Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the film selected and designated to start the world back up again. After five and a half months of American movie theaters being closed due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and multiple date-shifts from Warner Bros., Tenet has finally arrived in theaters, whether we want it to or not. Well, the theaters that are open, anyway. In certain parts of the country still designated as COVID-19 hotspots, namely New York and Los Angeles, which generate a significant chunk of the country’s box office in normal times, theaters still have no reopening game plan. Meanwhile, the rest of the country can sit in an air-conditioned theater in blissful ignorance and pretend like life has gone back to normal. But is Tenet worth the wait, and worth the risk?
John David Washington plays an unnamed CIA agent, referred to only as “the protagonist,” who wakes up after a loud, explosion-heavy ‘test’ and is essentially given a mission to save the world from nuclear apocalypse. This involves going backwards and forwards in time, and making sure pieces fit the way they need to in order to avoid worldwide disaster.
Tenet is a visually stunning hot mess, and it might be the weakest film of Christopher Nolan’s career. All of the pieces are in place for it to be a masterpiece. It’s a tremendous feat in cinematography and editing, and yet it’s completely hollow at the core. It’s cerebral and complex, or at least it wants you to think it is. It’s lots of sound and fury signifying nothing. This feels like the most egregious vanity project of Nolan’s career yet.
Nolan is not one of my favorite filmmakers, and I think he’s praised far too often and too enthusiastically. Certain Nolan films are masterpieces, and some I think are truly over-celebrated. Tenet is a simple idea in theory, it’s basically Nolan’s Bond movie. However, it’s over-complicated just for the hell of it and it increasingly feels like Nolan is just making movies for himself. Tenet is not a movie to be enjoyed by the masses and I feel like even the most ardent Nolan apologists will find themselves scratching their heads. Nolan throws all the puzzle pieces on the ground and expects the viewer to put them back together before the film is over, and after a while it just becomes exhausting. Also, I would argue there is no universe in which all of this really makes any sense at all.
I’ve been impressed by John David Washington in films like BlacKkKlansman and Monsters and Men, and I still think he’s a very promising talent, and I wish I could say I liked his performance in this. But ‘the protagonist’ is a blank slate, and maybe he’s just here as an audience decoy for everyone to shout expository dialogue at, and this would be fine if there was anything to this character. We get nothing about his inner demons or what drives him, and he has absolutely no backstory at all. I always end up asking myself in films like this, “what does the protagonist want?” And I haven’t a clue what this guy wants, or even who he is. If a film chooses to give its lead character no name, they at least have to make that character interesting or give me a reason to care about them. Nolan doesn’t seem to know how to do that here.
Robert Pattinson plays Neil, our lead character’s handler, or one of the film’s many characters that comes in every so often to deliver expository dialogue. Pattinson has lots of charm here, and his character seems to be up to something at every turn, and at several points throughout the film I wondered why we weren’t watching his movie. There’s a fun little plot twist involving his character as well, and it’s one of the few points in this movie where something actually makes sense.
Elizabeth Debicki, previously a standout in movies like Widows and The Tale, has very little to do here and is pretty much relegated to playing ‘the woman.’ She’s separated from her son, and her maniacal villain husband (played by Kenneth Branagh, who we’ll get to) is all but twirling his mustache as he makes every moment worse for her. It led me to a larger realization – Christopher Nolan is bad at women. Think about it, every female character in his movies is either a disgruntled or depressed wife, nag or villain, or even worse, they don’t matter at all. While not outwardly misogynist, it just feels like Nolan has never known how to write female characters. This is evident in many of his films, particularly Interstellar, which was his melodramatic response to critics who complained his films were too cold and emotionally distant. Well, I regret to inform you that Christopher Nolan still doesn’t know how to do emotion.
Kenneth Branagh had a small role in Dunkirk as well, and he felt out of place there too. Frankly, ever since Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh has been on my last nerve and while I think he’s a very talented filmmaker in his own right, I’m sick of seeing him giving these ridiculous performances in movies that deserve better than him. I guess if you like your villains deranged in the most simplistic, clichéd way possible, this is a decent performance. But he certainly sticks around long after he wears out his welcome.
There has been plenty of online discourse about whether or not Tenet was the right film to welcome audiences back to theaters. Well, in my opinion, the answer is of course not. I felt safe in my movie-going experience, there were about 10 other people in a giant auditorium with me. This is not the first time I’ve returned to the cinema since they slowly began to open up again, and theaters are doing all they can to make everything as safe as possible. However, the entire point of seeing a film like Tenet on the big screen during the opening weekend is the crowd that’s reacting to every surprise along the way. Or in the case of Tenet, checking their watches and yawning.
I don’t think history will remember Christopher Nolan fondly for insisting Tenet be released right now. During a point in time where the pandemic is still going strong and there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, people all around the world are feeling terrified. Nolan is a filmmaker with the kind of influence to insist a film be pushed back until 2021 or 2022, to ensure packed houses and excited crowds. Nolan/Warner Bros. should not have forced audiences to make the choice to risk their health and safety right now to see this film. Especially since it’s pretty lousy anyway.