Tenet is incredibly confusing – but maybe that’s just what cinema needs
Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited time-twisting film should kickstart a new wave of incomprehensible movies, says Huw Fullerton.
When watching Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited saviour-of-cinema Tenet, it sometimes feels like the film’s characters are talking directly to the audience.
“Don’t try to understand it,” one says. “Try and keep up,” adds another. “Does your head hurt yet?” Robert Pattinson’s Neil asks towards the end.
Because you see, Tenet is confusing – so confusing that its incomprehensibility has actively become part of the marketing campaign. So hard to follow that even the characters within it canonically struggle to understand what’s going on. So baffling that in years to come, Christopher Nolan’s director’s cut may just have to be the director pausing the action, walking into frame and explaining what’s going on, scene-by-scene.
And you know what? I applaud it. For too long, we’ve been subjected to easily digestible, simple-to-follow films. We’ve grown complacent, assuming that a film should try to make itself less perplexing, more accessible and intelligible for an audience.
Tenet doesn’t do this. Almost from the start, audiences are subjected to reams of conversation about the central premise of the film – that certain objects and people have been “inverted” in time, meaning that from our perspective they’re travelling backwards – a concept that's expanded upon and changed almost as soon as you start to get your head around it.
The time inversion itself isn’t what’s confusing – that’s fairly clearly explained. What’s confusing is how it affects the plot, how it works within the world of the film, and all the fast-paced, globetrotting action that is built up around it and explained in rapid, West Wing-style walk-and-talks with Robert Pattinson.
As The Protagonist (played by John David Washington) flies all around the world he also meets a barrage of Austin Powers-style Basil Expositions who fill him in on international arms dealers, Russian plutonium, art forgeries, impregnable vaults and more before disappearing into the ether. Very little of this has to do with time inversion, at least overtly, but it is still all very crucial to the plot. Probably.
A personal favourite? Michael Caine turning up for one scene to ask “I presume you’re familiar with the Soviet-era closed cities?” before vanishing from the film entirely. And yes, The Protagonist did know all about them.
About 60 per cent the most perplexing elements in Tenet are clever twists and action sequences that you’ll only understand an hour or so later into the plot – but the other 40 per cent of questions posed are left unanswered when the credits roll. At times, trying to guess which type of bemusing story point you’re watching can make a fun accompanying game for Tenet – is this an ingenious bit of storytelling, or just badly explained? Take a shot!
Truly, you never know which is coming – but that’s part of Tenet’s genius. Some of my most memorable cinematic experiences have come from genuinely having no idea what was going on in the film I was watching, and now I’ll gladly add Tenet to that pantheon of greats.
I think of the time I watched Blade Runner, in awe of the world and mood but incredibly unclear what was going on in the weird house of robot dolls. Or the night I went to an outdoor screening of Jason Statham’s giant shark attack movie The Meg, where it rained so apocalyptically only about 20 per cent of the story made an impression.
Really, the best way to enjoy Tenet is to not even try to fully understand what’s going on – just let the action wash over you, enjoy the mindblowing visuals, and try to assemble it all in your head (or a reddit post) later. It genuinely makes for a fairly unique cinema experience and feel, even if it’s not as immediately satisfying as some of Nolan’s less complicated work (even Inception), and we can but hope it’s the first splash of a new wave in indecipherable cinema.
Give me a Marvel movie that’s mystifying, a Disney animation to discombobulate, a John Wick adventure that leaves me scratching my head or a grand space opera that has audiences flummoxed. Understanding films is overrated, and it’s good to see a project that finally has the courage to admit it.
Tenet is in UK cinemas from Wednesday 26th August – find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide