‘Tenet’ Gives You Seven Heist Films for the Price of One

‘Tenet’ Gives You Seven Heist Films for the Price of One
Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

What you need to know

After the multi-paced reverse-heist of Inception, Nolan has upped the ante by folding time back on itself to create seven heists — count them with me: opera house, penthouse, warehouse, convoy, convoy again, warehouse again, pit.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan has always been enamored of the heist film. Even some films of his that aren’t heist films, such as Interstellar, are structured like one. After the multi-paced reverse-heist of Inception, Nolan has upped the ante by folding time back on itself to create seven heists — count them with me: opera house, penthouse, warehouse, convoy, convoy again, warehouse again, pit.

If you’re worried about spoilers, don’t. Like most thrillers, the most important thing here is the experience. In the opera house opening scene, there’s a moment when the good guys start running in full tactical gear, and the camera keeps up with them from behind. The speed of this tracking shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and its only slight shakiness, drop us into the moment like no CGI’d “impossible” shot could ever do.

The trailer tells us that the villain can send objects backward through time in a process called “inversion.” He can send people backward, too, so we get scenes of people moving forward through time interacting with people moving backward through time. How was this effect achieved? The answer adds to the wonder: Nolan shot these scenes twice, once forward, once backward, and they’re held together by Jennifer Lame’s seamless editing. This method of shooting means that, for each take, at least one actor is acting in reverse.

Nolan’s practical special effects are his main contribution to cinema. No green screens were used for the entirety of Tenet, making the stunts all the more mindblowing in retrospect. Instead, he uses practical effects, and the spectacle feels real because it is real.

John David Washington plays the protagonist (listed in the credits as The Protagonist) with an unflappably self-serious mien. He cares about Elizabeth Debicki’s character to the point where he’s willing to sacrifice the mission, but we don’t feel his concern. He’s hampered by Nolan’s writing, which privileges story over all else.

Robert Pattinson plays Neil, The Protagonist’s sidekick and fixer, with more aplomb, despite being given similar lines to deliver. His British accent allows him some leeway for dry humor. But his flair is also related to something we don’t learn about till halfway through the film. He walks into the room with some cards up his sleeve.

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

Then there’s Sir Kenneth Branagh’s villainous Andrei Sator. (Funnily enough, the only other character to have a last name is also played by a knighted Brit, Sir Michael Caine, who’s in the film for about three minutes.) Like any good supervillain since at least Black Panther, he has the most complex and principled motivations and is seemingly everywhere at once. Having gained everything he wants, he now wants the one thing he doesn’t have: nothing. And he wants to share it with everyone.

Sator blackmails his estranged wife Kat (Debicki) into staying by his side out of, apparently, pure spite. She’s how The Protagonist gets to Sator. In the grand tradition of the action blockbuster, Kat is simplistically drawn and serves more as a motivation than as a character. At one point, she asks so many questions that she’s literally drugged to sleep, like Doris Day’s character in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). And the single heartfelt acting moment Debicki gets in the script is smothered by Ludwig Göransson’s best stab at a tense, droning Hans Zimmer score.

Tenet makes it seem like Nolan’s previous films — including Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and Dunkirk — were all test runs of things he wanted to do for this film, which he’s been mulling over for more than two decades. But he doesn’t add much to the mix. The only part of him that has grown as a filmmaker is his budget.

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

Nolan fanboys will object, citing the film’s brainy plot. If you know your time travel, though, you’ll realize that there’s little here that hasn’t been done before in Primer, Looper, Doctor Who, or even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The sole exception is the inversion thing, but nobody’s done it before because it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne serving as scientific adviser.

Nolan has chosen plot over science every time there’s a conflict, but I can’t say I blame him. There’s something about reversing causation that makes non-physicists’ brains hurt, so watching a scene with inverted elements unspool logically is like watching a magic trick go off without a hitch.

天能片中角色無姓名 諾蘭:盼演員不受侷限
Photo Credit: Warner Brothers
John David Washington (L) with Christopher Nolan (R)

It’s also similar in that the trick itself has no reason to exist aside from entertaining the audience. When a moral conflict emerges just before the climactic moment of truth, nobody in the audience is tortured by the quandary; we just want the bad guy to shut up and the good guy to win. Solid arguments on both sides just sound like so much filler. I could literally feel my interest in the dialogue waning by the second.

And that’s as good an encapsulation of Nolan’s filmmaking abilities as any: His stunts feel realer than his stakes.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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