When I started watching this I thought: really are you kidding me? This is total bollocks.
Like all Christopher Nolan films it’s a story that revolves around time, and time operates within a spacial construct, so it’s about time and space. To be honest, I have no idea what’s going on. There’s something about the future… reverse entropy, and being able to change the present by going backwards through time. This is hokum. Or is it bunkum? It doesn’t really matter, because it’s a high concept MacGuffin.
Like Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s time concepts are quite arty, in an art school kind of way, reminding me of the 1930s heyday of Bergson influenced Cubism, which was all about experiences of time and space. Nolan is a sort of cinematic Cubist. If there can be multiple viewpoints of time and space in a single painting, surely there can be reverse entropy in a film?
Unfortunately, in the same way that Cubism became a style and an aesthetic spectacle, Tenet feels much the same. I didn't find the concept convincing and whenever the actors attempted to explain what was going on, it felt ridiculous. I could see lines of dialogue on a page instead of the people speaking. It was Dialogue with a capital D. Suddenly, Looper felt like the most intelligent time-travel movie ever made.
One of the unspoken contracts between a film and an audience is the suspension of disbelief. So let’s suspend our disbelief and call this some form of near-magical technology or time travel and get on with the film.
If Interstellar is about ‘time’ literally in space, Tenet is about ‘time’ within a homage to the spy story. I was thinking of zany 1960s spy movies like Charade, Topaz, and The Man From Uncle. Those international spy genre capers were all about glamorous travel, fun, attractive leading characters, pretty locations, and silly romantic flirtation. A sort of action film that comes across as an advert for consumer Capitalism. Sadly, Tenet does not have any of that sense of fun. It is also part James Bond and The Bourne Identity, so there’s a strange mix of things going on that’s not easy to decipher.
If the high concept time-MacGuffin is totally befuddling, so is the music. It’s so loud and invasive during the action sequences. WE REALLY NEED TO GET SOME THUMPING MUSIC IN HERE TO SHOW HOW ACTION PACKED THIS FILM IS. I’m thinking ‘oh man’ not another techno-trance-EDM blaster that doesn’t seem to mesh with what I’m watching. It feels overblown and incongruous. I am disappointed there was no backwards music going on (although I read somewhere that the music was designed to play the same, forwards and backwards).
So, having shrugged off the meta-concept-time-metaphor-reality-paradox-inversion and the intrusive, loud soundtrack, I just sat back and thought ‘fuck it’, turned the sound down a couple of bars and took in the view. And the view is definitely what Tenet is about, because this is a good looking film. You might call it a visual feast. There’s the glam scenery (although it is also going for gritty), the backwards gimmicks and tricks, really great colour grading, and Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki looking like a couple of models out on a fashion shoot. Great production values all around (apart from the weird sound mixing).
Like Tenet, Interstellar also had some mind-bending physics, but at least that came towards the end. I let that go because I was kept involved by the father and daughter dynamics (plus the amazing visuals, cool robots, and a great performance by Matthew McConaughey). There were no emotional relationships to lock me into Tenet and the whole thing felt quite clinical, as if its humanity had been disinfected away. I suppose you could use the phrase ‘too slick for its own good’.
I thought Kenneth Branough was fine as the Russian-baddie. The script could have made his character more terrifying, to increase the threat level to the other characters. The problem for me was that I didn’t like any of the characters and the interactions between them felt slightly wooden and cold. A technical marvel with no soul. So big and widescreen and convoluted that there was no space for those small emotional connections. Is this a knock-on effect of shooting in IMAX with complex special effects?
Tenet is a weird cocktail with amazing ingredients, but conflicting flavours. I wasn’t sure what I was tasting, or if I liked the drink.