Tenet (aka Merry-Go-Round) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Christopher Nolan always seems to have big ideas for his films that sometimes overshadow everything else, to the point where characters become mere ciphers and themes are diminished. Tenet is sadly that film where the set-pieces and scene design take precedence over everything. The result is a picture that seems elaborate on its basis but ultimately becomes rather predictable and lacking the extra writing to carry that mind-bending effects.
The idea is at least a unique one. John David Washington plays a CIA agent who makes a discovery of something strange. He’s starting to see things in reverse. After some hints, he’s sent on his way for a rundown of mysterious items that travel backward through time. A gun of future tech fires bullets in reverse, not shooting them but catching them after they’ve already hit their target. This strange occurrence is explained as the temporal effect of inverted radiation but also given a bizarre construction of how something going in reserve can be directed by our actions. Free will is called into question as to whether we can decide the future when something is already traveling backward with reverse actions.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t spend too much time focussing on this aspect that is sure to melt some minds with paradoxes. In its place, however, is a lot of secret mission banter far too intricate to bombard an audience with after they’re already expected to contemplate reverse actions (especially when Washington is told he can affect the future by “feeling it”). Washington meets with Robert Pattinson who will tag along in a snazzy suit while they trace back where the inverted materials came from. This leads an art vault heist where a plane is crashed into a hangar and causes an explosion.
Their mission eventually leads them to the mysterious and wealthy Russian oligarch of Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Andrei can apparently communicate with the future to figure out where he needs to go to get the inverted material he requires for...well, his villain intentions are pretty bland. Without revealing too much, it involves him being extra bitter at his divorced wife (Elizabeth Debicki) who he had a child with. His actions are greatly elaborate but his ultimate intention is a snooze of a typical villain who just wants to see the world burn, monologuing in boring babble about being God as the climax looms.
There’s plenty of atmosphere to Tenet that it can be easy to be swept up in its splendor. The mechanics of bending time are exciting, though they become woefully predictable by the time the palindromic twist is revealed midway through. The music by Ludwig Göransson is brilliantly intense and adds to the thrill and serious tone. The action pieces are complex enough with the visual effects of shifting time and the high-speed car chases. It’s all presented with so much flair I almost wanted to get swept up in its pacing to not be as underwhelmed by the lack of character. Washington’s character is such a blank slate that he’s never given a name, referred to constantly as the protagonist. We do get some arcs from Branagh and Debicki but only just enough to get the action moving. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some cleverness to the convergence of past and future within the action-packed finale with guns blazing and buildings crumbling, both forward and in reverse.
But the major problem with Tenet is that it’s relying on much of the bewilderment to carry it through, as though you’ll be too overwhelmed with keeping track of characters and time-bending you’ll just give up understanding anything and enjoy the noise. Even the dialogue becomes noise as a lackluster mix leaves much of the talk indecipherable, especially when characters spend a lot of time behind gas and oxygen masks. There’s some thrills to Tenet and some genuine action most immaculate but anything more than that doesn’t seem present, where Nolan penchant for intelligent scenes is present when everything else seems so strangely underwhelming.