On 'Tenet' - Exploring Christopher Nolan's 'Inversion' as a Filmmaker
by Dan Marcus
September 30, 2020
In Tenet, Christopher Nolan's new mind-bending, time-traveling epic blockbuster, there is a scene early on where Clémence Poésy's character Barbara tells our hero, simply known as "The Protagonist": "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." It certainly feels like the mission statement for the film, Nolan's way of telling the audience you probably won't be able to comprehend everything you see in what's about to unfold, so just feel it. It makes sense for a filmmaker who often prefers sonic and tonal ambience over narrative clarity, and in the case of Tenet there's a distinct feeling he's acknowledging this with the hope you'll just go along for the ride. Except in the case of Tenet, unlike Nolan's other works, there's little to understand, or feel, this time.
With Nolan's career, as evident in his preference for blockbuster entertainment, and the subsequent global success of that entertainment, audiences have definitely gone along for the ride over the years. Nolan first reached mainstream success with The Dark Knight trilogy, and thanks to the overwhelming success of those films, Nolan was allowed to make Inception, most likely the studio's way of thanking him for making them a billion dollars with Batman. Inception felt like the British director tapping into his repertoire of creative inclinations to deliver a story that shares all of his distinct proclivities as a storyteller: a labyrinthine and complex narrative, thundering and structurally interwoven action sequences, a musical score etched into the fabric of the story itself, and a story that serves the characters rather than characters serving the story. After Inception, Nolan would later adopt this approach for all of his blockbusters, as they became more unwieldy (in the case of The Dark Knight Rises) and more narratively complex (as with Interstellar).
The narrative in Tenet revolves around a character named "The Protagonist" (John David Washington, oozing charisma in an underwritten role) who is recruited by a secret organization to track down a villain named Sator (Kenneth Branagh, boasting an incredibly baroque Russian accent). Washington's character decides to get close with Sator's wife, Kat (played by Elizabeth Debicki, as the only character who has any sort of emotional arc in this) in an attempt to stop Sator from possessing inverted weapons that will destroy the world. Tenet exhibits all of the hallmarks of Nolan's other recent blockbusters, and unfortunately that includes a story that's more confusing than clear. Nolan has had the reputation of being an intellectual filmmaker, but what I've always found true of his approach is that while he doesn't often over-complicate his narratives, he makes them comprehensible enough for mostly any audience member to coherently follow. I can explain the basic story in Tenet but after I struggled to comprehend some of the grander machinations Nolan was trying to convey. Now, as usual with a Christopher Nolan movie, sometimes it takes a couple of viewings in order to fully comprehend what's going on (after all, that is part of the appeal of a Nolan movie), but in the case of Tenet, whether it's the sound design that allows for indiscernible dialogue or a storyline that feels oftentimes muddled, it appears narrative precision took a backseat to narrative convolution. While a movie like Inception is seamless in its design, Tenet feels like the first Nolan movie where you can see where the narrative seams weren't fully interwoven into the fabric of the characters and the story.
If you look back at the thematic artifices of a movie like Inception, there's almost a cinematic beauty to the overall simplicity of the plot. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team of dream thieves to implant an idea in someone's mind. Cobb's character arc is also very simple: he wants to return to his children in the real world. Right from the start there's an emotional investment in Cobb's journey, and his goal is very clear. The reason why the ending is so significant is not just because we're wondering if the top is still spinning from a narrative perspective, but because we want to know if Cobb has actually accomplished his emotional goal. Even with all of the narrative complexities of a movie such as The Dark Knight, the story arc of that film is also very clear. Bruce Wayne/Batman, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon must stop The Joker from killing Gotham City citizens and wrecking havoc. On paper, it's fairly simple. In the movie, Nolan enriches the story by interweaving sub-plots, character betrayals, and subverting expectations. However, in the case of both The Dark Knight and Inception, we're rarely ever confused. There's even a moment where Ellen Page's character asks her colleagues, "So whose mind are we going into again?" – once more Nolan acknowledges the story's complexity, but unlike Tenet he offers some thematic assistance along the way.
It isn't all that surprising then that Tenet feels more similar from a narrative and thematic perspective to the likes of The Dark Knight Rises or Interstellar than The Dark Knight and Inception. After I saw Inception I thought Nolan would have to regroup as a filmmaker. How do you get more grandiose than a story about dreams within dreams? In The Dark Knight Rises, he tells this sprawling story combining different comic-book threads and film genres, an epic tale that ultimately fails to come together as a satisfying, cohesive whole. With Interstellar, Nolan tells a story spanning decades and dimensions of space, muddying the space waters with speeches about love transcending the factuality of science (in a film dedicated to the adherence of science) and a paradoxical climax involving interdimensional beings from the future. It all comes across as a filmmaking whirlwind, a wave of imploding & conflicting thematics where Nolan's reach unfortunately exceeds his grasp. Like the Robert Browning quote, however, Nolan cannot be faulted for reaching, because the success of The Dark Knight and Inception encouraged him to reach further than he ever had before.
Tenet is Nolan reaching again, this time inverting his own traditional blockbuster approach. Whereas with Inception, Nolan understood he was making a film for mainstream audiences, Tenet circumvents that in favor of narrative complexity over narrative clarity. As mentioned, Inception's plot is very simple, even if the story is told in a very complex fashion. With Tenet, partially contributing to an odd sound mix once again preferring background noise to audible dialogue, Nolan focuses more on the mechanical functionality of his story rather than ensuring that the story is clear enough for anyone to follow. With Inception, the characters were just as fleshed out as the rules of the world, but with Tenet, the characters feel more like ciphers than real people. You want Fisher to enter the black room and get catharsis because we understand his pain, but with Tenet, I don't personally care enough about Neil (Robert Pattinson) as a character to be emotionally affected by anything he or The Protagonist does in the climax of the film. With Inception, you're left with an emotionally rich story where both Cobb and Fisher learn the importance of moving on from grief, but with Tenet there's an emotional void that makes the rest of the film come across as cold and detached as a result. As much as I love John David Washington as the self-proclaimed "Protagonist", he doesn't have a character arc or emotional through-line to hook the viewer or keep them invested besides the essentials of the plot. If I'm not invested in the characters, then consequently I'm not invested in the story.
This brings us to Dunkirk, where it actually felt like Nolan did try to regroup as a filmmaker. Dunkirk is the atypical war movie that is more intimate than expansive, more experimental than rigid, more concise than garrulous, telling the story of a group of British and French soldiers trying to survive during the evacuation of Dunkirk. There are no long, expositional speeches. No twist endings or reveals. The characters are indeed more ciphers, but Nolan finds a way to use this to his advantage. The characters work in unison with the story he is trying to tell as they are a blank canvas in which the audience superimposes their own experience onto the scared young faces of the soldiers. Nolan takes a page from Alfred Hitchcock and creates a human experience (the instinct to survive) which is a universally relatable feeling. It's clear, concise, with a premise that's easy to follow and simple enough to digest. Dunkirk also smartly utilizes Nolan's non-linear approach in a way that compartmentalizes the story, while simultaneously making the stakes feel more urgent and immediate. It's one of the best uses of Nolan's non-linear storytelling as it enhances the rescue of the soldiers, once again making their struggle more palpable. If TDK Rises and Interstellar had Nolan inverting to a more unmanageable storyteller after the succinct and taut TDK and Inception, Dunkirk featured a more streamlined and laconic filmmaker. Which is why Tenet is so disappointing, given that it has more in common with some of his more verbose blockbusters than the likes of the epigrammatic Dunkirk.
Dunkirk is cinematic evidence that Christopher Nolan at least somewhat understands where he may have gone wrong with the likes of TDK Rises and Interstellar. One would hope after Tenet that Nolan also pays more attention to the criticism of the sound design in his films, or at least recognize that every cinema is not the same as an expensive sound mixing studio. Nolan has gone on record defending his creative choice when it comes to the sound mix. He had this to say when defending the sound mix complaints for Interstellar: "I don't agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue." He added: "Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound. I've always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it's the right approach for this experiential film."
While that might be true for Nolan, it appears that is not true for some of his audience. It might be hard to imagine Nolan changing the way he approaches post-production anytime soon. However, he did re-record Tom Hardy's lines for Bane in the prologue for The Dark Knight Rises after viewers complained Hardy's dialogue was inaudible during special presentations of the film's prologue. Regardless of how he approaches the sound mix for his next project, it might benefit Nolan to objectively take in some of the criticisms of Tenet – the convoluted nature of the story, the lack of agency and progression for the characters – and take them under consideration when writing his next epic blockbuster. Audiences may not fully understand some of Nolan's works, but if they don't feel the emotion behind the story or resonate with the characters, they will likely not be as inclined to go back and revisit it. For a Christopher Nolan movie, it is a sadly inverted approach to enjoying his movies, one even the filmmaker himself most likely wouldn't be satisfied with.