“What if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but you knew they’d never believe you?”
I had planned on reviewing Tenet after I saw it opening week, on a very big and loud IMAX screen, in the middle of a socially distanced cinema. I was hugely excited about the film, if a little apprehensive after Nolan’s previously disappointing effort, Dunkirk. Upon leaving the cinema I was met with a strange feeling, a feeling I’d never felt following a first watch of a Christopher Nolan film – a feeling of ‘meh’. I felt like that disinterested, shrugging emoji; I had loved parts of the film and there weren’t any glaring flaws but there wasn’t much of the film leaving the cinema with me. I wasn’t left with the philosophical questions that linger with you following Nolan’s best work like The Prestige, Memento or Inception or even particularly blown away by the scale and awe like with Interstellar or his Batman trilogy. At least with Dunkirk I was overwhelmingly disappointed. No, instead Tenet just left me wondering what could have been. All the pieces were there but they were scuppered by Nolan’s worst instincts like shoddy direction and an over reliance on making things feel real, often to the film’s detriment.
Discussing the film with my co-watchers afterwards, we wished for a time-bending action thriller, only with a little more heart and coherence. A film that can cause endless debate on the ramifications of it’s idea of time travel. A film where the director didn’t have a steadfast adherence to their idea of realism. A film where we could actually follow the action set-pieces without being distracted by sub-par direction and exclamations of ‘wait, what?’ and ‘hang on a sec’. And then it hit us – this film does exist, and it’s called Deja Vu. Directed by the late, great Tony Scott, it was released in 2006 to a decent box office but mediocre reviews. It even stars a Washington of it’s own; Denzel, father of Tenet’s Protagonist, played by John David Washington. And, most importantly, it’s a better film than Tenet.
Read on as I break down why Deja Vu is a better film than Tenet:
Deja Vu follows Washington Sr. as ATF Agent Doug Carlin, who is sucked into a world of time-bending technology as he investigates a bombing that killed over 500 innocent people. Similarly, Tenet stars Washington Jr. as an FBI Agent (pretentiously known only The Protagonist) sucked into a similarly time-bending scenario as he learns of a conspiracy to bring about the end of the world. I’m sure Christopher Nolan thought he was being really clever and elusive but for a film reportedly 20 years in the making, did it never cross his mind to give the film’s central figure a compelling motive, emotions, a backstory, or maybe a name? The film is carried purely on the charm’s of Washington and co-stars Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki. Nolan’s lucky that they’re all such compelling screen presences as he offers the audience little to no reason to care about any of these characters. Debicki’s character has son who she awkwardly mentions in some of the film’s cringiest dialogue moments but we never even spend a moment with him. It’s hard to care about a world ending threat when we don’t care about anyone in the world Nolan created. Kenneth Branagh’s over-the-top weapons dealing villain Andrei Sator is hugely enjoyable, but I can’t say it’s a ‘good’ performance. Himesh Patel and Aaron Taylor Johnson both make appearances but both are criminally underused and given absolutely nothing for us to care about.
Deja Vu on the other hand, does a great job of fleshing out it’s main characters. Denzel Washington’s Doug Carlin is sometimes a stereotypical loner cop but Washington evelates the role bringing a human element to the character. His obsession with solving the murder of Paula Patton’s Claire could be creepy in lesser hands but Washington makes it believable. She’s dead when the film begins and we go on a journey with Doug seeing her final days. The treatment of Claire as Denzel and his colleagues watch her in the past is at times slightly voyeuristic but by showing us the ins and outs of her ordinary life it makes the tragedy of her murder all the sadder. We join Doug in wanting to solve it and perhaps even saving her. Washington has the perfect every-man quality for the role, something he brought to other Tony Scott films like Unstoppable. He’s not some superhero travelling through time, he’s just a guy. This adds a sense of realism to the film but, unlike Nolan with Tenet, it never gets in the way of the story or spectacle or, more importantly, the character.
This one might cause a few angry comments but let me start by saying this; Christopher Nolan is a fantastic director. He’s proved this time an time again with both his smaller films and his blockbuster films, all intertwining spectacle and lofty themes. But he does have his flaws and nowhere are they more evident than in Tenet. Perhaps it’s his insistence to shooting on film (which, unlike digital, means he is unable to quickly watch back and review footage) but often his films lack a sense of coherence. Usually this isn’t too noticeable, think truck chase or clown hostage scene in The Dark Knight or the mountain ski sequence in Inception. In both, Nolan fails to explain through his direction the space in which the characters occupy. There are noticeable lapses in visual logic, film making rules get broken and Nolan just doesn’t always seem to understand the grammar of film (Jim Emerson did a great video on this). For the most part though you can still enjoy the scenes, even if you are briefly taken out of the film. The problem with Tenet though, is that the whole film is like this. It’s not too bad in the dialogue scenes, you spend too long trying to catch the exposition being thrown at you to notice anything else, but the action scenes can suffer. The inverted car chase in the middle of the film is an awesome scene, but can anyone actually tell they followed exactly what was going on with the artefact in the case? Nolan cocks up again during the finale which is just too far out of his comfort zone. Faceless good guys shoot at faceless bad guys in a desert with no discernible geography. We don’t know where people are in relation to each and Nolan’s lack payoff shots – showing the result of a bullet fired or a punch thrown – means we don’t actually see any of the bad or good guys get hurt, losing all sense of momentum and any stakes the scene had. Without spoiling too much, there’s a climatic heroic sacrifice during the ending scene that was so amateurishly shot and edited that I wasn’t even sure what had even happened. The protag vs protag fight is the film’s exception, mainly due to the simplicity and stripped down nature of the scene. While the action might get a little choppy in the close ups, the scene flows nicely.
Now Deja Vu on the other hand, does it’s action very well. Tony Scott’s fast cutting style works wonders here and the action flows beautifully. When people today insist action scenes can only be good in a single unbroken long shot, I always think of the fantastic work directors like Scott did with the fast-cut style. It’s a technique used awfully in films like the Taken sequels but used well and in conjunction with an understanding of film grammar, like here in Deja Vu or Scott’s Man on Fire, or the majority of the Bourne series, it can help action scenes flow and make them much more intense. The hummer chase in Deja Vu is a great little scene with an awesome concept (Doug can see the past through a special headset) and the shootout on the ferry is suitably over the top. Most importantly however, the action never undercuts the story. The story comes first and the action always feels justified. Scott’s style of film making is unfairly maligned with it’s comparisons to directors like the excessive Michael Bay, but it was revolutionary in it’s time. At his worst he was workmanlike and ‘nuts and bolts’ but at his best, he made some of the very best thrillers of the last 40 years. Deja Vu might not be the absolute top of the pile but it showcases Scott’s directorial flair in a genre outside of his usual wheelhouse.
This is what it comes down to for me, the whole reason Tenet fails; the entire premise of the film is flawed. Nolan wants his audience to to believe in his concept of inversion but he doesn’t do the work to make it believable. You believed Leonardo DiCaprio could pop up and implant dreams in your head after watching Inception, but Tenet fails to deliver a believable world. This wouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker, all time travel films fall apart under scrutiny, but in Tenet’s case it becomes more of an issue because of Nolan’s adherence to ‘realism’. For example, the science in Interstellar was cool because it was grounded- it helped you believe in the film’s story and made you believe it could one day happen. But the central concept of Tenet is time travel; it’s inherently unbelievable. Nolan should have leaned into this more and accepted how ludicrous the premise is. It could have allowed for more interesting set pieces and pay offs. Instead he’s so wrapped up in his own idea of realism that the film constantly straddles the line between grounded realistic thriller and crazy time travel science fiction and it never feels coherent. It’s got a toe in the waters of both worlds but never commits to diving into either. Nolan blends his trademark style of grounded realism and higher concept genre’s successfully in films like The Prestige and his Batman trilogy but in Tenet it sadly never really meshes.
Deja Vu’s core premise is a similarly grounded take on time travel. Under scrutiny the film presents with some questions and possible plot holes but Scott and co fully lean into the premise. But the key difference between this and Tenet is that the time travel is part of the story – it’s not the whole story. Deja Vu uses the concept to tell the story of the tragic aftermath of a terrorist bombing by focusing on the death of one woman, Paula Patton’s Claire. The time machine gets some suitably timey wimey explanation but the stakes here are really the life of this one person. The whole film revolves around this and you buy into the implausible aspects as a result. Tenet has absolutely no stakes. None whatsoever. Sure, they talk about the world being destroyed but so what? There’s no one in it to care about, hell, the main character doesn’t even have a name. Tenet is purely about the concept of inversion and it’s really not enough to carry the entire film. Deja Vu knows the time travel stuff doesn’t really hold water but you’re too invested in the story of these characters to care. Tenet however, has very little to distract you from it’s undercooked characters, it’s ill-defined central concept, and it’s shoddy direction. If you’re thinking of watching Tenet, save yourself the cinema ticket and possible coronavirus and rent Deja Vu instead.