‘Tenet’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Long-Anticipated Time Caper Is a Humorless Disappointment

"Tenet" is big and ambitious, but Nolan is more caught up in his own machinations than ever before.
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Entering 2020, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” was the summer’s most keenly awaited event movie. Eight apocalyptic months on, it’s assumed the mantle of messianic cinema: a project aiming to blow minds, make a bundle, and thereby save the theatrical experience for all mankind. Beneath the parting clouds, there emerges a mere motion picture, screened in London this week ahead of next Wednesday’s European rollout.

And what kind of picture is it? Big, certainly: IMAX-scaled, and a hefty 150 minutes even after a visibly ruthless edit. It’s clever, too — yes, the palindromic title has some narrative correlation — albeit in an exhausting, rather joyless way. As second comings go, “Tenet” is like witnessing a Sermon on the Mount preached by a savior who speaks exclusively in dour, drawn-out riddles. Any awe is flattened by follow-up questions.

If you just want big, then “Tenet” is as big as the world, a scale Nolan flaunts by traversing the planet twice, in different directions. Within its opening half hour, we whizz around Kiev, where John David Washington is introduced heading up some sort of anti-terror taskforce; to Mumbai, where Washington encounters intelligence officer Robert Pattinson; then to London, where he dines with Michael Caine. (Among the movie’s less appealing spectacles: an 87-year-old eating steak in close up.) Later, we head to Oslo, scene of a smashing great plane/terminal interface; eventually, we reach a drowsy Mediterranean backwaters, where instead of Caine impersonations (too close to home), we’re diverted by Kenneth Branagh doing his best Werner Herzog as Russia’s top arms dealer. Ample consolation, in short, for all those holidays canceled in 2020.

Yet if the characters incur no jetlag, we soon do, a bamboozling consequence of how Nolan’s screenplay withholds even basic information from us. Who are these people? How do they get from here to there so quickly? Why is Washington’s protagonist called The Protagonist? (Seriously.)

Nolan is not invested in the meat-and-potatoes plotting of lesser mortals. He trades in big-picture concepts, and his latest is tried-and-tested: a device that reverses matter. Careers too, apparently. “Tenet” revisits the terrain of 2000’s “Memento” with more money and a protagonist — sorry, Protagonist — who, in tracking and repurposing that gizmo for good, masters the flow of time rather than falling prey to it. Yet plot-wise, “Tenet” has more in common with “Minority Report” than “Memento,” even as it lacks the sophistication to make that route worthy of exploration. An insinuating mid-budget noir has been punched up into a bet-the-house studio actioner; interminably PG-13 shootouts and fistfights replace those tangible, haunting Post-Its and Polaroids.

“Tenet”Warner Bros.

Since rebranding Batman, Nolan has dedicated himself to fabricating vast, clanking machine-movies, engineered to generate a pulse-racing setpiece every half hour, and the repeat viewings that transform a $250 million smash into a $500 million or $1 billion megahit. Start with something small — the metal time-flipper of “Tenet” is barely bigger than the average toaster — before constructing a head-spinning conceptual and logistical framework around it. The clanking here is partly intentional, with composer Ludwig Göransson’s cues likely honking the same backward as they do forward. But it also derives from the way that tiny plot engine rattles around in the vastness of everything else; these films don’t call for popcorn so much as they do packing peanuts.

The hope is Nolan can bolster that industrial process with flickers of heart, as he did sporadically in “Inception” and even 2014’s hyper-clanky “Interstellar.” With “Tenet,” he is ever more caught up in his own machinations: Nolan deploys his actors like spokespeople, appointed to field and deflect queries from his client base.

This wasn’t the case in “Memento” and 2002’s “Insomnia,” where there was an immediately recognizable complexity and frailty about his leads. In those days, Nolan was still an artisanal puzzlemaker, rather than a businessman and a brand. Here, he makes his none-more-desirable cast just about the least significant element in the whole grand design.

It’s a particular disappointment to observe Washington coached into beardy impatience, as if he sensed the casual disrespect in being asked to play a character his writer-director didn’t bother to name. (It’s possible he grew the facial hair while Nolan was explaining the plot.)

Pattinson gives tremendous fringe, but his absurd cut-glass accent sounds a wise attempt to put distance between himself and Nolan’s ever-deteriorating dialogue (“It’s just an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world”). As Branagh’s moll, Elizabeth Debicki is here to look good in deckwear and have guns held to her head; similarly capable supporting players (Martin Donovan, Dimple Kapadia, Caine) offer gobbets of exposition before being packed off to payroll. “Tenet” suggests Nolan no longer has any interest in human beings beyond assets on a poster or dots on a diagram.

Where did it all go wrong? Deep in the film’s tangled DNA, there are traces of an effervescent, boundless, city-hopping romp. Turn time back! Reopen cinemas! Save the world!

The setup invites comedy: a world spun on its axes, where bullets return to guns and the rules of gravity are suspended. But there’s zero levity in “Tenet”: Nolan simply reverses time in an effort to bring dead ideas back to life. And if he couldn’t have envisioned Saturday-night moviegoing being among them, it feels doubly sorrowful that a film striving to lure us all outdoors should visit this many locations and not once allow us to feel sunlight or fresh air on our faces. Visually and spiritually grey, “Tenet” is too terse to have any fun with its premise; it’s a caper for shut-ins, which may not preclude it becoming a runaway smash.

Unusually, before the London screening, a studio representative invited us to attend a second screening in the days ahead, and presumably a third, too, if we still hadn’t submitted to the film’s cold, bloodless virtuosity. (You have to go to it, because a film this sullen and unyielding sure isn’t coming to you.) That’s the strategy: scramble the viewer’s mind so hard first time out they’ll pay multiple times to unscramble it, making up those Q2 shortfalls.

What’s really there to untangle, beyond loops of string and a whole lot of smoke rings? Anyone ready to obsess over a doodad on a backpack as they did over the spinning top of “Inception” can cling to the illusion of Nolan as the movie messiah. On this evidence, though, he’s become a very trying, ungenerous, ever-so-slightly dull boy.

Grade: C-

Warner Bros. releases “Tenet” across Europe on Wednesday, August 26 and in select U.S. markets on Thursday, September 3. 

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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