Entering 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was just the summer’s most keenly awaited event movie. Eight apocalyptic months on, it’s assumed the mantle of messianic cinema: a project aiming to blow minds, make a bundle, and thereby save the theatrical experience for all mankind. Beneath the parting clouds, there emerges a mere motion picture, screened in London this week ahead of next Wednesday’s European rollout. What kind of picture is it? Big, certainly: IMAX-scaled, and a hefty 150 minutes even after a visibly ruthless edit. It’s clever, too – yes, the palindromic title has some narrative correlation – albeit in an exhausting, rather joyless way. As second comings go, Tenet is like witnessing a Sermon on the Mount given by a saviour speaking exclusively in dour, drawn-out riddles. Any awe is flattened by follow-up questions.
If you just want big, then Tenet is as big as the world, a scale Nolan flaunts by traversing the planet twice, in different directions. Within its opening half-hour, we whizz around Kiev, where John David Washington is introduced heading up some sort of anti-terror taskforce; to Mumbai, where Washington encounters intelligence officer Robert Pattinson; then to London to dine with Michael Caine. (And one of Tenet’s less appealing spectacles: an 87-year-old eating steak in close-up.) Later, we head to Oslo, scene of a smashing great plane/terminal interface; eventually, we reach one of those drowsy Mediterranean backwaters The Trip showcased, where instead of Caine impersonations (too close to home), we’re diverted by Kenneth Branagh doing his best Werner Herzog as Russia’s top arms dealer. Ample consolation, in short, for all those holidays cancelled in 2020.
Yet if the characters incur no jetlag, we soon do, a bamboozling consequence of Nolan’s writing withholding even basic information from us. Who are these people? How do they get from here to there so quickly? Why is Washington’s protagonist called The Protagonist? (Seriously.) Not for Nolan the meat-and-potatoes plotting of lesser mortals. No, Nolan trades in big-picture concepts, and his latest is tried-and-tested: a device that reverses matter. Careers too, apparently. Tenet revisits the terrain of 2000’s Memento with more money and a righteous, state-sanctioned protagonist – sorry, Protagonist – who, in tracking and repurposing that gizmo for good, masters the flow of time rather than falling prey to it. An insinuating mid-budget noir has been punched up into a bet-the-house studio actioner; interminably PG-13 shootouts and fistfights replace those tangible, haunting Post-Its and Polaroids.
Since rebranding Batman, Nolan has dedicated himself to fabricating these vast, clanking machine-movies, engineered to generate a pulse-racing setpiece every half-hour, and the repeat viewings that transform a $250m smash into a $500m or $1bn megahit. Despite their claims to originality, there’s a formula at work: start with something small – Tenet’s metallic timeflipper is barely bigger than the average toaster – before constructing a headspinning conceptual and logistical framework around it. The clanking here is partly intentional, composer Ludwig Göransson’s cues doubtless honking the same backwards as they do forwards. But it also derives from the way that tiny plot engine rattles around in the vastness of everything else; these films don’t call for popcorn so much as they do packing peanuts.
The hope is that the filmmaker can bolster that essentially industrial process with flickers of heart, as he did sporadically in Inception and even 2014’s hyper-clanky Interstellar. Yet ever more caught up in his own machinations, Nolan now deploys actors like spokespeople, appointed to field and deflect queries from his client base. This wasn’t the case circa Memento and 2002’s Insomnia, where there was an immediately recognisable complexity and frailty about his leads, but in those days Nolan was still an artisanal puzzlemaker, rather than a businessman and a brand; bigger budgets tend to remove characters of those qualities. Here, he makes his none-more-desirable cast just about the least significant element in the whole grand design.
It’s a particular disappointment to observe Washington coached into beardy impatience, as if he sensed the casual disrespect in being asked to play a character his writer-director hasn’t bothered to name. (It’s possible he grew the facial hair while Nolan was explaining the plot.) Pattinson gives tremendous fringe, but his absurd cut-glass accent sounds a wise attempt to put distance between himself and Nolan’s ever-deteriorating dialogue (“It’s just an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world”). As Branagh’s moll, Elizabeth Debicki is here to look good in deckwear and have guns held to her head; similarly capable supporting players (Martin Donovan, Dimple Kapadia, Caine) offer gobbets of exposition before being packed off to payroll. Tenet suggests Nolan no longer has any interest in human beings beyond assets on a poster or dots on a diagram.
Where did it all go wrong? Deep in the film’s tangled DNA, there are traces of an effervescent, boundless, city-hopping romp. Turn time back! Reopen cinemas! Save the world! The set-up invites comedy: a world spun on its axes, so that bullets return to guns, and the rules of gravity are suspended. But there’s zero levity in Tenet: Nolan simply reverses time in an effort to bring dead ideas back to life. And if he couldn’t have envisioned Saturday-night moviegoing being among them, it feels doubly sorrowful that a film striving to lure us all outdoors should visit this many locations and not once allow us to feel sunlight or fresh air on our faces. Visually and spiritually grey, Tenet is too terse to have any fun with its premise; it’s a caper for shut-ins, which may not preclude it becoming a runaway smash.
Unusually, before the London screening, a studio representative invited us to attend a second screening in the days ahead, and presumably a third, too, if we still hadn’t submitted to the film’s cold, bloodless virtuosity. (You have to go to it, because a film this sullen and unyielding sure isn’t coming to you.) That’s the strategy: scramble the viewer’s mind so hard first time out they’ll pay multiple times to unscramble it, making up those Q2 shortfalls. I wondered what’s really there to untangle, beyond loops of string and a whole lot of smoke rings. Anyone ready to obsess over a doodad on a backpack as they did over Inception’s spinning top can cling to the illusion of Nolan as the movie Messiah. On this evidence, though, he’s become a very trying, ungenerous, ever so slightly dull boy.
Tenet opens in cinemas nationwide this Wednesday.