Extracting this movie from all of the hype around it, from it not just being one of the biggest movies of the year, from one of the most-loved big-budget directors in the business, but also as the potential saviour for cinemas and film-goers following months of lockdown… its tough.
You might almost expect reviews to be more forgiving, if not outright glowing, purely down to the fact that this is a HUGE movie that we’re getting to see on the big screen! Which is why it is all the more disappointing when the crushing realisation hits you that Tenet is actually kind of a mess.
First things first, let’s get the good stuff out of the way. Practically nobody else is doing cinema on this scale anymore, with Nolan putting together some incredible set-pieces that brings to mind James Cameron in his heyday, before he discovered 3D cameras and blue aliens. A massive 747 crash sequence, a multi-vehicle heist-slash-kinetic car chase, an opera house siege, some brilliantly staged hand-to-hand combat; it all feels real and grounded because you know Nolan did for real, with as little CGI-assistance as possible.
His talent for casting is also as astute as ever, with John David (son of Denzel) Washington a one-man charisma machine, ably assisted by Robert Pattinson (having the time of his life as an ultra-posh high-end problem-solver), Kenneth Branagh (chewing the scenery as the Russian villain) and Elizabeth Debicki (as Branagh’s trapped wife), each and every one of them bringing their A-game to their characters.
However, it is the story that these characters and action sequences are filling out where things start to fall apart. Without getting too far into spoilers, Washington is a newly recruited secret agent tasked with stopping Branagh from using time-reversing technology from causing untold devastating damage to the world. Sounds simple enough, but Nolan can’t help himself from over-complicating things. Plot-threads are picked up and unceremoniously dropped without warning, famous actors (Michael Caine! Clémence Poésy! Martin Donovan!) arrive for one scene, and then disappear for the rest of the movie.
Key details are constantly hinted at but almost never explained, as if the level of detail Nolan went into for explaining Inception left him wide open for plot-holes, so he decided to go the opposite way and explain next-to-nothing, to stop those plot-holes from ever forming. That tactic doesn’t work though, as plot-holes threaten to sink the entire thing within minutes of the end credits rolling, when your brain has a moment to dissect about what you’ve just watched. The time-travel stuff is somehow simultaneously over-detailed and under-explained, and it is MADDENING.
And in increasingly Nolan fashion, the sound-mix is all over the place. Remember how difficult it was to fully understand what Tom Hardy was saying behind the mask in The Dark Knight Rises? Or what Hardy was saying behind the mask in Dunkirk? Well here, everyone is wearing a mask at one point or another, sometimes with explosions going off, sometimes in the middle of a gun-fight, all the time with Ludwig Göransson's bombastic score overpowering everything, so potentially vitally important conversations are lost in the din.
It is to be appreciated just how rare it is to get an original, big-budget, science fiction action movie of this scale in cinemas anymore, and that Nolan is one of the even rarer few who deliver them regularly. Tenet is definitely enjoyable when he stops trying to bash your head in with details and gives us some old-school action scenes with visually impressive stunt-work, but this is still quite the tumble down from Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Tenet arrives in Irish cinemas on Wednesday 26 August, and you can watch the latest trailer for it right here: