After months of closures, I returned to work at a local movie theatre where we waited through third-run classics, recent-releases, and enhanced cleaning protocols for the eventual, delay-wracked arrival of the first blockbuster in the new pandemic world, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. After two weeks enduring the structural trembles brought about as a result of the film’s thunderous volume, the staff pass-restriction finally lifted. I went to see Tenet with my sister in the local IMAX theatre, earplugs in hand to prevent permanent hearing loss. We sat back, in our socially-distanced auditorium with five other audience members, to enjoy the new film by auteur Christopher Nolan, surviving multiple delays to finally release, in an effort to save the theatre-going experience. This had to be something special, to warrant releasing in the midst of a pandemic.
Well, uh, it is special, in its own way.
Tenet is a special film in the worst of ways anything could be special. At no point does the film succeed at being engaging or exciting, while also managing to be at times incomprehensible, nonsensical, and just down right obnoxious. It is a 151-minute torture chamber of laughable dialogue, convoluted storytelling, and breakneck pacing trying to cover for a lack of clear stakes by just moving onto the next set piece and location they could afford to shoot at. It is only in the third act where you learn what the villain (played by Kenneth Branagh in a terribly miscast performance) wants to accomplish with the vague MacGuffin you never really understand, why he wants to do it, and how the Protagonist and his assorted allies made of cardboard can stop the villain. I say “learn” in that the characters state out loud what is happening, but it is said in scenes where the sound is so poorly mixed, with dialogue so stilted and drowning in jargon, that even knowing what is supposed to be happening is an Olympian-level task. When I *finally* had a grasp on the stakes, and the characters’ relationships to one another, I came to the realization that I just simply did not care.
Despite the implications of what I’ve just written, this story isn’t that complex, really. Strip it down to its basics, and it’s a traditional spy film narrative where you go with the Protagonist to uncover a secret plot by an Arch-Villain, and you go to exotic locales and experience set-piece after set-piece in an effort to foil the villain’s plot. Simple, right?
Of course, this film is made by current-day Christopher Nolan, whose utter devotion to “preserving the theatrical experience” means filling his films with gimmicks and throwing sound and fury at you to convince you that whatever you’re watching is Capital-I Important.
The “inversion” premise is an empty caloric gimmick that gives off the illusion of ingenuity. While it is cool on an aesthetic level to see fight scenes in reverse, or to see a car flip from a crash to suddenly driving again, what does it really provide? Is there any thematic value to this presentation, anything added to the characters’ internal conflicts, or is it just another flashy trick to make the film’s events seem unique?
Strip away the gimmick, and what you’re left with are woefully generic set-pieces: a car chase, a heist, and fistfights. The film’s ending, for all its visual complexity, is just a bunch of indistinguishable characters in full military gear running around a brown-and-grey quarry with unseen soldiers shooting at them. If you’re going to commit to this premise of time manipulation, then do something with it that we haven’t seen before. Nolan could go all out with his visuals and tell a truly unique story that just *needs* to be seen on the big screen.
Of course, that’s not what Christopher Nolan does. He grounds his stories in realistic approaches to whatever fantastical premise his films present. He can skirt past the title of being a director of science-fiction, or comic book movies. The Dark Knight isn’t a comic book movie, it’s Heat with Batman. Inception isn’t a science-fiction film, it’s a heist movie in dreams. Just like he’s done since Batman Begins, Nolan grounds his films to give off the illusion of importance, of Serious Art that needs to be taken Seriously. For all of his technical achievements, for all the IMAX cameras he shoots on and all of the planes he crashes, and his refusal to use computer-generated imagery in his work, his filmography has slowly revealed a lack of imagination for what this medium can do.
Of course, the difference between Tenet and most other films in his catalogue is that every other movie he’s made has something you can hold onto, some character that you either emotionally relate to, or a character whose presence is magnetic. With Inception, you are there with Elliot Page’s Ariadne as you learn the mechanics of dreams, and then you root for DiCaprio’s Cobb to succeed so he can see his children again. The Dark Knight is anchored by a historically-great performance from Heath Ledger as the Joker. Tenet has none of these things. John David Washington is wasted in this lead performance, where he is left to ask question after question with little agency in affecting the plot, which only frustrates more with the obvious twist at the end for his character. Pattinson does his best with the character and dialogue he has, coming out mostly unscathed due to his natural charisma. Poor Elizabeth Debicki is given nothing to do but cry about her son, be angry with her Branagh-husband, and rely on Washington to save her, in yet another showcase of Nolan not knowing how to write women. Kenneth Branagh is a non-presence in this film as the arch-villain, who needed some sort of liveliness injected to cover for the role’s thin motivation and development. Himesh Patel and Aaron-Taylor Johnson are wasted in roles where there is just nothing to grab onto.
Nolan can crash as many real planes as he wants, it means nothing when you don’t care about the characters involved. Nothing in Tenet comes close to the emotional gut-punch of Cooper watching decades of video messages from Earth, having to watch his children grow up before his eyes while so far away from them.
Tenet confuses convolution for complexity, jargon for depth. It is a paper-thin story that drags its marionette characters through a nation-hopping story that hand waves away any questions in the internal mechanics of its premise. How did inversion happen? Uhhhh a scientist made an algorithm in the future and split it up in the past don’t worry about it what’s happened happened we don’t have time to explain it look plane crash look car chase look bungee jumping look explosions!! Tenet is the pretentious person’s version of Michael Bay’s Transformers; at least Bay doesn’t pretend to be deep with his nonsense.
I think what frustrates me most about this movie is just the arrogance of its release. It was rolled out in the midst of a global pandemic, in an effort to try to make any sort of profit off of its ridiculous $200+ million budget so that Christopher Nolan could make 20% of the first dollar gro-I mean preserve the cinematic experience and bring moviegoers together in the midst of a debilitating pandemic, political uprisings, and increasingly destructive climate disasters. I was hoping this movie may have something to say, some semblance of a theme that would justify its release. Film doesn’t have to do that, but Christopher Nolan has built his career on being Important. If it wasn’t going to be a good movie, the least Tenet could do was have something to say. Kenneth Branagh does mention something about how the future wants us destroyed because we ruined the climate or something, but he mumbled through the line in a vaguely-Russian accent, and with the sound mixing being so bad I could barely hear him. A whisper of a thesis was all this film could offer. At least in the real world, when someone sounds muffled behind the mask they are wearing to protect others from getting sick, there’s a reason behind it.
Tenet is a 2020 film directed by Christopher Nolan, released by Warner Brothers and produced by Warner Brothers, Legendary, and Syncopy.