This article originally appeared on VICE France. Mild spoilers below.
After the 2017 release of Dunkirk, you might have been lulled into the belief that Christopher Nolan was heading towards his peak—the final push up a quarter pipe before he launched into pure genius.
Sadly, you were wrong.
This much is crystal clear just three minutes into his much-anticipated new release, Tenet. The movie is Nolan’s least intelligible film, quickly disintegrating into an incredibly convoluted story that is as difficult to follow as it is to enjoy.
The plot is fairly impossible to summarize, so, instead, here’s some stuff that happens: a series of car chases spanning time and space, a reversal of Earth’s entropy, an apocalypse, an espionage storyline about using fake paintings to steal plutonium.
This cocktail of genres is at times quite entertaining—and in a sense, Tenet is Nolan’s most radical work, in that he doesn’t even pretend to care about a plot line, character development, or any hint of realism. The movie also packs together all of Nolan’s favorite themes (in no particular order: faith, time and space, hot girls, death, family, pyrotechnics involving cars), without the sentimentality that bogs down most of his catalogue (see: any scene featuring Marion Cotillard, or the whole of Interstellar).
However, as a result, Tenet feels extremely cold and technical. If you try to pick up the theoretical crumbs dropped by Nolan as they whiz by, you risk sending your brain into overdrive. The film is so extreme in its indulgence that it starts to feel tacky.
Some examples: Kenneth Branagh’s character, Andrei Sator, is a big bad Russian oligarch with a big bad Russian accent, reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Heat or John Malkovich in Rounders. Then there’s the scene when Robert Pattinson’s character tells the movie’s protagonist, John David Washington’s character, something along the lines of “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship… but in reverse,” i.e. a bad parody of that famous line from Casablanca.
Tenet is a big balloon that keeps inflating but never bursts, leaving the audience to wonder why certain choices were made and where the substance lies.
One suggestion is that Nolan doesn’t really know himself. Instead, he relies on dusting the film with thin meta-layers, Easter eggs and narrative trap doors. Here, the main Easter egg is that Tenet is a palindrome. Eventually, you start to wonder if the title reflects the story (Hey! What if the end was… the beginning?!). It’s fitting for a filmmaker whose currency is trickery—each of Nolan’s films has made the audience believe in something that doesn’t exist. You could say that’s the point of cinema, but in Tenet it feels simultaneously naive and pretentious.
These same magic tricks—at once cheap and extremely sophisticated—take centre stage in Nolan’s The Prestige, a tale of rival magicians in mid-19th century London.
In The Prestige, a transparent commentary on his own work, Nolan once again throws us into a windy narrative, this time about the self-sacrifice of the artist. The payoff? A final twist reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s signature (awful) work—Christian Bale was actually just a set of twins all along! Not unlike his magicians in The Prestige, Nolan’s work is built on a foundation of confusion.
Tenet was supposed to be the big post-lockdown cinematic release, but it feels as dumb as any Marvel movie, while pretending to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, you have to admit: pulling off a terrible, two-and-a-half-hour, £187-million movie in the current economic landscape attests to Nolan’s incredible gift when it comes to fooling people. And that’s something no one can take away from him.