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Tenet review: Christopher Nolan’s film is underwhelming and confusing

The most impressive Tenet gets is people simultaneously walking in opposite directions, and cars seemingly in reverse in our timelines, which makes for one helluva ride but not even a great car chase on screen.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer |
Updated: December 5, 2020 8:51:06 am
TenetTenet hit Indian screens today.

Tenet movie cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia
Tenet movie director: Christopher Nolan
Tenet movie rating: Two stars

Not every film requires the bending of space and time. However, even as he turns out a regular run-of-the-mill James Bond-ish thriller, Christopher Nolan can’t resist the temptation. The result is a film that is so underwhelming and so over-confusing that, more than once, more than one character, insists, “Don’t try to understand it.” One of them even goes on to add, “Just feel it”, though even that is hard to do when the story (written by Nolan) is trotting out such an assembly line of ordinaries — the damsel in distress who is actually British so-and-so Lord’s daughter and looks every inch of it (though there are not many inches on the spindly thin and completely wasted Debicki); the Russian oligarch from nowhere who, obviously, will turn out to have some “Plutonium 241” links and madman ambitions (Branagh, chewing as usual into the role); and a regular American/CIA bloke (Washington, lacking the charm to make it worthwhile) who will save the world with some “cowboy shit”.

From what exactly, is where Tenet (note the palindrome of the title) takes its biggest tumble, tying itself up in so many knots going forwards-backwards, backwards-forwards that it even has to mention “tying up of loose ends” more than once. From what a scientist (another pale and thin presence in the form of Clemence Poesy) pops up briefly to explain, in the future, a technology that “inverts the entropy of things”, a sort of “inverse radiation from nuclear fission”, has been invented. It has been turning up in the shape of bullets, for example, that are not fired but seized back, when you pull the trigger. Tenet’s conceit is that this, somehow (don’t ask how), makes the malevolent creature who is manipulating the past by coming back from the future more dangerous for humanity’s existence than “a nuclear disaster”.

We could even grant Tenet that — if it spent some time exploring this idea. Instead, the most impressive it gets is people simultaneously walking in opposite directions, and cars seemingly in reverse in our timelines, which makes for one helluva ride but not even a great car chase on screen. And that’s the problem with Tenet consistently — this rare failure by Nolan to seize our eyeballs so impressively that we don’t care about the signals reaching our brains. The film is a run of action scenes, with a particular fondness for ones on water, and dashes across enough countries to justify the budget and Nolan’s insistence that Tenet get a theatrical release — and not go straight to a streaming platform, like many other films did in the midst of the coronavirus.

There is much talk about turnstiles, algorithms, hypocentres, nuclear fission, radiation, even “simple physics”, apart from the curious repetition of a phrase “We live in a twilight world.” To this, usually someone responds with, “And there are no friends at dusk.” (Was that an inside joke on Pattinson, the only good, effortless, charming presence in the film, despite being a “Master’s in Physics” on top of a secret agent, we never know.) When Nolan is in need of philosophy, there are casual (nothing too heavy) references to the divide between the haves and the will-haves, climate change, free will, and the difference between believing and being a fanatic.

Even if the film wants you to ultimately trust that it is about the past and future, a road that leads to some nuclear-blighted part of Russia, via the exotic grounds of Europe, feels painfully stuck in Hollywood’s present.

For the forgotten parts of the world like us, the comforting thought is that in some parallel universe of Nolan’s hyperactive imagination, Mumbai holds an arms dealer clothed in Pashmina and pearls, with the tanned sophistication and tousled tresses of Dimple Kapadia, whose husband is just a harmless front, who perhaps (can only say perhaps) understands the irony of talking Oppenheimer in Oslo, who might (can only say might) be as interested (can only hazard a guess) in saving the world, and who has the gorgeous Pattinson on speed dial.

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