Tenet movie review: Christopher Nolan’s new film is underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time, but not worth risking your life for

Updated on Dec 04, 2020 08:15 PM IST

Tenet movie review: Christopher Nolan’s latest science-fiction epic is the sort of head-scratcher that feels like it’s talking down to its audience -- not worth the many months of wait.

Tenet movie review: John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a still from Christopher Nolan’s new film.
Tenet movie review: John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a still from Christopher Nolan’s new film.
Hindustan Times | ByRohan Naahar

Director - Christopher Nolan
Cast - John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh

You should be instantly suspicious of anyone who claims to have understood Tenet after having watched it just once. Heck, you should doubt their every word even if they say they’ve seen it thrice. Enigmatic to a fault and exhaustingly dense, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi spectacle leaves you with the unshakable feeling that you walked into the screening 15 minutes late.

Like the director’s previous smash hits — Inception, and to a lesser degree, Interstellar — Tenet demands repeat viewings, but crucially, doesn’t encourage them. The thought of having to sit down and be lectured to — Nolan’s preferred form of exposition — doesn’t seem all that compelling right now. Although I can’t imagine not giving it another go when the world calms down.

Watch the Tenet trailer here


The stakes are astronomical — a mysterious new technology poses a threat to all existence; there are murmurs of a Third World War. But here’s the kicker -- the tech hasn’t been invented yet. It will be in the future, though, and the CIA has caught wind of it.

What unfolds is, essentially, Nolan’s version of a Cold War espionage thriller — less James Bond, more John le Carré. Incidentally, despite being significantly larger in scope, Tenet is tonally very similar to Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — a film that I, despite having watched twice, could not tell you the first thing about. They even share the same cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema.

It requires an uncommon commitment from the audience. Unlike Inception, or even Dunkirk — unconventionally structured movies that took you along for the ride — Tenet, on several occasions, leaves you in the dust. And then, to make matters worse, it berates you for not being able to keep up.

John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in a still from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. (AP)
John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in a still from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. (AP)

As always, Nolan’s images — shot on the lethal combination of 70 mm and IMAX film — are impossible to fault. The 747 heist sequence is, as advertised, astonishing. And the promise of watching another impeccable action sequence is often enough to get you through some of the film’s more inscrutable moments. That being said, Tenet would have been infinitely more enjoyable had Nolan resisted the urge to explain the mechanics of his world at every turn.

While it is understandable for him to treat these minute details with the utmost gravity, considering the many years that he has spent on the project, Nolan confuses seriousness with sincerity. For him, these ideas are grounded in reality, but for us, they might as well be fantasy. To be constantly told how Tenet’s engine works is like having Peter Jackson explain the metallurgy behind the One Ring -- unnecessary.

On too many occasions, the Nolan feels compelled to prove his passion for all the nerdy stuff, and pauses the picture to deliver (frequently muffled) exposition about quantum physics and whatnot. It’s like having a Nolan-bro constantly whisper in your ear while watching one of the filmmaker’s movies, but this time, Nolan himself is the know-it-all boyfriend. Talk about mind-bending plots.

Delivering exposition, for instance, is practically the only thing required of Clémence Poésy, who appears in just once scene. She explains to John David Washington’s ‘Protagonist’ — that’s the name of his character — the concept of ‘inverted entropy’, which allows certain objects to move backwards in time. This begs the question: if objects can travel through time, so can people, right? Hmm.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a still from Tenet.
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a still from Tenet.

The guy who has a monopoly on this tech in the future is a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh playing the same character he played in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). To put an end to the dying Sator’s dastardly plan, which involves taking the world down with him, the Protagonist enlists the help of Sator’s estranged wife (future Princess Diana Elizabeth Debicki), a handler named Neil (a fabulously dressed Robert Pattinson), and the arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia, in a more substantial role than you’d expect).

Despite never having won an Oscar, Nolan is one of the world’s few superstar directors, and certainly one the most successful. Any doubts I had regarding his popularity in India were cleared when Viral Bhayani papped him arriving at Mumbai’s Terminal 2 last year, for a week of filming. And as brief as Tenet’s Mumbai segments are, it’s undeniably exciting to watch Washington outside the iconic Cafe Mondegar, and later, a couple of Mumbai Police Scorpios in action outside a Breach Candy high-rise. Even the spoonful of exposition that Priya shoves down the Protagonist’s (and our) throat is easier to swallow with the Colaba Causeway in the background.

Also read: The Devil All the Time movie review: Robert Pattinson is godlike in Netflix’s star-studded but unsettlingly bleak film

But these moments are few and far between. Nolan’s filmmaking has often been criticised in the past for being too dispassionate, but despite how it may seem on the surface, all of his movies have a beating heart at their core. Without the father-daughter relationship, Interstellar wouldn’t work. Similarly, take Cobb’s quest to reunite with his kids out of Inception, and all you’d be left with is a bunch of trippy visuals and a great Hans Zimmer score.

Tenet, despite Sator’s potentially poignant plotline, doesn’t have a soul. That’s ironic for a movie in which a character literally says the words, “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”

Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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