Tenet: When Plot Eclipses Character
In some ways, this is another Nolan masterpiece. In others, it’s a film where Story is completely drowned by Plot
He’s done it, he’s finally done it. Christopher Nolan, everyone’s most anticipated film-maker, has made the cinematic equivalent of Einstein’s relativity. A non-fiction, fiction flick jam-packed with spectacle enough that Tom Cruise might actually have to jump from space to top it. Teachers the world over should take note, if you want kids to learn just wrap the info in so much action they’re forced to engage. The only trouble is there’s so much going on in Tenet you’re left wondering, why do I care again?
Nolan’s new epic for all its phenomenal action scenes and reality-bending set-piece spectacles suffers from a lack of heart that his earlier and equally ambitious films haven’t. So, how has this happened?
-I’m not going to get into the how behind the concept because that would get into spoiler territory, which in this film is like trying to understand relativity by saying it has something to do with science-
Well, to answer that we need only look at Nolan’s last high-concept adventure, Interstellar. In his video essay on the film, the Nerdwriter postulates that Interstellar is what you get ‘When Spectacle Eclipses Story’. Now while his essay is flawed, it offers a compelling explanation as to where the film lost its footing, too busy flying through space to focus on connecting with its characters stuck in reality. Strangely it’s this that acts as a premonition for the main issue with Tenet.
For if I could update his words, I’d say Tenet is what happens when plot and its weapon of mass destruction, exposition, completely eclipse character. So much so that the film at times feels all too similar to an old James Bond movie: faceless villainous armies waging war against nameless heroes on a battlefield where identifying either is a blind game of guess who and where the heroes motivations are as plain as the villains. The difference though is Bond’s plots, while equally ridiculous (Moonraker), are infinitely simpler to grasp; Bond and his target are easily distinguished in the crowd, if there’s dialogue it’s comprehensible and unburdened by exposition, and his main objective is always crystal clear.
I can’t say any of the same for Tenet, at the climax of which I was so busy trying to wrap my mind around the how and the what to care about the why. In essence, to care about the characters within and why this mattered to them. And after all, why would we? When the curtains fall what do we actually know about our main characters other than they’re good guys aiming to boldly save the world. An admirable quality, sure, and while John David Washington, in particular, shines at this, we know so little about their lives and why they choose it that its tricky to emotionally engage with them.
In fact, after the film I was asked can I name any characters from the film? Yes, Sator: Kenneth Brannagh’s more visceral Blowfeld was mentioned a dozen times. Okay, anyone else? Um, Denzel Washington’s son and Robert Pattinson…?
If a modern criticism with Hollywood blockbusters is that they spoon-feed the audience story and shy away from challenging them, then Nolan’s response is to create something that’s its polar opposite. In Tenet, the plot is so heavy-handed its fed to the audience in moon-sized shovels every second there’s a break in the action. So much so the characters and by extension the audience, if they’re not busy trying to untwist their tongue-tied brains, aren’t given any time to focus on what should matter: the story. This is made all the more challenging when you realise we don’t even know what, other than the obvious saving the world, these characters are fighting for.
A good comparison here is Inception, a film which now seems like 2+2 compared to Tenet’s E = mc2. By the end of the film, we’re engaged with the outcome not just because it's about accomplishing the team’s goal of inception, but because it’s about whether Cobb can get back to his kids or not. This very real and necessarily grounding element is mirrored — although somewhat less effectively — in Interstellar and works because the stakes of the climax are based on something as simple and relatable as fathers struggling to get back to their families.
The same emotional core is missing in Tenet and it shows. Whenever the plot of Nolan’s former films overwhelms you, you can simply fall back on what you know, this a man seeking emotional catharsis with his children. That simple goal not only serves as the heart but also the resonant backbone of the film, giving the audience an ever-present hook into the story as well as something for characters to care about beyond the mission. The closest we come to this in Tenet is Elizabeth Debicki’s character seeking to overcome her fear, reclaim her son and in so doing her strength. Trouble is she’s perhaps the third main character whose relationship to her son is never shown. There’s no urgency personal to the characters other than the (by this point) distancing goal of the world’s ending to engage us.
Right, but they are trying to save the world, so surely the stakes are high enough to keep us entertained, right? True, except we never see our characters interact with the world they’re trying to save. And how can they when their only interactions are with people who can either fill in the crater-sized blanks or punch those manipulating it? In the Matrix, for example, Neo’s interactions with the Oracle are a similar parallel to Washington’s with Kapadia. The difference being Neo interacts with the kids as well, grounding the scene with more than just exposition and encouraging Neo to discover answers to questions himself.
This highlights another drawback to explaining a library full of plot: Washington is told a hell of a lot more than he discovers and when he does have a revelation it's comically instantaneous and answering questions that have only been posed minutes or even seconds before. Conversely, when Neo explores the possibility of being the one, he discovers new information that’s relevant to answering that specific personal question over the entire second half of the film. Tenet doesn’t have time for such because the plot requires Washington move on as there’s still much more heisting complete with explanations to come.
In the end, for all Nolan’s realist special-effects his characters have become increasingly shallow, operating in their own inverted world too cool to care for the wider people that inhabit it and the damage they leave behind. Perhaps this was what Nolan was going for, a film so deeply intricate in its conception that it focuses less on why and more on the how. In other words, more on the plot and less on character. For all the merits of Tenet’s filmmaking, style and spectacle, it’s true the story lacks a heart his earlier films don’t, and it’s a shame because it’s that heart that keeps me going back, rewatching over and over. It’s hard not to be disappointed that I don’t feel the same with Tenet.
Do you think the same, or did I get it wrong? Let me know, and check out my poem review for Tenet below. Otherwise and as always thanks for reading!