Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable
Christopher Nolan has not yet made a bad movie.
His latest, Tenet, is not one of his best, but it is not bad.
The movie centers around our main character played by John David Washington. After a botched extraction operation at a Russian opera house, he chooses death over giving up his allies. However, he doesn't die and is instead recruited into an unexplained organization that has discovered some items whose entropy is reversed. This means that these objects move through time in reverse. For example, a gun that has been reversed would catch bullets instead of shooting them. At some point the exposition scientist Barbara (Clemence Poesy) says to the main character that you shouldn't think about it too much. Instead you should just feel it. Washington's character is told that they need to prevent a coming catastrophe and that the only clue they have is the word "Tenet." To help him he enlists Neil (Robert Pattinson) who seems to have a weary charm about him as he sets up the connection that our hero needs. Somehow his path leads him to a Russian oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and the only way to get to him is to make a connection with his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), whose desperate desire to be free of Sator is matched only by her fear of losing their child. Washington's character proceeds to uncover a conspiracy that could have consequences that would make a world war look trivial.
As always, Christopher Nolan is the master of visual storytelling. I heard that there is little to no CGI in this film and that most everything is done with practical effects. This makes a great deal of the action, though wild and eye-popping, much more real and tangible than most films. Even without the special time effects, Nolan knows how to build and create tension while at the same time giving marvelous, world-hopping villas. In a lot of its look, this felt like Nolan making a James Bond film: a hero spy who has to span the globe to exotic locations while confronting a evil maniac.
The acting is also quite excellent. Washington has charisma, like his father Denzel, but he is his own man. I would not have made the familial connection. In this movie, Washington is cool and smart while being a decisive man of action. He is able to do a lot with very little (more on this later) and he is able to draw you in as a protagonist. Pattinson continues to prove that he is more of an actor than a movie star. The Twilight films made him a heartthrob, but the guy actually has talent. Neil appears flippant, but there is always something behind the eyes that lets you know there's something more. Debicki plays her part with claustrophobic grace. She is suffocated by her lack of choices and you can see her desperately holding it together behind a veneer of grace. And I always love Branagh, who just sinks his teeth into a man of simple malevolence. There isn't anything in this performance that is horribly different than some of the other villains he's played, but he does what is required of him with great skill.
Despite how cool and how slick the film is, it lacks something: heart.
Interstellar was Nolan's most emotionally intense film. In fact, its biggest flaw is that it leans too heavy on sentiment in the final act. It feels like Nolan's last two films, Tenet and Dunkirk, are reactions to the criticisms he received on Interstellar. The emotional root of both of his latest films is so blunted that it lacks the emotional hook necessary to make the movies great. Technical achievements are a tool to tell and engaging story. But without the emotional connection to the characters it is very hard for the story to have any lasting impact. Notice that I have not mentioned the name of Washington's character in this review. That is because it is never given. The withholding of the name doesn't really add anything to the story. In fact, it is emblematic of a the film, which keeps the audience at arm's length and prevents us from fully embracing it. The exposition is confusing, and not in the usually heady way that Nolan does where he simply does not talk down to you. Here it feels like he is intentionally talking over your head. He feels like that college professor who uses big words so that you feel too stupid to question him.
His time-travel hook feels much more like a gimmick than anything he has used in his other movies. He still makes the most of this gimmick, using it to recontextualize scenes as they are revisited from different perspectives based on their relative motion in time. But in the end it is still a gimmick. It should be the means by which you advance an engaging plot, theme, and characters. Nolan tries to do this, but setting up and executing the gimmick takes up so much of his storytelling energy that the other elements suffer for it.
And Nolan wants to deal with big questions like fate and free will as it relates to time travel, but he can't quite seem to get there. There seems to be a very annoying consequentialist ethics at play, where things that should be seen as moral evils like suicide are acceptable as a practical end. Too many characters casually talk about suicide as a forgone conclusion to horrible situations.
The movie also suffers from horrible sound design. I thought that it was simply a problem with my theater, but after watching the movie I saw a review that mentioned that the strange mix of sounds was by design. Nolan wanted the characters to be swallowed up by the environments and the score. At least that is how it felt. I can't see the artistic advantage to this if your audiences struggles to make out important plot points.
It is a shame that Nolan keeps you at arms length, because with the right emotional hook, Tenet had potential to be one of his best. If he continues down this stylistic road, he may very well be on his way to making his first bad movie.