What if Doctor Who but James Bond?

What’s The Movie? Tenet

What’s It All About, JG? It’s Doctor Who for people who don’t watch Doctor Who but who nevertheless quite like the idea of a two hour Doctor Who story but also James Bond. Basically – very basically – there’s a temporal Cold War going on, with the future attacking the past for comparatively nebulous but plot-necessary reasons. Our hero is The Protagonist, played with glowering intensity by John David Washington, who’s out to… erm, save the present I guess? Probably. Anyway, he finds out about Tenet, an organisation who are trying to stop the future and save humanity as it is now. He is aided in this quest by Neil (Robert Pattinson, continuing a long and surprising run of not sucking), someone who The Protagonist doesn’t know but who seems to know him. There’s also some Bond-type shenanigans with an Indian arms dealer who sometimes-helps-sometimes-not, and a Russian oligarch  (a fruitily entertaining Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator) who can contact the future, and his wife, a standard-issue wife-kept-prisoner-in-a-gilded-cage routine that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen Thunderball. Sator is behind all of this and suffering from terminal cancer so, um, has decided to take the world down with him at a time of his choosing. Like you do. It all culminates in lots of running about the place, some fairly obscure temporal physics and a big rush to the end in order to prevent the movie’s McGuffin causing a loosely defined catastrophe. 

Why Did You Give It A Go? It’s 2020. What else was I going to see in the cinema? But also, yes, it looks interesting. Fine.

Is It Any Good? Yeeees-ish. Bits of it are very good, there’s lots of action, the pace doesn’t really slacken and, until the last twenty minutes, it all seems like it’s actually going somewhere. Then it… kinda doesn’t. The last twenty or so minutes – the “temporal pincer movement” section – becomes an incoherent blur of grey buildings, grey soldiers, grey tunnels, grey tanks and grey holes in the ground that all becomes bog-standard Nolan here-comes-the-CallOfDuty section, and all the interest and tensions built up over the previous two or so hours dissipate in a blizzard of nothing. It’s a great shame because up until then Tenet was a taut, well-constructed thriller, albeit one that demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Nolan as a filmmaker. Action? All goes great. Human emotions? Not so much. Propulsive narrative? Absolutely. Making any sense? Fuck all. The big problem is that the movie has simultaneously too much and too little exposition, which is quite the feat. Characters spend an absolute age explaining in absurd detail what’s going on to each other, or the intricates of how a Freeport operates (or whatever) that only need a couple of sentences explanation yet whole motivations that are crucial to the film are skated over in a single line. The entire justification for the future attacking the past, the whole crux of the film, is literally delivered in one, easy-to-miss sentence – that’s just bad storytelling – while we fritter away scene after scene of Kat (Sator’s wife, played competently enough by Elizabeth Debicki) basically just looking pensive for the bajillionth time. And then there’s Robert Pattinson as the slightly daffy Neil. It’s a great, fun performance and much needed lighter touch in a fairly dour film but, well, he’s just River Song isn’t he? A character who’s travelling in the opposite chronological direction to The Protagonist, seems to know more about him than can be accounted for by normal means, and whose death is a predetermined fact for one of them but an unknowable quantity for the other. This is played with deep, overweening sincerity as if it’s somehow broaching deeply important new ground in science fiction rather than something a cheap, BBC-produced sci-fi show about a certain time traveller did more effectively in a single two-parter (“Silence In The Library” / “Forest Of The Dead”) and in about slightly more than half the time Tenet takes to sprawl out. 

How Many Of These Did You Watch? I’ve seen almost all of Nolan’s movies, and this one falls in the top-third of them, albeit no further up the list than that. It’s certainly not his best work, but it’s also substantially better than the tedious, self-involved dreck like Inception

Would You Recommend It? If you like Christopher Nolan films you will like Tenet so in that case yes. If not… well. Look, I’m sure the editor deserves all the praise in the world, and it’s certainly a very well-constructed movie technically. Nolan made a big play about Tenet having about the same number of special effects as a sitcom but this is clearly self-promoting bollocks and appears to assume that “special effect” equals “flashy CGI” rather than, say, all the special effects involved in mounting an all-out war with about fifty extras. The editing is quite exemplary though and really does deserve to be praised – it does, in fact, a far better job of conveying “inverted entropy” than the reams of explanation that we get from the characters. Elsewhere, we have a good or great cast, a nice sense of global adventure, and plenty of forward plot momentum, but really this is just a James Bond movie with time travel, and trying to stretch it out to suggest it’s anything other than that just isn’t going to wash. Sator’s motivation, in particular, is almost exactly that of Robert Carlyle’s Viktor Zokas in The World Is Not Enough (right down to the terminal condition)and yeah, Kat is just Domino from Thunderball. There’s nothing wrong with your roots showing but on both those occasions the roots aren’t so much showing as having big flashing neon arrows pointing at them. So yeah, if you’re down for a bit of James Bond meets Doctor Who on the big screen you could do worse than Tenet. It’s a clever movie. It’s just not that clever.

Scores On The Doors? 7/10

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