TENET: A templated celebration of ‘Nolan Cinematic Universe’

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TENET movie poster
Rachit Raj

One of the Hollywood’s commercially most successful filmmakers and known for his complex narratives and unique styling, Christopher Nolan‘s new film TENET is released on Amazon Prime today, after a partial theatrical release last year. Rachit Raj , who prefers to call himself a film critic by accident, an academician by design, and a storyteller by choice, reviews the film.

Tenet encapsulates everything that defines Christopher Nolan’s cinema post Inception. It carries the legacy of everything that was good in his previous movies, and expands on the flaws that have hindered his mad genius as a filmmaker beyond a certain point. It is a film that belongs to the Nolan brand of cinema, and yet, it is this very branding that is also the film’s brightest weakness, narratively.

A still from TENET

The problem with a filmmaker becoming a brand, and their style becoming a template is that the audience know what to expect. So when Tenet opens with a grand shootout in a theatre, as an audience you are already expecting an opening sequence that would at least attempt to, if not match, Nolan’s iconic opening scenes (and there are so many by now). In Tenet, the scene is as splendid as one could ask for. There are guns, a searing background score, and the editing is crisp, and quick, keeping the tension alive. And yet, something is amiss. It takes the entire runtime of the film for it to dawn on you. You knew the template already. A big opening sequence; a twisted, genre-bending concept; a protagonist obsessed to latch on to the narrative of their lives; and lastly, a big-budget spectacle that traverses across countries, to make you jealous of the amount of travelling that was involved in the making of the film.

TENET movie poster

Most of these are Nolan specials. He is the single-most bankable commercial filmmaker in Hollywood, and every scene in Tenet reflects the expense of the film. Few directors would even dream to have such a budget for a non-superhero film in our times, and fewer would know how to handle their narrative if trusted with this kind of a budget.

This is where Christopher Nolan aces, making Tenet work, despite a sense of been-there-done-that, that is an inevitable sensation to have when an artists’ style becomes a template. The plot revolves around a CIA agent (John David Washington) known as the Protagonist, as he teams up with Neil (Robert Pattinson) as he tries to prevent the Third World War, fighting a Russian millionaire who has got hold of a time-inversion technology, giving the film some insane action sequences, and mind-boggling narrative junctures.

Tenet is a visual masterpiece in every sense of the word. Hoyte van Hoytema and Nolan once again collaborate for a stunningly shot film, that makes the film fun to watch even when the narrative gets too thick, and complex to keep track of. Which is where the genius, as well as the problem with Tenet lies.

Dimple Kapadia & John David Washington in the film

The first hour invests most of its time in diverting the audience by its visual grandeur to hide the fact that very little makes sense beyond the most obvious idea of time-inversion. In most cases, this would be a demerit. But Nolan knows how to keep the audience engaged even when the narrative gets too complicated. If anything, you are intrigued by the idea of time-inversion, if not the characters itself.

The second hour plunges you in a narrative that finally starts to make some sense. Everything you see is breathtaking. From an airplane colliding into a building to a thrilling sequence on a highway. The visual brilliance is to admire, and finally the film finds its place in the Nolan Cinematic Universe as a film that improved on his previous, and still lacked the mind-boggling genius of Inception (a film it most desperately wants to imitate).

Robert Pattinson in the film

It is a shame that the benchmark Nolan sets for Tenet is Inception, and not his earlier, more admirable works. I, for one, would have loved the Nolan of Memento to expand his canvas of experiment and use its theme as a genre-defining trait, instead of placing the idea of time-inversion in a decided setting of a Bond-like narrative. But Tenet plays safe, and it is that safety that makes it a towering, sumptuous watch, if not an entirely memorable one.

Robert Pattinson & John David Washington in the film

What truly works against Tenet, though, is its inability to make the audience care for the characters. Much like Dunkirk, Tenet is obsessed to bring a Nolan-esque complexity to a genre that has rarely been tampered with. It is not a bad idea to experiment with a genre, but here, like in Dunkirk, Nolan forgets to address the basics of the genre he is placing his film in, while also failing to show the appetite to truly shake things up. We still have a Russian villain (reminding us of Bond movies during the Cold War), and a white man saving the day (even if the Protagonist is not a white man). And yet, the emotional connect that elevates any story past its clichés is missing, making Tenet a grand, magnificent watch, but never a truly satisfying one.

Having said that, Tenet needs to be seen. It is a film that celebrates the kind of cinema Nolan has come to be associated with. It is a celebration of everything we love about Nolan’s grand, picturesque filmmaking infused with complex ideas, and only Christopher Nolan could have celebrated his own legacy in such a fine, unhinged manner.

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