September 3, 2020
Spell it backward or forward, it spells the same. From Christopher Nolan - the virtuoso behind The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Dunkirk - comes Tenet, an action blockbuster on a scale not seen before and that will never be replicated again.
Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.
The plot summary I just gave you is the exact one supplied by the studio. I did this for fear of spoilers and because I cannot confidently give out any more information than what has already been covered. Tenet may be the most incomprehensible and mentally straining movie ever made. It feels like taking a whole semester of advanced physics in only one class period, all while being set in a warzone. I have no doubt there will be case studies and theses done about this movie.
Nolan wastes no time throwing his audience over the deep end. He begins the film at a breakneck pace, moving from scene to scene in the blink of an eye. You struggle to grasp onto the high concept in real-time and are always playing catchup. This problem only exponentially gets worse as Nolan refuses to hold your hand as he goes further down the rabbit hole. Even one of the characters in the movie says, “Don’t try to understand it, feel it”. It’s almost as if Nolan inserted that quip just for the audience.
The inability to follow the movie can be attributed to the out-of-the-box concept, but mostly it falls on Nolan’s embarrassingly weak script. The problems here are the same ones people have been saying about him for years now, that he overuses exposition and under-delivers on the emotional parts of his narrative.
Tenet is nearly all exposition and no emotion. Many times the exposition gives more questions than answers and seems to be intentionally leading us astray. It’s also Nolan’s coldest film as any emotion is forced through cliche storylines that seem included to check off a box rather than tell a story.
On a technical level, Tenet is both Nolan’s most and least impressive film to date. The action set pieces mix both practical and visual effects seamlessly, creating awe-inspiring showcases of movie magic. The use of time inversion in fight sequences, car chases, and an entire battle are just some of the moments that you have to see to believe. Hoyte Van Hoytema encapsulates all the gorgeous chaos in stunning widescreen cinematography and composer Ludwig Göransson overtakes your ears with a perfect hard-charging score.
What’s a problem here, and has been for some time now for Nolan, is the astoundingly poor sound mixing. Without hesitation, I can say that Tenet is the loudest movie I have ever seen. Every gunshot felt like it went off next to my ear and every explosion shook my entire body. The ungodly loud sound effects made it near impossible to comprehend much of the dialogue, which was already poorly mixed, to begin with. If you thought it was hard to understand Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, just wait until you try to understand what the characters are saying here.
Even with all my gripes, I was still enveloped in the world Nolan has created. There have been dozens of movies where I was lost after a few minutes and checked out for the remaining runtime. With Tenet, I was lost after minute one and completely invested for the remaining one hundred forty-nine. Part of that interest comes from the spectacle and part of that comes from the likable cast.
In a star-making lead performance oozing with charisma, John David Washington plays our protagonist, who is literally called The Protagonist. He’s our vessel as he enters into this strange new world with no previous knowledge and must solve a deadly puzzle that goes against all logic.
Robert Pattinson keeps his hot streak going with another charming performance as The Protagonist’s sidekick, Neil. Kenneth Branagh is intermittently good as our Russian villain, Andrei Sator. He’s exceptionally menacing in the quieter moments and cartoonishly over-the-top in his moments of outburst. Elizabeth Debicki plays the most emotionally resonant character as the helpless wife of our villain. Debicki is great in the role but is unfairly used more as an object for the story.
Tenet is a full-on assault of the senses that contains unparalleled moments of spectacle and ambition. It’s nowhere near the top of Nolan’s filmography and will surely require multiple viewings to unravel. Make sure to pack some ibuprofen and prepare to have your mind twisted in ways you never thought possible.