For a cinema freak like myself, it has been tough at times to not visit the movie hall during the past year of pandemic and lockdowns. But if there was one movie in particular which I knew I had to see on the big screen, it was Tenet. Christopher Nolan is a brilliant filmmaker who is also old school (in a good way) in his shunning of excessive CGI or 3-d gimmickry and in his mounting of his films on a canvas of wonder. Like Spielberg, his movies are events, a chance at wonder and beauty that made people fall in love with the movies in the first place. And, as a bonus, he adds in complex plots which makes the average audience ponder on while not giving up on emotional heft. And he has a special fascination with time and all its intricate constructs when time travel is looped into the picture. All of this is here but does it live up to the exacting standards Nolan has set for himself?
The movie starts off in a typically impressive Nolan set-piece, with a siege on an Opera house in Ukraine. The mysterious aim of the siege is an asset who holds the key to a more intricate plot. John David Washington, playing the lead known only as the ‘protagonist’ gets captured during the same but passes an exacting test for a much bigger assignment from a vague handler. This, in time honored fashion, is a mission of the highest stakes, where unseen antagonists from the future are playing with time to reverse engineer the past and basically destroy anyone living in the present. The concept involves something called ‘time inversion’ which involves concepts of backwards-moving entropy. While it can get difficult at times to follow the entire science discussed onscreen, on a general level it involves objects traveling backwards through time, an example intriguingly visualized to the protagonist (and us) via the reverse trajectory of a bullet. The mission takes our hero to Mumbai (it was nice to see some familiar landmarks of Colaba in the film) and a high stakes go-between to an arms dealer. Soon, it becomes clear that the actual go-between is the lady of the house (Dimple Kapadia in a reasonably effective role). He gets help here from another mysterious ally, Neil, played by Robert Pattinson. Together they realize the key to Armageddon and saving the world from it lies with a notoriously brutal arms dealer, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and the way to him is through his oppressed wife Kat, a radiantly beautiful Elizabeth Debicki. But Sator is a man whose ruthlessness is driven almost as if by design or a much higher purpose, and this is what comes to the fore in the high stakes battle that ensues in the alleyways of time’s revisionism.
There is a lot of expository dialog involved which can lose you if you move your eyes and ears away from the screen for a moment; another reason why this is surely a perfect film for the immersive big screen experience. As always, Nolan is high on concept and vision. But there are a few things which make this an overall lesser work than some of his previous ones. For starters, the emotional registers of the story just don’t fly for the most part like in his earlier works. There is a lot of talk on how Kat is unbearably restrained by her love for and fear of loss of her son and is forced to remain with Sator, but there isn’t any narrative intensity to back it up. Neither does the bond which develops between the protagonist and her hold enough water for it to influence his decisions later in the game. Unlike the heft of the relationships shown in Interstellar or Inception, here it just seems like padding on to the science that Nolan wants to show off. Like a high concept version of a Bond or Mission: Impossible movie this resembles sometimes.
The buddy chemistry between Washington and Pattinson does develop nicely, but one of the problems with this film maybe its lead. For some reason, Washington appears to have got a lot of favorable reviews from critics but I couldn’t for the life of me see it. He is fine as a supporting foil, but hardly has the charisma or chops to pull off the headline act for such a major production yet. At times his mannerisms mimicked his famous father’s but without the skills to go with it. It only made me wish on how amazing it would have been if a younger Denzel, an actually brilliant and charismatic actor who commands the screen whenever he is on it, could have been the leading act for one of Nolan’s films. No worries, there perhaps could still be hope in the future on that front. Pattinson does well in a supporting role as does Debicki. Branagh is cast against type and seemed to be having fun with the role of a vicious villain and is mostly convincing considering the half-baked role he has to play with. Dimple Kapadia is good and it was nice to see a familiar face from Bollywood in the movie, but her role didn’t really add much to the overall storyline.
But an average Nolan is still better than most other directors out there so this should not be considered a review to discourage someone from watching the film. It has still got enough panache and brilliance in it to make anyone’s time spent on it worthwhile and provides succor in a difficult time for everyone. For the lone big budget movie which had the gumption to release and take its chances during the pandemic it lives up to the expectation that a rare movie going experience should provide and should be commended.