Friday, December 18, 2020

Hello, I Must Be Going: TENET

In Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, backwards run sequences until the mind reels. It’s a time travel thriller, but not like you’re thinking. It’s about a magic box that can reverse the chronology of an item—or a person. Reverse entropy, they say. Inversion. The plot concerns a secret agent (John David Washington) recruited to stop a snarling Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) from reversing the flow of time for the entire universe. That’d destroy everything, one reluctant ally (Elizabeth Debicki) is told simply and slowly. She considers it for a moment and solemnly intones: “including my son.” It’s this collision of high-concept headiness and laughably simple personalities that sink the film, which is simultaneously one of Nolan’s most logistically jaw-dropping and emotionally flimsiest. (It’s also a narrative convolution, running backwards and forwards at the same time, and dazzling as much as it is deliberately obtuse.) For as much as he’s gotten a reputation as a cold technician, it’s not until confronted with a movie like this — which has none of the tragic backstory or family sentimentality or rule-setting exposition that some critics have dinged him for in the past — to see how essential those are for the Nolan formula. Here without that rooting interest or well-sketched setup, it’s rather empty, though all go-go-go M.C. Escher timeline. Cause and effect are ruptured in boggling ways. There are stunts and combat and strategizing, with some elements of the action behaving unusually: a bullet hole filling up as the ordnance flies back into the barrel; tumbling fisticuffs that cartwheel with unnatural grace as one combatant flies backwards when they should be ahead; a car zipping the wrong way through traffic after rolling back over from a crash, windows reconstructing as tires squeal in reverse. I found myself wondering what it’d be like re-edited in Memento style.

It’s a film that surprises and exhausts in equal measure. There are those wild visual flourishes, so convincingly done — although it did, on occasion, remind me of Bob Saget’s America’s Funniest Home Videos doing fun rewind montages — I barely could process them, but appreciated their effective  crescendos. Elsewhere there are agents rappelling up a building or spinning a sailboat or crashing a plane or maneuvering through a series or airtight vaults or hanging off the side of a moving firetruck to hop between cars. That’s all thrilling stuff. Would that there was any reason to hold onto the inventiveness other than sheer admiration for its construction, its impressive scope, its grounding sense of tactile reality even as the effects slip sense away. When you get past the scrambled visual conceits, the movie underneath is too straightforward to care about overmuch. There’s the protagonist and antagonist, sparsely characterized, fighting over a MacGuffin. It’s strikingly photographed globetrotting, with the hero and his partner in spies (Robert Pattinson) dashing and capable in slick suits and big action beats. The pounding score, booming bass, and enormous images have a Pavlovian effect—it’s exciting, and kicks up the energy of seeing a great Christopher Nolan movie, even if it doesn’t exactly reach those heights. By the ramp up to the enormous climactic action sequence, I was rather worn out. I found myself thinking about how thrilling it was to see Inception a decade back, and could understand why the temptation to make a whole movie out of that one’s hallway fight must’ve been tempting.

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