It’s About Time: “Tenet” Finally Hits Theaters
Robert Zemeckis was once a great filmmaker. He directed odd little comedies like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Used Cars” before making one of the best blockbusters in history, “Back to the Future.” His experience making cars fly in that film’s sequel, “Back to the Future Part II,” must have awakened something in him because nearly every film he has made since has been built around some immense challenge of visual effects. The plane crashes in “Cast Away” and “Flight.” The supernatural face-swapping in “What Lies Beneath.” Then the experiments with motion-capture in “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol,” and the IMAX re-creation of Phillippe Petit’s famous walk across the Twin Towers in “The Walk.” Some of these movies are good, but most of them are not because Zemeckis’s heart is in the wrong place. Once he wanted to tell a worthwhile story, but now he just wants to film a cool sequence.
With “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan has entered his Zemeckis phase. The inventive action sequences come first. The story comes second, or, to quote Austin Powers, sometimes not at all.
Nolan’s long-awaited new film is about a CIA agent (John David Washington) who, after swallowing a cyanide pill after a mission gone wrong, wakes up with a new assignment: to save the world from Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) who has mastered the manipulation of time. How does he do it? Nolan will explain. And explain and explain. The short version is that someone in the future has figured out how to invert the entropy of objects. In other words, they can send things objects backwards through time. This is demonstrated at a training sight in which our lead character “catches” a bullet with his gun. Throughout the film, we see car chases and fistfights in which one participant is moving forward and the other is moving backwards. Does that make sense? “Don’t think about it,” the protagonist’s instructor tells him. “Just feel it.”
If only Nolan had taken his own advice and used his inventive premise to create an impressionistic experience. Instead, he makes us think about it. All the time. The film is composed entirely of action sequences and expository dialogue, neither of which qualifies as story. The story hinges on items that must be stolen and re-stolen with names like “the turnstile” or “the algorithm.” I cannot tell you what these items do, or why they must not fall into the wrong hands. Part of the problem is that Nolan buries the dialogue, both in the sound mix and by having his characters constantly wear masks that muffled their voices or speak in thick accents. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that he was sadistically toying with his audience, giving us just enough information to keep us engaged but not enough to make any of the events onscreen matter.
Worse still, the remarkable cast of actors Nolan has put together rarely get the opportunity to bring humanity to their roles. Washington, fresh off his star-making turn in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” manages to simultaneously look cool and befuddled for two-and-a-half hours, which is no small achievement, but his character is so thinly-drawn – he is actually credited as “The Protagonist” – that he never engages us in the story. The same goes for the other characters, who seem caught between giving too much and too little to their roles. Robert Pattinson, as a British field agent of some kind, has zero characterization, while Branagh goes full Bond-villain, reaching comical levels of evil, except it’s unclear if the humor is intended. Only Elizabeth Debicki, as Sator’s captive wife, who sticks around in an abusive relationship for her son, manages to create a believable inner life.
It’s a cruel trick. Nolan structures the film in a way that turns on the puzzle-solving part of your brain, but he doesn’t give you enough pieces to complete the image. The end result is a perplexing and frustrating experience. Even the action sequences, which are admittedly impressive – or at least visibly expensive – fail to make an impact; we’re working so hard to figure out what they mean that we can’t simply enjoy the spectacle. The critic in me admires Nolan for continuing to pound away at his obsessions – time, the super-rich, and stylish suits – because that’s what great filmmakers do. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not. This is the rare case, though, in which a director would have been better served by putting his own fascinations aside and respecting the precious time of his real-world audience.
While “Tenet” is now playing in theaters, this critic saw it at a private screening and does not recommend public screenings at this time.