After months of waiting following its release in the West, Tenet has finally hit theatres here in Ethiopia, showing in malls in at least two locations, at Century Mall and Biresh CinePlus.

It is one of the most anticipated movies of the year, even before it was clear that a pandemic would force most movie release dates to be pushed to 2021. Much of this enthusiasm arose as a result of the man behind the camera, Christopher Nolan. He has what amounts to cult status in geek culture and has gained a reputation as a serious and sophisticated filmmaker with the mainstream audience.

His new movie, at least in its description, appears to confirm his status. Shot on 70 mm film – a rarity in the film industry, which has mostly moved to digital – it is a visually stunning movie. Its plot synopsis is even more interesting. It is an action movie about a spy on a mission to save the world from a Russian crime boss working with syndicates in the future that give him technology capable of inverting the flow of time.

Under a director with a greater sense of humour – say, Robert Zemeckis or even James Cameron – this would have been a genuinely entertaining movie. But not Nolan – he is too severe for his own good. He has to make a time travel movie without plot holes or details that can present questions. He has to make it a scientific paper on reverse entropy, but one that also has the inconvenience of telling a human story. A dilemma!

The film starts with The Protagonist (John David Washington) on a mission that ends with him swallowing cyanide to avoid torture after he gets captured. Lucky for him, that was not cyanide, and his decision to consume it is a test of his loyalty. It gets him a job at Tenet.

Nolan was inspired by the Sator Square, an ancient word square with "Tenet" in the centre. It reads the same backwards and forwards, just like the driving technology behind the movie's plot. The top-secret organisation is on a mission to stop World War III. Someone in the future is “sending back” objects capable of travelling in reverse time - more accurately, in reverse entropy. It allows objects to go from disorder (say, spilt water) to order (water back in its container).

The folks in the future want to destroy the past using this technology, and they are trying to do it with the help of a present-day Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh). The Protagonist teams up with a non-Tenet contact to avert the impending catastrophe.

The film’s plot demands excellent action scenes. Nolan delivers. The only thing more exciting than watching explosions, car crashes and gunfights is seeing them in reverse. Even better is watching action sequences in reverse and forward time combine. It must have been a headache to shoot and edit, but it is delightful to watch.

The ambition of trying to tell such a movie is also impressive. It speaks to Nolan’s status within Hollywood and the pop culture creed he currently has that he was able to get studios to cough up 200 million dollars for a movie that probably only a handful of people would fully understand on the first watch. It was a major gamble which, compounded by COVID-19, inevitably did not pan out.

Partly, this has to do with the fact that the film fails to tell a fully rounded story and develop its character. Nolan dispenses with nearly all types of character backstories. The protagonist does not even get a name; he is just called The Protagonist. Robert Pattinson’s supporting character is just known as Neil. None of them has a character arc or for that matter a character.

The antagonist is better developed, but Nolan wastes Branagh’s acting chops by writing him as such a cliché Russian villain that he ends up coming off as a caricature.

But it is probably the whole idea for the plot that takes away from the film. It is impossible to understand in one sitting, at least for the rest of us mortals. Nolan peppers the movie with obscene amounts of expositions, desperate to make it legible for audiences. It does not work. What’s more, it crowded out any opportunity to develop characters or expound on a theme.

In a way, Tenet is the spiritual sequel to Memento and Inception, other movies where complex time flows are explored, and reality is called into question. Memento remains Nolan’s masterpiece, an exploration of memory and how we willingly distort it. Inception is not a great movie, but it is a very entertaining one, with Nolan taking audiences in a wild ride into dreams. There was an element of storytelling with both movies with the filmmaker's usual penchant for narrating in a complex but ultimately captivating way.

Tenet was going too far. It was too much physics and very little character development and storytelling. Nolan takes himself way too seriously, at the expense of having a sense of humour or being modest.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 26,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1078]

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