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The Alienation and Genius of Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet'

Tenet is a challenging and frustrating film from writer-director, Christopher Nolan. Much like giving a Rubik's Cube a few twists and turns before finally giving up and turning it into a mocking ornament, this is probably most people's experience of Nolan's latest movie. The director has a knack for pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and seems to have a particular penchant for the flow of time in his stories as witnessed in Memento and Inception.

In this light, Tenet must surely be his boldest, most challenging and self-indulgent film to date, based in a single electron universe, where like its title suggests, time moves forward and backward through the process of inversion, toying with the Grandfather Paradox. See 'The Genius of Tenet' video (below) for a thorough investigation and insightful deconstruction.

This information isn't fully explained to audiences and there are only hints at what's actually going on with a scene involving a bullet being dropped and picked up. This is reinforced by scenes with action playing backwards and forwards simultaneously. The effects are very cool, even if borderline comical at times, keeping the story puzzle something of a secret.

The narrative progresses with a character simply known as Protagonist, played elegantly by John David Washington, moving in a linear fashion long enough to get a semblance of his one word mission and the story's main characters, doubling back on itself for us to realise that the characters have witnessed scenarios from different viewpoints in an alternate dimension.

Taking place in a "twilight world of international espionage", its vague premise and attempts to fight for the "survival of the entire world" aren't fully impressed, much like just how Inception works, sidestepping laborious explanations to try and prevent it from getting bogged down with technicality. Dealing with such hypothetical scenarios, nothing seems to be set in stone and being suspended in the air with so many questions about what we're seeing makes things seem rather inconsequential without a bevy of characters you've grown to care for or feeling part of this aloof and clinical environment.

Obviously, if Nolan over-explained the story it wouldn't be much fun and would feel like cheating. Being subtle and nuanced is his thing - he's an auteur after all, so it's much easier for the director to just serve it up without risking tripping himself up and landing in the terrain of spoilers. While this makes the nitty-gritty of the timeline fascinating to a select few who are into unlocking the secrets of sci-fi fantasy, it's more alienating as pure entertainment to others. This is the fine balancing act the contemporary great filmmaker walks, taking risks at a chance of greatness.

He's earned a place in the sun, so if anyone's allowed to just do what they please, he's certainly one of the top candidates. Much like letting David Lynch just unleash his creative genius in the form of a film or series, the same privilege can and should be awarded to Nolan. As convoluted as his film's plotting gets, crossing dimensions and trying to bend his audience's minds backwards, there's not really such a thing as a bad Nolan film.

Tenet fits into the category of almost, but not quite and watching explainer videos will definitely improve the viewing experience, making it easier to skip discovering some of these elements by fluke on the third or fifth viewing. The problem is that the detached film experience doesn't really prompt repeat viewings other than to unlock the puzzle or rewatch some of the grand action sequences.

Playing into the territory of Heat with some epic crime drama set pieces and rivalries, Tenet actually has a lot in common with Bond's panache and more recent sleek cinematography too. The strong science fiction element seems to have a Matrix appetite for interdimensional world-building, deja vu, duality and storytelling. Ironically, it was easier to understand The Matrix, a dilemma some university professors use as a classic example for building arguments. The stylish, high-end action thriller is as pristine as most of Nolan's movies are... a director who seems to be aiming for perfection.

Tenet is visually spectacular, immense and thought-provoking as a grandiose Nolan film, but it's also alienating, joyless and confusing. This duality is carried through by its stellar ensemble also including: Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and a strangely effective and distracting Kenneth Branagh. His Shakespearean background and more recent role as a director just make a fuzzy choice - probably intentionally there to break perceptions and timelines. While their performances serve their purpose, there's a deliberate attempt to downplay rather than charm.

While this may have been part of Nolan's plan all along and somehow linked to the passage of time in this world of Tenet, it doesn't add to the entertainment value. The unemotional videogame superficiality substitutes real connection with the actors, foregoing emotional contact points in favour of a flatline and rather soulless level of engagement, mostly appealing to the intellect and working on the level of eye candy. As intricate and tricky as Tenet seems, it's alienation limits immersion and its detached feel blunts emotional investment. It's an elegant and even breathtakingly beautiful film, yet this opulent and rather pretentious affair is designed almost entirely for Nolan's amusement as he tests the limits of his audience's loyalty and single-viewing film interpretation.

It may only be recommended for the most ardent Nolan fans, moviegoers who want mind-bending challenges to strike up a post-movie conversation or cinephiles who can focus on and simply appreciate the aesthetic audio-visual component of films. Tenet remains a puzzling film, which you will probably appreciate more on a repeat viewing, yet one that's so cold and uninviting it hardly seems worth it.