Tenet: beneath the gloss and sci-fi gibberish, a banal plot with flat characters appears

Christopher Nolan, “Tenet” (2019)

For an example of how not to make a blockbuster sci-fi thriller, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” must surely rate as the number one classic. An unnecessarily complicated plot involving time travel trips into the past and the future, so that flat one-dimensional character stereotypes in the future beyond the film’s events are revealed to have had contacts with other flat one-dimensional character stereotypes in the past before the film’s events; dialogue full of hokey sci-fi gibberish drowned out by a ridiculous (and not very futuristic) music soundtrack; and a visual blandness extending right across the film regardless of where the action takes place: these are just some of the problems that make “Tenet” dull and disappointing rather than tense and terrific. The James Bond series of films might be tired and burdened with too much historical baggage but at least the directors of these films know their limits and what the audiences for the films want – and the audiences usually want a plot that is brisk and which doesn’t get bogged down in too much supposedly cerebral silliness. 

John David Washington plays an unnamed CIA agent who is recruited by a secret organisation called Tenet after leading a covert extraction operation at an opera house in Kiev. This agent – the film calls him The Protagonist – retrieves an artifact during the extraction, and among other things this retrieval attracts Tenet’s attention even though the artifact was taken from him when he was captured by Ukrainian security forces. The organisation provides him with a handler, Neil (Robert Pattinson) and briefs him on bullets with “inverted entropy” – they travel backwards through time. The Protagonist and Neil trace these bullets to an arms dealer, Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia), who tells them she was sold the bullets by Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who is communicating with the future. The Protagonist and Neil try to buy a forged Goya painting from Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) but fail to do so after being attacked by two strange masked men who turn out to be the same man travelling from both the past and the future.

The Protagonist and Neil later steal the artifact (a sample of plutonium) in Tallinn but are ambushed by Sator. After various adventures in which they and Sator invert themselves and travel backwards in time, and then forwards in time, to capture, lose and recapture the artifact, and rescue Kat as well, the Protagonist eventually discovers that Sator has all nine pieces (including the artifact) of a gadget called the Algorithm which he intends to use to invert the entropy of the entire planet Earth, thus destroying its history. While Sator and Kat travel back to a past holiday in Vietnam (after Sator has set the coordinates for the Algorithm to go off in the future), the Protagonist and Neil use both inverted and non-inverted Tenet military operatives in a pincer movement to create a diversion while both men retrieve the Algorithm in an underground hypocentre in Sator’s hometown in Russia. Of course, there is someone waiting in the hypocentre for the Protagonist and Neil to have to fight off before they can reach it and detonate it. 

With a cast of characters so one-dimensional that the stereotypes they are based on are apparent in all their offensive crudeness, “Tenet” fails to generate interest with a concept that takes place in a hermetic Nolanesque universe where everything lacks context and characters lack history, and thus lack whatever makes them individual. Their motivation for doing things like risking their own lives to rescue a dangerous criminal’s wife or destroying the world is never hinted at, much less explained, so audiences are forced to make assumptions they should not have to do while figuring out whatever confused narrative is behind the incidents in the film. The revelation that the Protagonist is, in the future beyond the film’s events, the creator of Tenet comes right at the end, and is never insinuated at any time during the film, seems like an over-clever afterthought tacked onto the film’s conclusion.

Beneath the film’s pretentious sci-fi gobbledegook, what we end up with is a banal plot of a criminal mastermind wanting to blow up the world for no good reason other than he dislikes it and the people in it, and two hired hack spooks working for an intel agency they and we don’t know much about until the very end when it is revealed to be part of a jokey grandfather time travel paradox, of which there are too many iterations in “Tenet” to the point where the film is suffocated by such paradoxes. 

The concept behind “Tenet”, with the use of time travel as a weapon of war, and a theme of determinism versus free will in a reality revealed to be non-linear, might have worked rather better in a miniseries format, with much greater attention to character development and psychology.