After pausing for Dunkirk, a (for him) human-scale drama, Christopher Nolan is back on Inception/Interstellar territory with Tenet, a grandiose exercise in hi-tech bogglement that doesn’t shortchange the fans.
It’s spectacular like Operation Desert Storm was. Designed to shock and awe, it’s a technological marvel that would almost rather there were no humans involved at all. Can’t we get drones to do the acting?
Actually, drones have done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to the plot, because rather than come up with anything too new, Nolan has taken a whole load of James Bond bits and pieces and then given a quick wipe over with a massive spend on post.
It’s Bond, but flipped – John David (son of Denzel) Washington as the cool, urbane agent, a black American rather than a white Brit. As his Felix Leiter fixer and factotum figure, a white Brit (rather than a black American) in the shape of Robert Pattinson. On Q duty is a woman, Clémence Poesy getting dumped with the job of explicating all the techy stuff to Washington so the rest of the film can take wing – “Don’t try to understand it,” she says (un)helpfully, after having explained, more or less, the concept behind “reverse entropy”. She might as well have said “dicking about with time again,” something Nolan has been doing since Memento.
Every Bond has his villain keen to do something despicable to the planet, and here there is no flipping. Kenneth Branagh slots into the time-honoured role of the Brit playing the crazed Russian, which we can trace all the way back to Edinburgh-born Anthony Dawson as Blofeld in From Russia with Love.
Perhaps Tenet is most like a Bond film in that characters don’t matter much – they’re types (Hero, Villain, Babe, Hench) – it’s the set pieces that people come to see, and Nolan has delivered three on an epic scale even before the film’s real purpose has fully revealed itself. In a concert hall, a train shunting yard and on an airport runway, though he saves his most jaw-dropping display for later – a bait-and-switch set on a highway where a speeding motorcade of trucks is squeezed for thrills, while time runs backwards and forwards simultaneously, possibly.
Also like the Bond films, you can fall asleep at any point, wake up again at any point and it doesn’t matter, the enjoyment is not diminished. This makes it the perfect movie to watch on a Saturday night after a big dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. Or a Sunday afternoon.
Having read a couple of reviews before seeing the movie (which was not easy to see in the Plague Year of Our Lord 2020), I was expecting a zinging John David Washington as the man known only as Protagonist. And though he started hot, smart and sleek, Protagonist seemed to get cooler, dumber and duller as the film progressed, or perhaps he was just overwhelmed by all the tech like everyone else, or the repeated pauses in the action to remind everyone just what the hell is going on.
Perhaps he was also dragged down by Elizabeth Debicki, as the trophy wife of the Russian megalomaniac Sator (see The Night Manager for Debicki in a similar role). Nolan’s script insists she’s a character – a woman driven by a maternal love for a child we never actually meet – but actually she’s a Bond girl Nolan hasn’t got the heart to be honest about.
For all the Bond references, I suspect it’s The Matrix Nolan is really aiming at – a high concept sci-fi movie with a standout signature bit of special-effects wizardry that’ll really get the nerds salivating. For all the impressive collisions of realities – one running forward, the other running backward – Nolan’s “reverse entropy” doesn’t quite re-invent the world of SFX like “bullet time” did in 1999. But he’s not far off.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021