Christopher Nolan’s time circuitous action drama “Tenet” has been elevated in critical evaluation due in no small part to a reliance on the assertion that the film’s labyrinthine plotting is frustrating to any comprehensive enjoyment without the aid of successive viewings and if what pass for contemporary critics enjoy anything more than the pretense that they’re infinitely smarter than their audience, it has yet to be uncovered. Nolan’s particular brand of curiously favored obscurity seems based entirely on the notion that unessential histrionic narrative hocus-pocus is preferable to actually directing the creative juices toward revolutionizing narrative grammar in a meaningful (and honest) way. “Tenet” is comprised entirely of empty cinematic calories in that Nolan has found it easier to posture as a false visionary rather than an artistic original.
The film is presented as a groundbreaking reimagining of the action genre and by some egotistically nervy extension, storytelling itself. But just how are these ballyhooed ambitions defined? To both define the ambitions and acknowledge the pretensions of the film, it is useful to be reminded that the modern action film is a genre particularly subservient to the craven vapidity of satiating populist appetites for violent action sequences trivially linked by the most threadbare of narrative requirements. The success of explosive actions films (a genre inclusive of the current industry- not to mention brain cell -killing saturation of superhero rubbish) seems to have resulted in a plethora of films burdened with a predictability of construction not seen since the global wave of Bond imitations (both serious and satiric) in the mid 1960’s. Mired in a dispiriting rotation of antiquated genre tropes which when primarily realized by increasingly soulless CGI merely enhances the distancing of empty kinetic action from any synergistic relationship with the human experience. “Tenet” asserts what, by now, seems a signatory narrative arrogance on the part of Christopher Nolan in which an exercise in presentational obfuscation falsely asserts that deliberate incomprehension is a broad suggestion of an evolutionary leapfrogging in film which also (though unexplainably) elevates his kinetically trivial material to pioneering forms of dramaturgical artistry.
The film is burdened with a succession of lengthy expository reveals purporting to immerse the main character into a deeper recesses of the plot but instead merely transport him to another exotic filming location without additional. purpose. as if a wider scope of geographic backdrop will imbue the proceedings with automatic narrative imperatives; portending global crises by the quantity of it’s production team’s passport stamps. “Tenet” becomes so weighed down by this overextended and unenlightening expositional sleigh-of-hand that the ensuing action set pieces are elevated in the viewer’s mind simply by the sheer relief of release from the relentless expositional purgatory. Still, though several of the energetic action sequences (a car chase, a violent encounter at an airport) are relatively well-staged, Nolan’s supposed contextual elevation fails to disguise the fact when stripped of the film’s novelty time stream reversals, these incidents occur for no greater purpose save to provide a convenient visceral jolt, the same motivation when employed in any standard B-movie thriller. Tropes are trotted out with a trickster twisted time element (the film concludes with that most tired of movie thriller cliches, a last second disarming of a possibly apocalyptic device) added which neither advance character nor contribute to significant forward momentum in the plotting. Even a last minute revelation concerning the true identity of the nameless hero/Protagonist only serves to make the opening salvo of violent action meaningless and unnecessary. For a time obsessed film, the inertia of the story begets an example of the most curious sort of unintended irony.
Aside from some well underplayed humor provided by Robert Pattinson (who seems to be the only cast member on-hand who wisely doesn’t take the proceedings seriously), the performances are universally utilitarian and unmemorable. As the cryptic Protagonist, John David Washington displays all of the charism of a piece of driftwood, his full range of stolidity chosen on display seems to have been summoned from the Steve Seagal School of Emotional Paralysis. On the opposite extreme of offenses, there is the gifted Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, who persists in decimating his filmic reputation with yet another portrayal of a rabid doomsday oligarch; a temper tantrum parody of his performance from “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”.
Nolan’s preoccupation with time continuums blended with a generic mix of formulaic genre points reveals his willing abandonment of narrative logic as a consequential element of film making. The desperation to justify the illogic of his concepts is evident in each successive layer of untidy explanatory monologues which foolishly lay bare his disastrous narrative house of cards. Nolan’s film is a maze in which both entrance and exit have been unceremoniously sealed and the resultant emotional sterility is oppressive. The pretense carried by the film’s luxuriant play with time streams never truly grants complexity to the story, but merely attempts to masquerade how skimpy and simplistic the entire enterprise would be revealed as bereft of Nolan’s dishonest conceptual proclivities. He has become the next generation purveyor of empty Kubrickian aesthetics.