Synopsis: Christopher Nolan’s latest offering sees “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) discover a secret that will change the way he thought about reality and even possibility. He learns of technology that can reverse the flow of events. Soon, he’s on a mission to save the world. Luckily, he’s not alone. The mysterious Neil (Robert Pattison) is along for the adventure, too. The two face off against a highly dangerous Andrei Sator )Kenneth Branagh) as they race against time, but not in the way we usually think of it . . .
The film begins with an explosive set piece. At an Opera House in Kiev a S.W.A.T style team are sent in to protect a man who is there, watching the performance. What seems to be a terrorist attack takes place, a group burst in and begin to open fire and the two sides are involved in a serious fire-fight. The man watching the performance is rescued. Soon after, John David Washington, who isn’t named in the movie and is simply “The Protagonist” is seen being tortured for information. He doesn’t break. Instead, he chooses to take what he thinks is a suicide capsule. It’s not. When he’s extracted he learns that the capsule was mostly a test, to see if he would pay the ultimate cost to protect a secret. Now he’s earned the trust of those above him, he’s promoted to a sort of super-spy. When he’s let in on information that he needs for his next mission things are forever altered for him. Strong set up and good basic writing to set up the main events . . .
Barbara (Clemence Poesy) plays the scientist who shows The Protagonist what’s been discovered. A way to manipulate the properties of uranium, so that cause and effect (entropy is the term used) flow in reverse. It’s not a simple concept. It is and isn’t a way to time travel. It makes time travel possible, but only by living through years in reverse. Yeah, weird and highly confusing; but also novel and that deserves acknowledgement. It’s all too easy to attempt to analyse this and evaluate it. It features heavily in the story, but isn’t the story itself. Plot devices never are. Neither are plots, they’re the order in which things happen. So, back to what actually goes on. The Protagonist is sent to Mumbai to get information from Mahir (Himesh Patel), who is closely guarded. Here, he meets contact Neil (Robert Pattison). The two then bungee jump down a very tall building, take out some security and the talk to Mahir. It turns out Mahir isn’t the important one. It’s his wife, Priya (Dimple Kapadia). She then tells the two they need to speak with another man’s wife. That’s where the real story begins to play out.
Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is married to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). She has long stopped loving him. He’s a violent and dangerous individual who controls his wife and access to their son. He’s also an arms dealer. It turns out he is the one who discovered the way to manipulate uranium. He has long been relying on the technology to make massive amounts of money and to stay one step ahead of everything and everyone. That all changes as The Protagonist, Neil and Kat all team up and try to find his end game. They use the technology against him, but he’s a formidable foe. The two “good guys” are joined by Ives (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and co., the military support team, as a final plan is made It’s not easy keeping track of everything throughout the film as the two sides battle it out. The feel of the film is realistic, but the central plot device is doing a bit too much heavy lifting. Nolan always manages to make scenes and scenarios seem like they might actually be happening, despite the fact they are outside of the laws of known physics. That’s achieved well.
A good way into the film and there’s little exposition by the characters, and so suspension of disbelief isn’t able to be maintained fully. That does have an impact, but it’s not just where the telling of the story falls down a little. Sadly, the emotional bonds aren’t there with these characters, as they are in Inception (2010). Perhaps a bit unfair to directly compare as the two films are quite different. This is much more action heavy, and the pace is rapid. respect must be given to Nolan for being different and not trying to recreate Inception, but his trademark emotional oomph is lacking here, which is a shame (also present in Interstellar (2014) ). The fact that the central premise is a bit head bending isn’t what makes the film difficult to absorb and accept. Not quite knowing what’s happening to the characters is one thing; not caring deeply is something else entirely. Action over substance doesn’t suit Nolan. His films are always deeply entrenched in the human condition. There are moments, but smack you right in the guts.
By the end of the film, when the battle has been fought and won, you aren’t quite sure how the day was saved and if you can buy into it. Things happened so quickly. That’s part of the problem. Again, choosing not to over explain is alright and can even make things more interesting. It’s that there’s no slow points along the way to make the big emotional impact needed. No big, dramatic exchanges and tear-jerking scenes. The dialogue of this film is lacking a little, and whilst you’re head definitely hurts at the end, your heart doesn’t. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair as Nolan is going for something different. He commands respect for being bold and telling the story he wanted to. Saying that, it has to be said it’s not Nolan’s best offering. That he is measured against himself says a lot about his established standard and expectation. Still, it’s cerebral elements and clever inventiveness mean it’s still better than most sci-fi offerings.
Acting and Characters
John David Washington makes a good action hero and central character. His effortless charisma and acting chops mean he’s up for the job. He owns his scenes well and creates a great “every-man” character, in some ways. But that’s part of the problem of the character, too. Whilst it’s wonderful to see an ordinary guy go through a discovery that alters everything he thought was possible, his character seems to accept it a little too easily. There’s no big moment of disbelief and a refusal to take part because of that. Again, the emotional element isn’t there in a way you expect from Nolan’s characters. No fault of Washington. He can only play what’s written. There are some good interactions with Robert Pattison’s Neil, and the unlikely matching does work and keeps things realistic in a world that is truly stretching the limits of imagination. Pattison does what he always does and blends in brilliantly. It has to be said that he must surely be the most gifted actor around in their thirties (if there’s another I can’t think of it). He’s not give the chance to truly cement this claim here, but nevertheless he offers a solid performance and shows that he’s more than capable of performing in a high-octane action role. Seeing him in this film made me very excited to see what he’ll bring to the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Elizabeth Debicki‘s Kat shows some wonderful depth at times, and brings the much needed emotional element. Hers is truly human story and she does capture the horror of years of abuse. The psychological torment and how that changes a person. You never stop believing that she has the well-being of her son with Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei at the centre of her motivation. At times, Branagh’s character shows the promise of being a wonderful villain. The issues that stop that being fully realised are that he’s too physical and not mentally menacing enough. Again, Branagh can only really play what’s written. His Russian accent is impeccable and so is his take on a twisted psychopath. In a film where no one actor really wows, Branagh just about steals the show and puts in a memorable performance.
The film has a good supporting cast. Michael Caine puts in all but a cameo but still elevates it by adding to proceedings with his take on a traditionally British aristocratic sort. A shame he wasn’t in it more. Himesh Patel’s Mahir is barely in it, too. But he does bring a sense of reality as he reveals that it’s his wife. Priyar (Dimple Kapadia) who is the one pulling the strings. Whilst she also doesn’t feature heavily she’s around enough to at least break her word and might even be the most developed character in the film, despite the lack of screen time.
Both Aaron Taylor Johnson (Ives) and Clemence Poesy play vital roles, but aren’t there either, for much of things. This is especially true to Poesy. It seems like her character, Barbara, might be so important a character at the start of the film. As things pan out and the cavalry are called upon to join the efforts to save the world, Ives sees more screen time. There’s little asked of Taylor Johnson, but he does it well. He is the stoical soldier sort and relied upon to get the job done when the going gets tough.
CGI & Action
There’s certainly things you’ll see in this film that you won’t have seen in any other film yet. The main discussion must of course be the central conceit evaluated. As mentioned plot devices are not stories. That said, they do make for stories to be unique and interesting. That’s definitely the case here. Visually, the film’s many set pieces are stunning in only the way that Nolan can achieve. Time flowing differently is awesome to see, and what’s more it doesn’t seem or feel computer generated. That’s a prime example of Nolan as master film-maker. Very few in the film industry are allowed to see their visions made real, as spending the amount to achieve them needs some guarantee of a return; at a minimum, breaking even. Whilst seeing reality warped and mind-bending antics on a giant screen is seriously impressive, and a lot of fun, they can’t be relied upon to make an overall great story and film. As mentioned, this isn’t Nolan’s greatest achievement. The effects are still wonderfully tied into the story though and that’s so often not the case with other films and film-makers. Nolan’s ability with ideas allows him to make everything feel more than just camera trickery. The way he gets concepts across is more akin to an author than a movie-maker. Audiences are lucky to see the imagination of Nolan come to life, and should be glad it’s him that’s got the job to play around with the big budgets. Of course, the computer wizards and technical teams also need to be give their due.
Once you’ve gotten used to seeing time “inverted” and bullets fly back into guns, cars and buildings become “undestroyed”, you might not pick up on the general quality to the action sequences and stunts on the whole. the special feature of the film can easily blind viewers to other great stuff. The exhilarating drama on the catamaran is one example (and the bungee jumping escapade much earlier). It really feels like it’s happening. That’s how Nolan humanizes intense scenes and makes it feel like reality; he’s able to put viewers right at the heart of what’s happening and get them to buy in. That’s a skill in itself and why there’s so much expectation on him.
Overall and Incidental Music
As an out and out action caper, this film is up there with the best of them, easily. The pace is rapid and the stunts achieved with poise and grace. The effects are intelligent in design and well executed. It’s a good job they are as they do have to carry the film, largely. The story itself is decent, and the plot well planned. What lets the movie down is slightly flat characters and no real emotional dynamic. Yes, that’s been mentioned repeatedly in this review. No apology for it. It’s not an attempt to badmouth Nolan or his offering. If anything going on about this is a tribute for what has come to be expected by the power of his story-telling ability. Nolan films don’t come around all that often. When they do, you expect greatness. Perhaps this time around he’s a little bit of a victim of his own success. Another spin on things might be that he’s simply opted for something different.
The sci-fi community might be split on this one. There’ll surely be some who feel this was made to appeal more to a mainstream audience. Whilst the shift to action as the dominant aspect does suggest that, the lack of exposition about time inversion and the rules of the film’s special feature suggests otherwise. There’s every chance that much is missed first time around, with a Nolan movie (and maybe even on the twentieth viewing!). Being angry at what you don’t get is no way to judge his stuff; in fairness he could maybe have spelt out some points more clearly. But if he did, something might be lost of his style. With Nolan’s movie you can wake up years later and scream “Oh, I get it! Wow!”. It’s why you are drawn to return to them. What’s certain is that Nolan tells stories the way he wants to tell them and that commands respect. His narratives are deliberately complex and ask lots of questions. For that and many other reasons we should all be grateful for him, especially now we know what life without the big screen is like. It sucks, big time. Even masters of their craft are allowed a bad day. If this is Nolan’s worst it’s still resulted in something better than most other film-maker’s best work. Let’s hope this can be the catalyst for a successful recovery for the big screen. Life’s been much the worse without it. With reality being so grim right now, it was a genuine pleasure to disappear into the visual representation of Nolan’s fascinating mind.