Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s cinematic worlds are spaces in which humanity only can surpass itself by taking a courageous leap out into the void. His vision of transcendence is powered by a reverence for human fortitude, supported by a sense that human destiny has a reciprocal relationship to the fabric and trajectory of the universe. The deities that guide human progress are humanity’s future selves: in dreaming of becoming a greater version of itself humanity achieves greatness. For Nolan, imagination has the power of prophecy. The villains of Nolan’s films are those who have lost faith and embed their cynicism into nihilistic crusades.

Nolan’s time-bending spy adventure, Tenet, embodies this all to a tee, making it one of Nolan’s most complete expressions of this ideology. It is also his most dispassionate work, a film so fatalistic that it loses interest in human agency. If Cameron’s Terminator films posed that there was “no fate but what we make,” Nolan’s Tenet posits a more complicated kind of determinism in which human beings are simultaneously the creators and the product of the past and future. It’s an idea so abstract it defies typical narrative momentum.

In plot architecture this story is essentially just a Mission: Impossible blockbuster, but one that spirals off into ever-more existential territory. Nolan has always had a penchant for dry exposition. In Inception, Nolan gave us a film that endlessly explained its own intricate logic. Here, though, Nolan seems to want both the characters and the audience to feel somewhat lost. Early on, a character says that to understand a causality that is simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, you just have “feel” your way through it.

So, while in Tenet, characters opine endlessly about time and fate and entropy in that characteristically direct, dry, and stiff approach of Nolan’s, Nolan also oddly buries that exposition in the sound mix (and has claimed in interviews that this was intentional and that he is unrepentant about this choice). You’ll have to have subtitles on if you want to be able to understand all that is said. The sound mix here is bafflingly, stubbornly obtuse.

The film’s convoluted setpieces and heists flow past the audience and characters in blunt-force disorientation, and they’re mostly diverting up until the confusing and limp climax, which stages a military battle across two planes of time. This is an intriguing idea, one that seeks to reinvent the large-scale Bond climaxes of yore with a psychedelic spin, but Nolan sketches it out without much imagination. The big showdown opts for prosaic “wartime” chaos and aesthetic austerity when it should be going for something either more precisely choreographed or something more genuinely awe-inducing.

Still, in the preceding hours, Tenet does develop an appealing tone and pace, a percussive parade of spy movie clichés and tropes presented in a way that is so dryly fatalistic and aloof, it attains a kind of purity. The parent-child relationships that served as the fulcrum of the existential shenanigans in Inception and Interstellar reappear here in an abstract, condensed form: they’re just narrative shorthand.

What propels Tenet is not love, or even its sibling, revenge, but the idea that to accept one’s place as subservient to the universe is the ultimate self-actualization. Nolan seems to be fully aware of the way that embracing this concept bleeds out conventional blockbuster narrative. The lead character is simply known as the Protagonist: a human abstraction. (Nolan was once in talks to make a film adaptation of The Prisoner, and this seems like a nod to that famously philosophical spy series and its unnamed hero.)

In the role, John David Washington seems to lean into this sense of abstraction, giving us a chilly, distant, analytical hero. His cool-as-ice delivery and confident swagger does have a unique appeal (even if Nolan’s attempt at James Bond-style banter is largely ineffectual; wit has never been Nolan’s strong suit).

The movie’s secondary protagonist, played by the unearthly Elizabeth Debicki, is similarly frosty, though she is permitted to manifest more sense of interior emotion and psychology as she inhabits the film’s fundamentally schematic scenes.

Only Robert Pattinson seems to be having fun, dressed up like a dandyish expat while dryly and smugly moving through each scene with a detached amusement that calls to mind the way Alec Guinness might have approached similar material. He should be commended for finding some humanity in the film’s portentous fatalism.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for composer Ludwig Göransson, whose deafening, percussive sonic landscape picks up from where Hand Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan left off, but lack Zimmer’s talent for mingling experimental sonic textures with emotionally resonant melodic and harmonic expressions. Nolan needs a composer who can embrace his aesthetics and themes while also expanding the film’s emotional palette.

In cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, though, Nolan has found a valuable collaborator. Hoyte van Hoytema brings a style of composition to Nolan’s filmmaking that feels as structural as Nolan’s approach to storytelling, and Tenet feels intensely and enigmatically architectural in a way that the Escher-inspired Inception never did.

If the mysteries Tenet attempts to express in its images of monolithic stone and industrial machinery never achieve the resonance Nolan seeks, they are at least enough to engage on the level of a diverting curiosity. Take him or leave him, Nolan remains a singular authorial voice, and Tenet is something no other filmmaker would have made. That, in and of itself, is a kind of artistic accomplishment.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout marks the first time a Mission: Impossible director has returned to direct a follow-up installment, though writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has been a major contributor to this series as far back as Ghost Protocol, on which he served as writer. Recognizing that this film series was originally intended to function as a kind of director showcase, McQuarrie decided to vary his stylistic approach for Fallout. While the preceding two entries were characterized by a kind of bouncy energy, for Fallout, McQuarrie has decided to borrow the aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters.

McQuarrie is a better craftsman on a nuts-and-bolts level than Nolan; McQuarrie’s action sequences have a clarity and meticulousness that has always eluded the latter. Still, Fallout so often lacks the vividness and force of an actual Nolan blockbuster. The script and production design and cinematography and score blatantly evoke the work of Nolan’s collaborators–there are too many nods to the Nolan Batman films to count, including a League of Shadows-y cabal of villains calling themselves “The Apostles,” and a climax set in the icy mountains of Asia that recalls the icy vistas of Batman Begins–without capturing its force and scope, often reducing sequences to a pervasive brownish-grayishness backed by a numbing score. There’s still a sense of proper spectacle here (among other things, Fallout makes better use of prominent world landmarks than any of the recent Bond films), but the imitation-Nolan lacquer deadens the material.

Indeed, the textures and structures of Nolan’s films, messy and frustrating though they often are, extend from conviction. Nolan constructs grandiose, blunt-force expressions of his own secular mysticism, for which humanity’s transcendence (or failure to attain it) is always the greatest concern. The only transcendence with which Fallout is concerned is the transcendence of Tom Cruise.

The series has always been, to one extent or another, about Cruise himself, but it was only two films prior, on Ghost Protocol, that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character truly found his groove. There, Hunt was formed into a charismatic cipher, a monastic hero driven by sheer will and determination. It’s an effective angle, but it offers little room for development; its sequel, Rogue Nation, didn’t really develop the idea as much as it forcefully reiterated it. Fallout does the same, but misguidedly tries to mine Hunt’s internal life for drama, punctuating the film with Hunt’s bland nightmares and monotonous speeches about why Hunt does what he does. Hunt is a thin avatar, and the character can’t (and shouldn’t be forced to) sustain this kind of inquiry. His headspace will never be as interesting as his feats of strength.

Those feats are certainly impressive, and Fallout‘s most satisfying, focused stretch begins with an all-timer: a breathtaking HALO jump that one-ups the memorable aerial sequence from Moonraker. From there, the film settles into a tense groove, becoming, for the next few scenes, a vicious and taut thriller that echoes the John Wick films while surpassing them in lushness and narrative intrigue. It’s no coincidence that this satisfying stretch of the film foregrounds Henry Cavill and Vanessa Kirby, both of whom have much more vivid and compelling relationships with Cruise’s Hunt than any of the series’ returning ensemble.

As with McQuarrie’s prior Mission: Impossible feature, Rogue Nation, Fallout loses its way the more it tries to integrate narrative tissue and characters from the prior films. This series has never been narratively satisfying enough to merit the construction of a true series mythology, and the more characters are added into the mix, the more it seems that these characters are saddled with uninspiring material while Hunt gets to do the truly showstopping stuff. (This becomes a significant issue during Fallout‘s helicopter climax, which fails to build momentum because of the constant cutting back to the rest of the ensemble, none of whom are doing anything anywhere near as interesting.)

To its credit, Fallout does seem to recognize that it is the conclusion of a certain trajectory, though it naturally leaves the door wide open for more shenanigans. With any luck, whoever directs the next one will bring the frisson of personal vision back to the series; it has been absent since John Woo directed his installment, and I miss it.