six months ago and don’t remember Branagh being in it, which says something about his performance, or non-performance. I remember a controlling husband on a yacht but I may have not even realized it was Branagh.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Bob Clark’s zombie movie is still being discussed 50 years after the fact.
        Robert Pattison’s suit has already been forgotten.
        Alex = timeless classic.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        You might want to talk to your therapist. Your blood pressure online always spikes. Tell them you want to learn how to be cool, like Fonzie. Or how to be mellow, like Alex. I’m telling you, it’ll be worth it.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        *sigh* Reading comprehension.

        When I say “I’m telling you . . . ” that is what is known as the first person. When I am giving you advice as to how to instruct your therapist I’m telling you what you should say. Hence you should tell them that you want to be more like Alex. If you were to say that you wanted to be more like “me” that (a) wouldn’t make any sense and (b) would be seen by your therapist as dangerously counterproductive since obviously no one wants to be like you. That’s why you’re in therapy!

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