There may not be a great deal of competition for the title in this oddest, most disturbing of years, but the status of Christopher Nolan's Tenet as the most anticipated film of 2020 is pretty much assured. If ever there was a film that already had an inflated sense of its own significance it's this one, and, as the first major studio release to emerge, with much delay, in this period, Tenet seems particularly transparent - flagrant, even - in its intention to dazzle the viewer and make a visit to a multiplex a must. Can Nolan be the saviour of cinema-going? (If you view "saving cinema" as being contingent upon Hollywood continuing to produce $200 million blockbusters involving massive amounts of waste, that is.) Well, we'll see.
Like Inception (2010), Tenet - from its palindromic moniker onwards - means to dazzle not only with expensive, high-tech thrills, but also with ideas. Nolan, whose second film Memento (2000) already explored issues of time and memory (in a decidedly more modest mode), has now latched onto the concept of temporal inversion. John David Washington's Protagonist (yeah) is an agent assigned to prevent World War III, no less, as he comes into conflict with Kenneth Branagh's Andrei Sator, a powerful Russian arms dealer out to destroy the world through manipulations of temporality.
I know we're meant to be grateful that Tenet isn't a franchise film. But beneath its pretentious veneer it's still as derivative as hell, offering swanky James Bond globe-trotting thrills filtered through the lens of a first-year physics student sci fi fan (minor: philosophy), with bits of Terminator, Minority Report and John Le Carré thrown into the mix. Here we're in a "temporal Cold War" with characters charged with "saving the world from what might be."
The concept of entropic reversion leads to some exciting sequences, as bullets fly back into guns and blown up buildings reassemble themselves, while Ludwig Göransson's unforgiving score twitches and pounds. But the ideas and much of the plot are a tangled jumble, and, when not succumbing to incomprehensibility, are delivered in a flat, expository manner. Again, Nolan corners the market in being both obvious and evasive. "Don't try to understand it; just feel it," is the dumbly meta advice delivered by a character at one point.
The filmmaker's decreasing finesse with actors is evident in Washington's lack of spark here, in all the scenes with Dimple Kapadia as an arms dealer spelling out various plot points in Mumbai, and in a stilted cameo for Nolan fave Michael Caine, playing a character called... Sir Michael. (Caine has been quoted as saying that he had no idea what the film was about while making it; from the awkwardness of his delivery, that much is clear.)
Branagh is effective enough as a Soviet-era boy turned power-crazy oligarch, as brutal on the geopolitical front as he is on the domestic, and such a narcissistic meglomaniac that, diagnosed with terminal cancer, he's determined to take the rest of the world out with him (!). But the characterisation seems such a sop to paranoid anti-Russian American sensibilities. Honestly, could there be a safer villian? Slyly, Nolan also gives this bad boy a nugget of a lecture on climate change.
As his oppressed, abused spouse, Elizabeth Debicki - you might think of her in the adaptation of Le Carré's The Night Manager (2016) as you watch - stalks through the action with her godessy height, her captivating physique holding your attention more than her acting, perhaps. (A rare witty moment finds her stretching out her legs to open a car door with her feet during a backwards chase.) If there are too many Damsel in Distress tropes to the characterisation, Debicki gets her due at the end and manages to use her character's concern about her son (undeveloped as this relationship is) to give the picture a smidgeon of human feeling.
Indeed, Tenet didn't really start clicking in any significant way for me until its finale, in which a spectacular city attack is intercut with a marital confrontation on a boat. And the coda that Nolan has cooked up is both punchy and poignant. Passing the viewer through initial intrigue, then boredom, then frustration, the film offers these belated rewards - not deep ones, to be sure, but just enough, perhaps, to lure me back - or forwards? - into a second viewing of the picture.
Tenet is released in European cinemas now.