There’s an infamous behind-the-scenes clip from Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace in which writer-director George Lucas, speaking to a team of Lucasfilm underlings, says the character Jar Jar Binks is “the key to all this”. He then proceeds to talk about the parallels between the original trilogy and the then upcoming prequel movies, declaring — as the underlings dutifully nod along — that “it’s like poetry; they rhyme.” He adds, with the slightest of hesitations: “Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one. Hopefully it’ll work.”
Over two decades later, what with the fandom now dominated by a new, decidedly more political generation of nerds, whether or not “it worked” depends on who you ask. But something most older Star Wars fans will agree on is that the prequel trilogy went the way it did because Lucas, tired of alleged studio meddling, had surrounded himself with a bunch of yes-men who wouldn’t dare question some of his stranger ideas. Ideas that definitely should’ve been questioned (looking at you, Episode II Anakin).
Having just seen Christopher Nolan’s barely audible, two-and-a-half-hour exposition dump that was Tenet, one wonders whether history is repeating itself in Hollywood.
Ever since he made Warner Bros a bajillion dollars with his acclaimed Batman movies (2.3 billion to be exact) and other thematically ambitious blockbusters like The Prestige and Inception that were also well received, Nolan, it appears, has become one of those sure-bet, too-big-to-fail directors that studio executives will unflinchingly throw their money at, even if — heck, especially if — the script is way over their heads. If you want a sci-fi tentpole that will rake in the money and also not embarrass you come awards season, Nolan is your guy. The reliably cold, sterile feel of his output notwithstanding, few mainstream filmmakers have cracked the code of telling original, compelling stories through technically prodigious, blockbuster cinema quite the way he has. Is Nolan an auteur? Maybe. Opinion seems divided. Everyone agrees, though, that no exec worth their salt is going to dare cramp his style. But if there is one takeaway from his latest outing, it’s that maybe it’s time someone took him to a side and said “Chris, buddy, no”.
Somewhere in the pages of the Tenet screenplay is a pretty cool mind-bender of a movie, with a fresh and intriguing take on time travel that feels wholly original (we can split hairs on whether or not it’s actually time travel later, guy). Unfortunately, however, barring a handful of interesting scenes, what we end up seeing onscreen is a convoluted, shoddily edited mess that leaves you feeling nothing for any of the characters and not giving a toss about what happens in the end. Some of the finest actors in the business spend the entirety of the movie’s runtime spewing cliche after cliche, and at the end of it, you’re back where you started, knowing absolutely nothing about anything. How’s that for a palindrome?
Not even Kenneth Branagh could save this script. Mercifully, we’re spared a good chunk of the ham-fisted dialogue, thanks to the director’s bizarre insistence that the audience work harder to understand what’s being said. But a few stinkers still manage to seep through (“If I can’t have you, no one can;” “a cold war — as cold as ice”, yikes; and the worst offender, “including my son”). After about an hour of straining your ears to make out the words, you find yourself almost wishing the whole thing was on mute just so you don’t have to hear any more of this drivel. Besides, it’s not like you’d miss anything. Much of the dialogue is pure exposition, and though it’s not all technobabble, it adds nothing to the story in terms of humanising the characters, which makes for rather poor storytelling no matter how impressive the spectacle.
And make no mistake, it is impressive. Some of the “inverted” scenes are genuinely worthy of praise and offer some thrilling moments of good old-fashioned movie magic. Nolan’s relentless push for practical effects over CGI is well known, and this time he has outdone himself with the set pieces, going as far as to crash a real Boeing 747 for a scene that I’m not sure the story even demanded. Where visual grandeur is concerned, Tenet is Nolan on overdrive, but one wishes it wasn’t at the expense of basic coherence. The film’s climatic battle is clearly meant to awe, but 90% of the time you have no idea who is shooting at whom; and 30 seconds in, you stop caring. The Matrix’s iconic lobby shootout this isn’t. David Washington’s “protagonist” is no Neo, and Robert Pattinson’s Neil, pretty though he is, is a poor substitute for Trinity. Nothing of any emotional consequence is at stake. Nothing matters, except moving on to the next plot point.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a plot-driven movie. But where Tenet fails that its spiritual predecessors didn’t is its glaring absence of an emotional core, which renders the story hollow and ultimately unrewarding. When a character you’re supposed to care about gets a bullet in their gut and you don’t even wince, when the protagonist is caught in a full-blown battle and you‘re stifling a yawn or three, you’re no longer watching human drama unfold with real emotional stakes; you’re watching a series of set pieces linked together by weak narrative threads. Tenet’s most unforgivable flaw is not that it uses characters as props in service of the plot, but that it’s so caught up in its own narrative ambition that it ends up stripping its characters of their human essence. Nolan is so focused on getting the science right — which he doesn’t always succeed in doing by the way, leading to laboured exchanges about the grandfather paradox among other things — and so interested in reminding us how clever he is that he forgets to ground his characters in any kind of emotional reality. In its almost indecent hurry to impress, Tenet ends up feeling like the cinematic equivalent of an internet mansplainer.
It almost feels like Nolan came up with the action sequences first and then wrote a story around it. He is said to have spent five years on the script and apparently no one told him this might not be the way to go (seriously, where was Jonathan?). At no stage in the production, it seems, was he asked to reconsider some of his more questionable choices, and if he was, it’s hard to imagine that he listened. And why would he, when he had delivered hit after hit, when he had legions of 𝟸̶𝟶̶-̶𝚜̶𝚘̶𝚖̶𝚎̶𝚝̶𝚑̶𝚒̶𝚗̶𝚐̶ -𝚎̶𝚗̶𝚝̶𝚒̶𝚝̶𝚕̶𝚎̶𝚍̶- ̶𝚖̶𝚎̶𝚗̶ fans ever ready to pounce on the odd critic that might (*shudder*) have something negative to say? This is, of course, not to say that his occasionally toxic fan base is in any way a reflection of Nolan as a person or even as a filmmaker; far from it; but it certainly feels as though the growing cult of personality around him has earned him a rather expensive aura of infallibility in the eyes of the studios.
This strange though not entirely unearned blind spot has, in my view, turned him or is in the process of turning him into another Lucas whose less-than-stellar ideas keep getting green-lit when they should really be subject to rigorous revision. Nolan being the undoubtedly talented and visionary filmmaker that he is, it is a shame that the quality of his work is allowed to be undermined by this weird Hollywood handicap. You might argue that Tenet is his first real dud and therefore this criticism is undeserved and premature. But is it, really? Go back and rewatch Interstellar and tell me I’m wrong.