Video Game Action Trapped in Flimsy Narrative

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet Screenplay Misses the Mark

Photo Courtesy of the Verge

Photo Courtesy of the Verge

Christopher Nolan’s deftness as a cinematic engineer is in danger of being overwhelmed by his worst narrative impulses in his eleventh film, Tenet

It starts out well enough when our handsome and assured protagonist, played by John David Washington, who’s readily competent and whose survival is easy to root for, is recruited to transcend national interests in a fight to prevent the onset of World War III. His role is to globe-trot (mostly around Europe and Mumbai) and carry out a series of heists in collaboration with a fellow agent, played by Robert Pattinson and featuring his delightful accent. These heists, which Nolan expertly paced and staged, prove to be the highlights of the film as Nolan’s famous adherence to practical effects lead to some truly astonishing stunts involving plane crashes and passengers moving between parallel cars at breakneck speeds. Nolan’s rhythmic, precise approach to editing, in combination with the set and prop’s enhancement of the narrative, ensures a smoothness to their execution that satisfies easily. Unfortunately the narrative quickly ceases to be quite so streamlined.

Tenet devotes an inordinate amount of time to explaining its central mechanism, a conceit involving time that is introduced with a palindrome and a dose of college physics jargon. For all the obvious effort put towards establishing this mechanism and making it understandable, it adds surprisingly little to the narrative intrigue of the film’s plot and the effectiveness of its action sequences. This is compounded by the fact that the volume of expository dialogue is at least twice as much as the film and audience need, coming at the clear expense of both the coherence of the plot and the successful establishment of an emotional core. 

Nolan, the sole credited screenwriter for the film, employs the strategy of inserting new blocks of plot elements one after the other as the film progresses, a noticeably flimsy structure that starts to fall apart once the narrative momentum hitches at the beginning of the third act. Characters’ decisions regularly don’t make sense until future expounding sessions, and the latter parts of the film are reduced to a video game strategy of mandatory, hurried expositional briefings so participants will have some idea of what the hell is going on. This effect is enhanced by the climax playing out like a needlessly elaborate Call of Duty level. 

A similarly significant issue arises from the marked inadequacy of the film’s emotional core. For a filmmaker notorious for killing wives in his movies, Nolan is no better at writing about the living kind. The thoroughly qualified Elizabeth Debicki (whose character is named Widows) is saddled with a role that the film does the bare minimum to develop before tasking them with carrying the audience’s emotional engagement in an increasingly ungainly enterprise. Her defining trait is having a son that her husband (played by Kenneth Branagh) maintains control over to hold her hostage, as illustrated by this actual exchange of dialogue from the film: “Everything and everyone in the world will be destroyed.” “Including my son.” The friendship between Washington and Pattinson’s characters is better developed, but even that is superseded by the demands of the plot in the third act. 

What’s most frustrating about Tenet, besides its narrative inadequacies and inconsistencies, is that it obfuscates the really fun globe-trotting heist movie that a lot of its first two acts live up to. It effectively showcases what makes Nolan an elite blockbuster director, alongside all the reasons that, as a screenwriter, he still has a long way to go.

A note on the sound mixing: Nolan deliberately mixes his dialogue in with background noise and Ludwig Göransson’s original score as a way of exercising greater directorial control over the audience’s experience of the film. Unfortunately, compounded by characters’ propensity to speak with masks, through dividers, or in strong accents, 20 percent of the dialogue in Tenet is literally incomprehensible. You may want to wait until Tenet is available to screen with subtitles from the COVID-free comfort of your home.

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