Tenet (2020): Time Colliding into Itself

Two weeks of deferred anticipation could have undermined the experience with built-up hype, instead Tenet comes out unscathed not because of its own doing. In spite of the opportunity being a welcome respite from life and one week in particular (my car’s fan belt snapped and I haven’t decided on when I can fix it), it was Nolan and not his film which let me down.

The first gripe greeted us like the ushers, so from the onset—intentionally poor sound-mixing meant the aural assault would drown out key dialog. Luckily that set-up is wrapped up shortly with the protagonist’s handler briefing him. Here is the thing; it was well after leaving the theater that I asked what the protagonist’s name was. He (John David Johnson) went unnamed. Entropy, indeed, though I was able to correctly surmise from the prior multi-national op that it was an intel job.

It was entropy in the science books sense to reign over next, a one-way process that occurs naturally in objects’ and bodies’ thermal make-up, and Nolan is attempting a reversal of that via time travel. The Protagonist having survived the failed extraction (of a mysterious device and an exposed agent) is then either recruited or rewarded for passing some loyalty testing ground in the introductory scenes. Again, the cacophony reverberates beyond the scored scenes such that disorientation may carry over for attention deficient types.

One of my main grievances, here, then, was that, knowing Nolan, the intricate time loops were to be expected. Except none of the stunning visuals and effects of his sci-fi mindbenders was on offer to the degree I could not name one signature shot. And in the distraction of catching up, and beginning the film with Nolan ‘going Mann,’ I completely forgot there is one iconic shot in Tenet taken from the very same director’s opus; Miami Vice’s speedboat ride to Cuba.

In retrospect, the globe-trotting was a further homage to Miami Vice, but what essentially sets Tenet off begins with the Protagonist’s failed retrieval of a top-secret appliance and evolves with his pursuit of it with the minor caveat of him having to orient himself anew. Now part of a new agency, the titular Tenet, we get to either see the linear continuation of the gadget’s recovery, or a future Protagonist on a mulligan.

This phenomena, once explained (repeatedly by Robert Pattinson) as the inversion of objects, people and time itself, take on a grand meaning, creating a moment of profound discovery for the audience. Yet Nolan never bothers with fulfilling the audience’s blue balls with any meaningful release; lie to me with any crackpot scientific premise but bring your cinematic conviction along. Yes, sound and motion are reversed, each overlaid on top of itself in one pivotal sequence, but a serious visionary would have done away with jittery photography once more inversions seeped into the frame and action.

This offending sequence, instead of proving memorable with calmer visuals, is then only crucial. Crucial to Nolan’s mind and to Nolan’s camera as it coincides with the branching time-lines and inverted pieces of the grand puzzle. To capture the effects on a steadier camera, instead of the full-throttle cinematography, was woefully missed.

John David Johnson, charismatic though he may be, cannot on his own withstand the film’s convolutions without the emotional harness of some motivation. To be invested in the ordeal of one battered wife (Elizabeth Debicki), essentially a complete stranger, after the fact, hardly counts when he admits to needing to use her to get to her husband, the film’s villain (Kenneth Branagh). The performances, though fantastic all around, fail to fill that hollow emotional void, providing half-answers and only belatedly.

Tenet has neither the imposing vistas and dazzling effects from previous sci-fi offerings from its mastermind, nor their emotional anchors to meaningfully justify action. A grand finale is crammed in that serves as mirror of its opening passages, perhaps meant as one of endless loops the actors are doomed for to keep Armageddon at bay. The whole thing rings hollow despite moving discourses on friendship arriving hastily as, fairly or otherwise, half-baked numirations.

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