Film 2023: Tenet


All I really knew about this film, before I pressed Play on the laptop, was that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, that it had several Five Star reviews in the UK Press, that it featured scenes of Elizabeth Debicki running around in a bikini and that the DVD itself was incredibly cheap. There are worse, but perhaps more reputable reasons for choosing an unknown film with which to while away Sunday morning.

Looking at the film’s entry in Wikipedia after sitting through its 143 minute length, I was gratified to find that reaction to Tenet was not as universal as the DVD box made it seem, relieving me from the familiar but still uncomfortable position of yet again flying in the face of the majority. Long before the film’s conclusion, I was ready for it to be over. I found it deliberately confusing, ill-conceived in the effects of its central conceit, much too long, much too in love with its own cleverness and lacking in any convincing human element. It’s a film in pursuit of its idea, that of inverted entropy, or to be plainer, time reversal, that chose to build an edifice of obscurity upon that notion without stopping to consider the merits of a greater similicity and its concomitant, clarity.

Tenet is a science-fiction film crossed with an espionage milieu that’s layered with ultra-deception between all its characters. It begins with a terrorist raid on the Opera House in Kiev that’s a cover for a CIA extraction team to grab a wanted person – who and why is never revealed, because it’s of no importance whatsoever, yes, the ‘M’ word again – which leads to its team leader, John David Washington, passing a somewhat stringent test to become a member of a super-secret organisation named Tenet. John David Washington is the actor: his character has no name but is once or twice referred to as the Protagonist. I shall refer to him hereafter as JDW. The lack of a name serves to raise a spurious air of mystery, in a most pretentious manner, whilst being an emblem of the film’s near total lack of concern with anything actually human.

JDW is introduced to ‘inverted bullets’, which travel backwards through time. They’re sent from the future, which wants to destroy the past. The inversion process is under the control of Brittish-based Russian Oligarch Andei Sator (Kenneth Branagh with a husky cod-accent). JDW’s task is to find out, basically, what, how, where and why. The answer will be that Sator, a controlling madman of no redeeming characteristics, is dying of inoperable pancreatic cancer and is deadman-control-linked to something called the Algorithm, which will invert the entire world and destroy everyone and everything when he goes. Nolan does touch upon the sciento-philosophic question of won’t destroying the past destroy the future, but not in any great depth because the question is unanswerable: all we get is a few gnomic references to the Grandfather Paradox.

But that’s the thing about inversion. Inverted objects travel backwards in time according to our perception, based on a ‘normal’ entropic motion from now to then, energy to inertia, cause to effect. The problem with this is that, as a once avid SF reader, I wanted to understand how, in actuality, that could function with objects and people simultaneously moving past each other, forwards and back, and Nolan wasn’t interested enough to give me any kind of practical exploration (I didn’t expect scientific justification, one, because there isn’t any and two, because I wouldn’t understand it if there was). All he was interested in was clever visuals, presenting scenes of such things happening, in the form of car chases, shoot-outs, mercenary raids and a long fight that turned out to be JDW fighting himself. Very clever, excellently choreographed but ultimately fruitless except as a spectacle.

Which was the film’s ultimate failure for me. There was all this stuff going on, the fate of the world was at stake and long before the halfway point of the film my attitude was, so what? I had no investment in the film because I had no investment in the charactersm because there were no characters. JDW was a skilled undercover operative, Bond deluxe. His handler, Neil, was an equally super-competent sidekick and quartermaster, whistling up supporting hordes for setpieces as if buying them at the supermarket. Neil was played by Robert Pattinson, who I’d never seen before, in a cheerful, cynical, laidback manner that reminded me of Nigel Hawthorne at his most insouciant (as did his hairstyle, clearly borrowed for that very reason).

To get close to Sator, JDW found his way in via the Russian’s much younger, much taller and estranged-but-controlled wife Katherine Barton, or Kat (Debicki). Kat was under Sator’s thumb because she’d made a mistake, possibly deliberatelky, in verifying a Goya drawing for which her husband had paid $9,000,000, which was a fake perpetrated by an artist who might have been Kat’s lover. Sator’s lever is their son, Max, contact with whom he rations viciously, to be withheld permanently if Kat doesn’t do everything he wants.

Kat is devoted to her son and hates Sator to the point of wanting to kill him, which she will finally do near the end whilst wearing that bikini. This is the emotional element of the film, but in keeping with his intellectual approach, Nolan has Denicki play cool, self-contained and self-controlled for almost all of the film. It’s a technique reminiscent of the detachment of New Wave SF in the Sixties, still largely practiced by Christopher Priest, and it has the effect of nullifying the emotional elemy, because Debicki doesn’t come anywhere near letting go in a way that true emotional depths force upon you.

It also blurs beyond recognisability the reason why JDW becomes so protective towards her. It’s not love, it’s not sex, he’s lied to her but that’s intrinsic to his job and he shows no shame at so doing, but to an extent that frankly contradicts the premise of his character as set up by his ‘recruitment’ test, he goes to extraordinary lengths to not only try to preserve her but to bring her back from a fatal gunshot to the stomach.

To go back to nearer the film’s beginning, its opening scene at the Opera, taken at frantic pace, an action spectacular, I was reminded of the writing maxim espoused by the late SF writer, Alice B. Sheldon (better known as James Tiptree Jr), who explained it as ‘Start at the end, preferably in darkness, and then DON’T EXPLAIN!’ Nolan takes that largely to heart, inverting not just his sequences but his storyline until any clear understanding is buried by detail, contradiction and withheld information. As I said, I ended up caring little. In a book, able to move at my own pace, I would have found the whole thing far easier to comprehend, but in a film, with the pace of exposition going one way at Nolan’s pace, it was difficult to grasp the nuances and I gave up. I won’t try to explain any of the eventual revelations, save to say that if you remember the final episode of The Prisoner, you may have seen the big ‘reveal’ coming. The devil was in the details but that was all they were, endless trees obscuring the fact we were in a forest intentionally.

One last point that I was equally glad to discover was not just me, and that was the sound-mixing. Remember how I struggled to make out what characters were saying many times over in Nolan’s The Prestige? It was the same thing with Tenet. Between background noise, an insufficiently clear soundmix and the Director’s propensity to have his cast speak softly, quietly or huskily, there was a good 25% of the lines I just couldn’t make out.

Overall, save for the lovely Ms Debicki in her bikini, and that mostly covered by an unbuttoned but clingy-because-wet blouse, the film did not work for me. There was a good film, a very good film in there but it was buried under too much lumber, spectacle and convolution for the sake of it, requiring too much digging out to retrieve.


2 thoughts on “Film 2023: Tenet

  1. Oh, you’re not the only one who disliked this. Far from it. This was Nolan’s most polarizing film since Interstellar, I’d say. I loved Interstellar, by the way. I’ve only seen it once myself–I’d definitely say it’s far below The Prestige, Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Dunkirk at least. But a truly bad film? That’s a tricky one I’d say. I’d have to give it a re-watch myself.

    1. To clarify: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘bad’ film. I can see the bases on which it would be very appealing to a different audience, and as I said I think it would have worked far better for me in book form. I haven’t automatically put the DVD on the pile for return, and I’m curious enough to consider re-watching it to see if I enjoy it more knowing something of what’s going on, but then since I started watching a film on Sunday mornings, five years ago now, I haven’t re-watched more than a handful of the films I’ve commented upon, so that might not happen any time soon!

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