The latest instalment from one of todays most ambitious and experimental directors did not fall short on its promise of head-scratching time manipulation and impressive action sequences – yet many argue that Nolan’s latest film Tenet is not his greatest film to date.
Upon first viewing I also held this view. As a Nolan fan, I expected an astute character study masked by a high concept plot, similar to that of Inception (2010). However, when this was not the case, I left the cinema feeling deflated despite the spectacular set pieces and intricate story.
Nolan has been planning a film about time inversion for almost 20 years, and evidence of this can be found in his earlier work
This boils down to the characters, as we as an audience aren’t given the space to connect with our protagonist or the other characters on the screen which consequently prevents us from feeling the urgency of their actions.
Similarly, the first 40 minutes of the film is purely exposition, yet it moves at such a fast pace it is easy to miss what is going on. Nolan’s globe-trotting film can often leave its audience behind, as our protagonist (John David Washington) jumps from country to country and from conversation to conversation in quick succession. The film initially appears as though it was missing its heart – where we are guided through the elaborate plot of Inception by our protagonist Cob, we instead feel two steps behind in Tenet. Cob’s desire to return to his children is the emotional incentive behind the film, and his inner turmoil surrounding his wife’s death gives the story its stakes. On the other hand, Tenet seemed void of this anxiety and urgency as we weren’t given the same space to connect to the characters.
However, here is where it becomes damaging to compare Tenet to Nolan’s other films as TENET IS NOT TRYING TO BE INCEPTION. It never promised to be a character driven movie, and once you accept it for the action-packed labyrinth of a movie that it is, you realise quite how incredible it is to experience.
after a second and third viewing Tenet has gone from being an average action movie to a genius piece of cinema
Nolan has been planning a film about time inversion for almost 20 years, and evidence of this can be found in his earlier work. Nolan himself spoke of how the image of a bullet jumping back into a gun in Memento (2000) was an early concept idea for Tenet. Similarly, it is no secret that the director loves manipulating time in his work. In Inception, 5 minutes in the real world equates to an hour in the dream world. Similarly, time dilation is used in Interstellar, and in Dunkirk, we view the events across three different timelines. Therefore, it is no surprise that in the culmination of 20 years of work the high concept plot takes precedence over characters or emotion.
The characters in Tenet are mere vehicles to drive the plot and Nolan makes no effort to hide this. Our lead is simply called the protagonist and this becomes almost comical throughout the film when his character avoids introducing himself at every opportunity. Elizabeth Debicki’s ‘Kat’ provides the limited emotional attachment throughout the story yet we still do not know enough about her or the protagonist to truly ally ourselves with them.
Ultimately, it is the concept of Tenet that drives the story and becomes almost the main character itself
Nevertheless, after a second and third viewing Tenet has gone from being an average action movie to a genius piece of cinema in my opinion. The convoluted first act of the movie suddenly becomes necessary and exciting exposition and, as with all Nolan films, a repeat watch almost generates more questions than it answers. I found myself drawing diagrams to work out how the algorithm managed to get back into John David Washington’s inverted car, and pondering the significance of Sator and the opera scene at the very beginning of the movie.
[ spoiler alert] Similarly, the emotional heart of the movie is also uncovered upon repeat viewing. Nolan’s reveal at the end of the movie that Neil and the protagonist already know each other and are both working for a future version of John David Washington’s character reveals a whole new perspective to the film. Fleeting moments such as Neil knowing the protagonists drink order, gain a new weight, as we are shown glimpses of a friendship that exists at different times in the two characters lives.
Similarly, the significance of the red string on Neil’s backpack has more meaning than first thought. Overtly, it shows us that it was Neil who sacrificed himself in the bunker, adding yet again more emotional weight to these characters’ final conversation. Yet, it also reveals that it was Neil who saved the protagonist in opera scene at the very start of this film, indicating the characters journey together started long before we join them as an audience. Nolan cleverly inserts these moments of emotional potency into an otherwise action filled heist movie.
Ultimately, it is the concept of Tenet that drives the story and becomes almost the main character itself. However, while this relegates John David Washington to a passive protagonist, this still works. Yes, Tenet lacks emotion throughout the majority of the film, but yes it might also be one of Nolan’s best films, as he creates a work of art that continues to reveal itself to its audience in layers. We exist alongside the protagonist, Kat, and Neil throughout the plot of the film and that is enough to experience the roller-coaster that is Tenet.
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