Tenet (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An ambitiously confusing misfire from Christopher Nolan

I often felt impatient and baffled as watching Christopher Nolan’s new film “Tenet”, whose theatrical release was delayed for a while due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic before it is eventually set to be released in several countries including UK and South Korea on August 26th. While there are a number of superlative action sequences to be admired for good reasons, the movie ultimately left me cold and dissatisfied as being mired too much in its increasingly convoluted plot which I observed from the distance without much care, and I still feel conflicted while simultaneously recognizing its strong and weak points at this point.

The movie opens with a spectacular action sequence set at a concert hall in Kiev, Ukraine. Shortly after many audiences waiting for a symphony concert are suddenly held as hostages by a group of armed guys, several special police units surround the hall, but it soon turns out that there is a plot behind this hostage situation, and that is why an unnamed CIA agent played John David Washington has already infiltrated into the scene.

It initially seems that his mission has been accomplished despite a few setbacks, but our agent hero subsequently faces a serious matter of life and death, which actually turns out to be a sort of test for him. Now an officially dead person, he is assigned to a mysterious agency called, yes, Tenet, and then he comes to learn a bit more about what his new organization has been doing while maintaining its clandestine status. As he already witnessed during his previous operation, many different objects apparently defying the laws of physics in terms of time and entropy have recently appeared, and he comes to learn from a scientist played by Clémence Poésy that they are associated with a certain futuristic technology called Inversion.

There are certain dangerous people who are going to use this technology for causing the total annihilation of time and space in our world, so our agent hero soon finds himself hopping around many different spots around the world along with a fellow agent named Neil (Robert Pattison). At first, they attempt to meet an elusive Indian arms dealer played by Dimple Kapadia because this arms dealer has a crucial piece of information which may lead to someone at the center of the ongoing conspiracy, and that leads to another breathtaking action sequence where Washington and Pattinson look like really hurling themselves into the air.

The story soon moves onto London, and what Nolan tries to emulate on the screen becomes clearer to us as our agent hero assumes a little more dapper appearance as advised by a minor supporting character played by Michael Caine. With a slick three-piece suit which comfortably contains his character’s dashing attitude and steely toughness, Washington is clearly having a fun with channeling James Bond, and I bet he will be a good alternative to Idris Elba if they ever happen to need a black male James Bond.

The major villain in question is a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and he surely shows our agent his sheer ruthlessness via often tormenting his long-suffering wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who, of course, comes to function as your average damsel-in-distress to be saved by our agent hero right after their encounter. For rescuing her from her ongoing predicament, our agent hero comes to plan a heist of epic scale at a certain facility, and we accordingly get another awesome action sequence as expected.

Around that narrative point, the aforementioned futuristic technique begins to appear more prominently than before, and Nolan and his crew members advance or reverse all the way while providing a series of unbelievable visual moments which will definitely make you wonder how the hell they pull them off on the screen. While the score by Ludwig Göransson keeps bombarding us with those loud notes, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who previously collaborated with Nolan in “Interstellar” (2014) and “Dunkirk” (2017), vividly and dexterously captures numerous big moments in the film on 70mm IMAX film, and I was certainly glad to see the movie at a huge IMAX screening room, though, like many other audiences in the screening, I was constantly aware of the ongoing pandemic as wearing a mask as demanded.

However, I must say that it was somehow rather difficult for me to follow what is really going on around our agent hero. Maybe I should have just let myself swayed along with its terrific individual moments, but I felt a lot more confused and frustrated especially during its second half, and I was disoriented a lot particularly during a climactic part where lots of things are busily happening in one direction or another. Although Nolan’s screenplay did lots of explanation just like “Inception” (2010), it unfortunately does not have a single-minded narrative focus which helps “Inception” a lot, and, without getting emotionally or intellectually engrossed much, we come to care less about whatever is exactly happening in the story – or whatever is being actually at stake for its main characters.

On the whole, “Tenet” is an ambitiously confusing misfire which is probably the biggest disappointment in Nolan’s career since “The Prestige” (2006), but, like that flawed film, it has several good elements to be appreciated at least. While Washington demonstrates here again that he can be quite charismatic just like his father, Pattinson often brings some juicy humor to the story as well as his character, and the technical aspects of the movie are as admirable as you can expect from Nolan’s work. Maybe I should watch it again for re-evaluation someday, but, for now, my mind wants to have some mental rest after being exhausted and frustrated with its byzantine logic which seems to be beyond my trivial intelligence.

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