Did no one explain to Christopher Nolan that the premise for Tenet is absurd? I don’t mean that as a criticism. I’m just being descriptive. Plenty of solid sci-fi works from an absurd premise. And to Nolan’s credit, it’s an exciting premise. When it’s introduced, the undeniable pull of Tenet is “how the heck is he going to make a movie out of this?” It almost sustains the two-and-a-half-hour running time.
But as that running time stretches out and contorts, it becomes increasingly clear that Nolan is taking it all very very seriously. He will not be fooling around. He will not admit there’s a fundamental but fascinating silliness to what he’s doing. Even the carefully practical visuals can be silly. But it’s a silliness in which the guy telling the joke doesn’t know it’s a joke. He gives it no levity, he has no sense for the cadence of a joke, he leaves off the punchline. It dawns on you he doesn’t realize the joke is a joke. He’s telling it as if it were data.
Tenet belongs with someone who understands absurdity. Like the Coen brothers, or Charlie Kaufman, or the latest generation of Spanish language writers and directors. Nolan should have at least let someone explain to him the concept of the absurd, and maybe even humor. I can’t remember a single light-hearted moment in Tenet. It is ponderous with the weight of its seriousness.
Consider the lead actor. John David Washington is ponderous with the weight of his own seriousness. But he doesn’t have his father’s gravitas. Denzel Washington has built a career on the way he holds a gaze. John David Washington has his father’s gaze, but none of its depth. He just reads as blank. Nolan’s movies need the drive of a Heath Ledger or a Matthew McConaughey. They need someone to inject a little passionate chaos into the meticulous plotting. Tenet barely offers the soothing reassurance of Michael Caine. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo that feels like its there out of a sense of obligation (Nolan’s to Caine or Caine’s to Nolan?).
Even the spectacle in Tenet feels too tightly controlled and dispassionate. The airplane doesn’t break, none of the trucks flip ass-over-teakettle, the battle scene declines to bother with enemy soldiers. Honestly, I have no idea who we were fighting during the big battle scene. It’s as if someone started the Call of Duty match before anyone joined the other team. Sure, it’s all spectacular, cinematic, and characteristically bombastic. No one makes me long for an Imax screen like Nolan. I love how cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures Nolan’s precise art production, burnished colors, and clean lines. Can cinematography be brutalist? But beyond the usual Nolan spectacle, the only thing on offer in Tenet is a premise that folds in on its own lack of self-awareness.