Monday, August 31, 2020

TENET (some spoilers but they won't deter your fun)

Try to feel it!
TENET is a return to form  for Christopher Nolan after the technically brilliant but narratively simplistic and arguably jingoistic, DUNKIRK.  He is far safer in his home territory of cerebral sci-fi and kinetic action sequences.  In TENET, the big concept is that a future scientist created a technology to reverse an object's entropy. So it's not technically time travel but it does involve people and objects (cars/guns) going backwards from our present-day perspective.  None of it really makes sense, and there's a funny early sequence where poor Clemence Poesy has to do her best Basil Exposition impression, both explaining the concept AND telling us not to think too much about it.  

Realising the danger of this tech, the future scientist splits the algorithm into nine parts - like Horcruxes or Infinity Stones -  and hides them in our present. (Why doesn't the scientist just destroy it? Who the frack knows.) This naturally pisses off vague future people, who want to find and re-assemble the algorithm and use it to wage war on the present. 

It's not a very original plot is it?!

Why does the Future hate us, mummy? They hate us for the same reasons Greta Thunburg hates us.  Moreover, they are making a massive gamble that by wiping us out they won't also make their own existence void. And so they enable a present-day Russian oligarch called Sator to re-assemble the Infinity Glove, sorry The Algorithm, starting with a piece that was hidden in the closed Soviet city where he grew up.  

Is this a spoiler? Well yes, but not in any way that should detract from your enjoyment of the film.  The real fun is in seeing how Nolan takes us and his Protagonist through his world where the action is happening simultaneously in linear and reverse time. It’s a lot of fun of seeing events replay themselves from different time perspectives, and recognising little Easter eggs laid early in the film pay off later on.  This involves hand-to-hand combat scenes and car chases where people are fighting in dual times. It's all just enormous fun and technically an absolute marvel. No other film-maker is going to literally crash a 747 into an airport hangar for you.  And the delightful insouciance of Himesh Patel's Mahir explaining this plan is presumably a meta-comment on Nolan's own audacity.  

Another reason why this film is fun is its knowing humour.  First off, we have John David Washington playing against the very notion of suave sophisticated Bond - throwing barbs about snobbery back at Michael Caine's knighted fixer.  But mostly, it's all about Robert Pattinson's Neil, who starts the film as a kind of crumpled linen-suited alcohol soaked minor diplomat but ends as something of a hero.  I couldn't resist his rakish charm, perhaps modelled on a younger Jeremy Irons?  Let's see more of this! Every time he wasn't on screen - for example a deathly dull interlude on a yacht in the middle of the movie - I wanted to press the fast forward button.

Tailoring goals.

Another reason to love the film is its intelligence and its absolute refusal to dumb down for a mass audience. And to all the reviewers out there who claimed they couldn't understand what was happening, my retort is to DO BETTER.  Nolan takes great pains to colour code the timelines and to play back scenes so that we really understand what is happening from each angle. If you don't get it, that really is on you.

That said, there are limits.  Nolan's refuses to give the protagonist a name. He's called The Protagonist. He even has a conversation with Dimple Kapadia's arms dealer about who really is the protagonist. This is the sort of pretentious wank that only literary theory students should be allowed to indulge in.

The plot is also - sci-fi concept aside - pretty hackneyed. The idea of protagonist and antagonist in a race to assemble a MacGuffin that can - da da daaaaaah - end the world - is fairly common. And even at the micro-level, the idea of a protagonist falling for a waif-like blonde abused by her evil oligarch husband is pretty well-worn. Indeed it's something straight out of a B-list Bond movie like NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN

I am a waif-like blonde on my abusive lover's yacht, please help!

As is Kenneth Branagh's awful Russian acc-yent.  Could they really have not found a Russian actor to play Sator? Not to mention poor Elizabeth Debicki basically just reprising her role from THE NIGHT MANAGER here.  Every time Nolan tries to make us care about the fate of her and her son, I thought, I just don't care at all. Also, if you marry a very rich old Russian dude, are you not somewhat suspicious about what he did, and what kind of man he was and is, to get all that money?  My sympathy is thin. Let's get back to cool action sequences!

Please save me from my luxury yacht - again!

Anyway, B-grade Bond plot and silly Russian accents aside, TENET is a superbly fun and twisty, technically marvellous ride. And for the first time since THE PRESTIGE, I actually CARED about the characters. Not the stupid woman and her pointless son, but the evident bromance between Neil and The Protagonist. Now there's a sequel I wish Nolan would break his no sequel rule for.

TENET has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated 12A in the UK and PG-13 in the USA. It is on release in the UK and wherever the pandemic is allowing cinemas to be open.