Christopher Nolan’s latest is Hollywood’s first release in six months, but “it collapses under the weight of all the plot strands and concepts stuffed into it,” writes Nicholas Barber.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the first new Hollywood blockbuster to be released in cinemas in almost six months. The good news is that it is so sprawling, so epic, so crammed with exotic locations, snazzy costumes, shoot-outs and explosions that you get six months’ worth of big-screen entertainment in two and a half hours. Clearly, it never occurred to Nolan to tone it down every now and then. Having directed Inception, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight trilogy, he’s not someone you associate with quiet, intimate indie dramas. But it’s still startling to see a film so over-the-top that when one character asks if the villains are planning a nuclear holocaust, another character snaps: “No. Something worse.”
The recipient of this unpleasant news is a cool and confident CIA agent (John David Washington, star of BlacKkKlansman) known only as the Protagonist. He is then told that certain objects scattered around the world are moving backwards through time: they were manufactured in the future and are heading into the past. In some way that I didn’t understand, an exposition-spouting scientist (Clemence Poesy) has worked out that these “inverted” objects are the remnants of a war which will be declared centuries from now, and will nonetheless wipe out the whole of history. Got that? No, me neither, but the point is that it makes a nuclear holocaust look like a game of dominos.
Even that reality-smashing threat isn’t enough for Nolan, though. The Protagonist has only just had his beginner’s crash course in time travel when he dashes off on a mission which doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. First, he has to break into an arms dealer’s heavily-guarded flat in Mumbai with the aid of a louche British fixer, Robert Pattinson, who deserves his own spin-off film. Then, he has to pop to a posh restaurant in London for a briefing with a bigwig played by Nolan’s lucky charm, Michael Caine (the character is named Sir Michael in homage). Then, he’s instructed to liaise with a sadistic Russian oligarch, Kenneth Branagh, who conducts his business meetings while skimming over the waves on a top-of-the-range high-speed catamaran. But in order to do that, the Protagonist has to help the oligarch’s wife, Elizabeth Debicki, get out of her marriage by … errrr … crashing a jumbo jet into Oslo Airport and stealing a forged Goya drawing. Got that? Once again, me neither. But it is obvious that Nolan didn’t think of a single scene without thinking how he could make it more excessive and expensive.
He has often said that he would like to direct a Bond movie, but he must have got tired of waiting for the producers to hire him, so he has gone ahead and made one of his own. From its opening action set piece, to its whistle-stop tour of international beauty spots, to its super-rich, heavily-accented bad guy with an army of expendable henchmen, Tenet follows the 007 formula to the letter – the only notable change being that the main role has been split in two, with Washington playing the tough, dedicated government agent, and Pattinson adding the English accent, the insouciant humour and the taste for alcohol.
It’s a while before Nolan gets past this spy-movie stuff and moves on to time inversion. But when he does get there, he takes it to characteristic extremes. He stages frenetic car chases and gun battles in which different people are racing in different directions through the timestream, and he introduces lots of head-hurting ideas which the Protagonist seems to grasp in a second, but which some of us are still struggling with days afterwards. Basically, Tenet is a Bond movie which squeezes Back to the Future 2 and Edge of Tomorrow into its last half-hour.
That sounds pretty tempting, and after a summer without summer blockbusters, I’m grateful for a film which feels like several blockbusters combined. But Nolan and his editor haven’t quite found the right balance between those blockbusters. That is, they have devoted so much of Tenet to the Bond-alike sequences that the later science-fiction sequences are frustratingly hurried, undeveloped and almost impossible to make sense of. The previous Nolan film which most resembles Tenet is Inception, but in Inception, the notion of popping in and out of meticulously designed dreams kept recurring from beginning to end. In Tenet, time inversion is pushed into the background for so long that you start to wonder if Nolan has forgotten about it. After all, we hear early on in the story that inverted objects could obliterate the universe as we know it. It’s hard to care, for the next hour or two, whether an oligarch’s wife is unhappy because she doesn’t see enough of her son, or which high-security vault contains a forged drawing.
Again, you have to hand it to Nolan. To use the old expression, he puts the money on the screen, delivering the kind of noisy, extravagant and fundamentally ridiculous pulp fiction which reminds you why you go to the cinema. But it collapses under the weight of all the plot strands and concepts stuffed into it. You don’t get the impression, which you usually get from his films, that every element is precisely where it should be. Some parts of it go on too long, others not long enough. It’s a treat to see a really big film again, but a smaller one might have been better.
Tenet is released in the UK on 26 August, and the US on 3 September
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.