I’m not the biggest fan of British director Christopher Nolan. In fact, I’m of the opinion that most of his films prefer to show off rather than actually show much in the way of humanity, let alone fun. And heaven forbid that there might be a plausible female character lurking around amid the bombast.
There’s no doubt, though, that his penchant for mind-bending plots and his technical mastery have made him a major player and a darling of the big studios [have you seen the Dark Knight movies?]. But you wouldn’t wish the fate that has befallen him and his huge budget extravaganza, Tenet, on your worst enemy, apparently compelled to play the saviour to an entire film industry in the midst of a crisis that not even the most outlandish script would have dared to come up with.
After all, the delays and uncertainty (not least over whether anyone will actually want to go back to even scrupulously socially distanced screens anytime soon), Tenet finally arrives on UK screens this week, some time before it makes its US debut. It would be cheering, even for a non-believer like me, to report that it lives up to all the expectations, that this really is the boundary-crossing blockbuster the film industry so desperately needs right now. But of course it isn’t, even if that were possible. It’s an okay, Nolan-esque thriller and that’s all it would be at any time. Has the world really been waiting for a pompous version of Back To The Future? I fear not.
That might be an unfair jibe, but there are inherent issues (quite apart from the intrinsic narrative cheating) with films that involve time-travel of any sort. You can’t get around them simply by referring to them or by pretending, as this film does, that it’s actually about a ‘reversing’ technology that’s been invented in the future but has now, for reasons that various characters start to explain but don’t, found its way into our time. Inevitably, this tech (let’s face it, a ticking bomb for all intents and purposes) threatens the very existence of the world and, of course, it’s being manipulated by a very Bond-like villain, as well as various other shadowy characters who might, or might not, be on the side of the angels.
At the centre (Or is he? Sorry, this stuff is catching) of this guff is a character known simply as The Protagonist (Oh, do come on), played with steadfast blankness by BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington. Already some sort of super-commando, he’s recruited by a super secret organisation called Tenet, after passing a test which seems to involve getting all his teeth pulled out by some unpleasant Eastern European thugs. That stereotype remains the film’s go-to for villainy, incidentally, with the exception of the film’s super-villain (or is he?), a Russian godzillionaire called Andrei Sator, hilariously played by Kenneth Branagh like a suavely evil version of his take on Hercule Poirot.
Sator has the requisite beautiful young wife, Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki. Despite the fact that she’s a profoundly irritating character, The Protagonist falls for her just enough for it to lead to various plot hazards without there being any danger of sex between them. In fact, just about the only character who seems to be having any sort of fun here is Robert Pattinson’s Neil, a freewheeling, improbably well-connected British intelligence agent (or is he?) who swaggers through the film setting up some of the spectacular stunts and heists, while The Protagonist just looks glum and confused for the most part. But who can blame him? When everyone seems to know what’s going on except him – and, I suspect, large chunks of the audience, although they may not really care as, don’t get me wrong, there are more than enough genuine thrills, startling set-pieces and backwards car chases scattered strategically through this film to make it at least look like a cut above your average, much less ambitious thriller. At most times, that would have been enough.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity.
Tenet (Certificate: 12A) is at UK cinemas.