Tenet is likely to find fewer takers than many of Nolan’s other films, despite its ambition and merit
Tenet might just have crossed a threshold for how much viewers are willing to engage if they’ve to work hard to enjoy a film. And yet, by challenging himself and believing in the fundamental empathy and intelligence of his audience, Nolan is also getting more assured and capable at crafting his films.
It seems like Nolan-verse is expanding at least as fast as our actual universe. The ambition on display in Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, is staggering; and it begs the usual question – how does it compare to his previous mind-bending work?
If you leave out remakes (Insomnia) and adaptations (The Prestige, the Batman Trilogy), and you look solely at all of Christopher Nolan’s ‘original’ movies, you’ll notice that the director has steadily escalated his narrative stakes and pushed the boundaries of how his story and its structure are intricately linked to each another. Beginning with the ultra-indie Following, followed by Memento, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk; each successive film grew bigger, not just in Nolan’s increasing reliance on the large IMAX/70 mm imaging formats, but also in sheer imagination.
It isn’t a surprise, then, that Tenet is the most challenging film experience from Chris Nolan so far. The themes are familiar to the Nolan oeuvre, but more layered than they’ve ever been before. The cinema on display is as immersive as Nolan’s cinema always is; but Tenet can draw you in to the action and make your heart thump more than a Nolan film ever has. But; it also has his most intricate – and thus, alienating – plot yet; one that is near-impossible to fully decipher in the first viewing. (I watched the film twice, to ensure I don’t embarrass myself by attempting to write insightfully about it after a single watch. Yes, I was a Covidiot twice.)
From embedding words from the mysterious Sator Square all over his plot; to exploring the impossible theoretical concept of reversing entropy to travel backwards in time; and then practically executing some astounding action set pieces in camera, relying on fewer VFX shots than the average romantic comedy, there is much in Tenet that far surpasses any of his previous work. It points to the fact that purely in terms of craft, Nolan is getting better with every film. He has always endeavoured to put the viewer in the mind of the protagonist, and Tenet has been verbally and visually designed to engulf the viewer better than ever before.
Memento versus The Rest
In pushing his limits, Nolan has taken a leap of faith with the involvement of his audience, expecting them to submit themselves to his audacity like never before. And it doesn’t always work, with Tenet.
In terms of sheer narrative structure, Memento still remains Nolan’s seminal work. While the sophistication of his non-linear narrative has steadily increased, they’ve also gotten increasingly reliant on mind-expanding outer devices that play a key role in how the narrative is designed. Think dreams in Inception, wormholes in Interstellar and reversing entropy in Tenet.
In Memento, though, the structure came from within the character itself – anterograde amnesia. We knew only as much as the character knew, and for the most, we’re as lost as he is. Yet, everything makes sense by the end. Except, you’re worse off than the protagonist Leonard Shelby when things conclude. You see, he’s going to forget the crushing tragedy of his life because of his ‘condition’. But you, the engaged viewer, have to deal with his transient emotions as you’re processing the movie you’ve just watched.
Cerebral versus Emotional
Emotions have, in fact, been a strong part of Nolan’s stories, though they’ve been driven deeper beneath the surface with every passing film. Inception relentlessly reinforced that the protagonist Dom ultimately wanted to be reunited with his children. And, in what has to be one of the greatest final shots of a movie ever, your own emotions are teetering on the brink just like the spinning top in big close up; you’re that invested in whether Dom’s reunion with his children was reality, or a dream.
The bond between parent and child is a recurring theme in many Nolan pictures. Apart from Inception, films like The Prestige and Interstellar also delved into it in varying degrees, not to mention the inherent daddy issues of Bruce Wayne, and his dynamic with dad-surrogate Alfred. Tenet, too, has a mother-son thread that seems fleeting only because there’s so much else happening, but is in fact deeply relevant to the plot.
Tenet is Nolan’s most cerebral work yet, so you can begin the process of mining it for its emotional content only after you’ve fully grasped the core conceit at play, and that is likely to be a confusing experience for the casual viewer and an exhausting one for the Nolan-phile.
Genre-smashing versus smashing the genre
It is because Nolan films are loaded with emotional elements that they become genre-bending. Inception is a heist film, but also sci-fi, and also a romance, and so much more. Interstellar’s core conceit is about reimagining space-time, but calling it a time-travel or sci-fi film is just reductive. In that sense, Tenet the closest thing to a genre film from Nolan yet. It is, mostly, an espionage-action flick.
In Tenet, objects and people are individually travelling backward and forward in time, sometimes simultaneously. Thus, when ‘inverted’ things interact with the regular world moving forward, it sets the stage for some terrific action; and there’s a lot of it.
The set-pieces, set to a pulsating score that heightens them immensely, make you feel like you’re in the thick of it. But the sound mix is also rather uneven at times, the loud music taking away some of the attention you’re desperately trying to give to the details of the plot. It’s also the first time since The Prestige (2006) that Hans Zimmer hasn’t composed Nolan’s score. This time he’s gone with Ludwig Göranson, best known for his music for Black Panther and The Mandalorian. The music itself largely works well for the movie, but it isn’t necessarily as memorable as previous Nolan soundtracks.
Protagonists versus The Protagonist
There are a couple of aspects in which Tenet is instantly better than everything else by Nolan so far. Elizabeth Debicki’s character Kat is easily his most nuanced female character yet, even more than Interstellar’s Murphy (Jessica Chastain) and Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway). And Debicki’s performance elevates Kat immensely. In fact, Tenet has some surprisingly good performances across the board, led by John David Washington.
In Tenet, the protagonist isn’t even given a name. He’s just called The Protagonist. It’s certainly not because a cold, calculating man has made a soulless film, but because he’s a spook. ‘Ignorance is our ammunition’, he says to his partner at one point; because of the time-travel at play and end-of-the-world stakes, one only needs to know how much is necessary. And, to extrapolate a wee bit, perhaps by virtue of its very plot, the name of the protagonist is relevant only much later in the timeline of the character than is shown in the film.
You may not know his name, but with his charm and intensity, The Protagonist is possibly one of Nolan’s most likeable protagonists so far.
So, where does Tenet stand in Nolan-verse?
Tenet is at least as much of a multi-sensory experience as anything else by Nolan, but by increasingly relying on large-format cinematography and designing increasingly complex, demanding stories and structures, perhaps the most notable feature of Nolan’s cinema is that it is best viewed on the big screen, for maximum engagement. Like Dunkirk, Tenet is likely to be a diminished experience when streamed.
Re-watching a Nolan film is usually delightful because you’re picking all the little details he has written and directed into existence, in service of his vision. Yet, Tenet might just have crossed a threshold for how much viewers are willing to engage if they’ve to work hard to enjoy a film. There seems to be a correlation between how much Nolan is pushing himself and his audience, and how ‘mixed’ the buzz in the air is around his films after they release.
Still, simply by challenging himself and believing in the fundamental empathy and intelligence of his audience, Nolan is also getting more assured and capable at crafting his films. Purely in terms of technical, cinematic and intellectual accomplishment, every Nolan film seems to get better than the previous one, and Tenet is no exception to that rule. But as an organic construct that relies on the audience’s experience and reaction to fully define itself, Tenet is likely to find fewer takers than many of Nolan’s other films.
Thus, I’d like to finally rank Tenet on two parameters: In terms of pure cerebral cinema, Christopher Nolan’s filmography simply ranks in ascending order of release; Tenet is a fine feather in the cap, the biggest spectacle so far, the kind of film that reminds us why movie theatres are still relevant.
In terms of the overall experience and how memorable the film is, here’s my current ranking in ascending order: Insomnia, Following, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Inception, Dunkirk, Tenet, Memento, Interstellar.
At number three, then, I’ve rated Tenet a little higher than I instinctively wanted to, but it’s almost in keeping with the theme of the film. Over the next few times I watch it, I intend to travel backwards and discover why I’ve rated the film so high, and how the various threads in the fabric of its plot seem so ragged yet so seamless all at once.