I want to preface this by explaining some important rules. Tenets, if you will.
This is both a spoiler-free and spoiler-filled review. As signposted below, the first section will be a spoiler-free elucidation of my general thoughts and where it stands in Nolan’s filmography for me. Then, for those who have seen the film already, a more comprehensive breakdown of what worked about Tenet and what I thought didn’t, with heavy emphasis on plot, character, and visuals.
This section is spoiler-free and fine for anyone to read without fear of spoilers!
Tenet, as anyone even remotely interested in film will know, is the latest offering from celebrated auteur Christopher Nolan. Three years since his multi Oscar-winning war movie, Dunkirk, Nolan returns to his mind-bending roots with this twisty sci-fi thriller.
This film had a lot on its shoulders. Being pre-emptively heralded as the big summer blockbuster amongst a maelstrom of panic and disarray due to the global pandemic, it was not hyperbole to say that, at one point, Tenet was holding the weight of the cinema industry on its back, and its success would be determined by good marketing and a sensible release date. Pushed back from Nolan’s favoured July release date, it was only a matter of time before cinemas ignored his pleas to keep it, preferring to reschedule for when cinema visits were more viable for a public weighed down by the looming hysteria of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After three release changes, Tenet has finally been released in certain territories, so let’s talk about it!
I worry about what is public information about the film, so I’ll regale you with IMDb’s official synopsis because I’m insanely paranoid about spoilers:
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.
Sounds simple enough, right?
I jest, of course. Tenet is nothing if not complex, certainly in a myriad of different ways throughout its lengthy runtime (although those familiar with Nolan might find Tenet‘s pacing quite bearable). With an acclaimed cast including John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, and more, Tenet sees Nolan pushing himself creatively and technically, accomplishing feats of visual spectacle seldom seen on the big screen.
The visual mastery is probably Tenet‘s strongest asset; the combination of Nathan Crowley’s stupidly brilliant production design, Hoyte van Hoytema’s aptly thoughtful cinematography, and Jennifer Lame’s whip-sharp editing is enough to please any cinema fan. The action sequences are earth-shattering in their conceits, from both an intellectual and sensorial standpoint. I saw this in an IMAX screen and nothing could have prepared me for how sensory this film really is. The sound design alone is a cinematic cataclysm, the ricochets of bullets and explosions fiercely blended with Ludwig Göransson’s pulse-pounding score tracks.
Despite boasting some bombastic sound pieces, this also brings about one of Tenet’s major flaws. There were moments where characters were speaking, but their dialogue was drowned out by the sheer aural force of the immersive sound design. I definitely missed chunks of dialogue in a lot of scenes because I couldn’t make out the words. And it wasn’t just me not hearing it, I checked online and with those I saw the movie with, and they agreed too. If you can, seek out a viewing with subtitles; it might seem like I’m lamenting in hyperbole, but trust me. You’ll thank me for it.
This leads us right into another of Tenet’s general flaws…the plot.
Look, Nolan gets major points for his originality and ambition as always, but his intertwining of some intermediate science and thought experiments with a beat-driven and heavy espionage plot baffles rather than excites. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the science that I had trouble following, it was the basic plot points of the story and where that was going. I’m not an expert, but the thing Nolan seems to lack is an understanding that action is made to supplement the story, not be the whole story. He seems to write action beats to forgo actual plot development which I think, especially from such an esteemed director, is lazy storytelling. I understand that you should make what you’re good at (and damn these action sequences are truly terrific!) but to accomplish a story of this density, you need accompanying character development and a method of storytelling that works with the audience, not against them.
Speaking of character development…where was it? I’ll elaborate in the spoiler section (come back when you’ve seen it to see if you agree or not), but this echoes the likes of Dunkirk and, to some extent, Inception, in that the characters are there to serve the story, rather than the story being a reflection of the characters’ journeys throughout the film. It’s a good thing those actors are extremely talented or the whole thing may have fallen apart right there.
Now I’ve had a little gripe, I’ll return to some more positive thinking. Nolan knows how to excite an audience; that much has been true since his early days. He assembled a crack-squad of artists to execute his vision and the standard of filmmaking on display is incredibly commendable. That was one thing I felt safe about going in; I wasn’t going to have an issue with the craft. It’s seriously perfect, definitely some of his best stunt work yet, with scenes that rival Inception’s famous spinning hallway scene. One sticks out in my head clear as day even six hours after seeing it.
In my Letterboxd entry I rated Tenet a 3/5 which, in my book, constitutes a pretty good film with some considerable missteps preventing its greatness. On the train home, after some discussion and thought, I raised it to 3.5 with an avenue to climb higher upon further viewings. I promised myself before seeing the film that I would see it in cinemas 3 times, just to solidify my opinions on it and clarify some of the plot/dialogue that I had missed. I’m very excited for further viewings and cannot wait to experience some of those set pieces again.
Overall, Tenet is a beautifully constructed film with a fearless ambition that propels it to new technical heights. It is absolutely lacking in narrative depth and character development, something that Nolan has had issues with in the past. I believe it’s style over substance, but when the style is so compelling and immense, it’s hard to remember why you’re underwhelmed by the negatives.
This marks the end of the spoiler-free section of the review. Please exit to your right and pass through the gift-shop (maybe give my blog a follow or this post a ‘like’ or comment on your way out?
I’ll leave you with one word:
MAJOR TENET SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!
You have been warned.
Now, I’m going to assume that everyone reading this has seen the movie. Either that, or you’re not planning on seeing the film/don’t mind the inner details being ruined for you.
Let’s dive right in.
Before this movie came out, I continued to change my mind as to whether I thought I was going to enjoy it. Nolan exploring a high-concept should be enough to make cinephiles wet themselves, right? I have been wary of Nolan’s style since The Prestige (ignoring his magnum opus, The Dark Knight, of course), and I knew that he wasn’t planning on switching gears anytime soon. Cinema is as its best when it evokes emotion in its audience, whether that be elation, ennui, rage, shock, or anything you can possibly feel. It’s electric, and there’s nothing like it.
Nolan seldom makes me feel anything through his work. Tenet might be his coldest offering to date, trading in the soaring familial attachment of Interstellar or the patriotic relief of Dunkirk for a sprawl of lobotomised “characters” tinkering with Nolan’s latest plot gimmick. Not once did I crack a smile or feel a connection with any of the characters and that’s a big problem. The closest perhaps was the desperation of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki who tries her absolute hardest), who wanted nothing more than to protect her son from the monster she married. Said monster, the film’s antagonist Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh with a surprisingly efficient Russian accent), is a typical villain in all the ways you’ve seen before.
Has money? Check.
Abuses his wife? Check.
Wants to rule/end the world in a sweeping perhaps pyrrhic victory, has no qualms about doing so, and is generally cold and unfeeling towards pretty much everyone? Check, check, check.
It’s another example of Nolan failing to write exciting characters, letting his action thrust them into exciting situations instead. There’s enough choices from The Protagonist to render the narrative character-driven, but the way the world unfolds around him often leaves him with little choice. With more exploration in certain aspects of their personalities, this could have been much better. The Protagonist’s budding romance/friendship with Kat felt hollow and forced, rather than letting the natural charisma of the actors take over.
Let’s pour one out for poor Clémence Poésy, who existed in this movie to do nothing but exposit about our key story gimmick in a way that left nothing to do with the character other than deliver important information in a flat tone. Not her fault, again, it’s Nolan’s. At least I could hear that dialogue, unlike many of the scenes preceding and succeeding it. The train-track sequence was lost on me, the virulent screeching of the metallic tracks downing out any dialogue being spoken.
This isn’t just a case of spectacle, it’s a major drawback which leads the audience to miss things about the dense plot that they don’t have a chance at hearing, losing vital information going forward (or backwards, depending on who and where you are).
Like I’ve said, it’s not all bad. The hallway sequences, both normal and inverted, are stellar, the plane crash free-port sequence was excellent, and the entire last 30 minutes were some of the best action moments of recent memory. If Nolan had perhaps hired a co-writer to execute some of the more laidback moments between the characters, ones that were currently devoid of sentiment and familiarity, Tenet could have had that spark to it that it very much needed.
The distribution of information in this film is truly bizarre. We spent time with The Protagonist who learns about things and can just understand them perfectly enough to execute them upon first try, including some truly complex concepts about time inversion and how things work. The rules are barked at him in a brisk thirty-second explanation before he’s whisked into the new normal, forced to fend for himself in the car-chase scene, which is one of the most integral and exciting scenes in the movie. But he’s just that talented that he can adjust perfectly. Now, I can already hear some of you saying “But he recruited Neil and is from the future, so obviously he knows how to navigate it as the timelines converge”. And to that I say…nope. He’s clearly asking questions because he doesn’t understand things, hence the tedious exposition scenes from Neil and Ives amongst others, so if both statements are true, that’s just inconsistency due to the time inversion (or Nolan’s script oversight).
As with any movie involving the less-than-linear nature of time, there are going to be some loopholes and inexplicable paradoxes. I’m not going to get into them all here because I don’t fully understand them yet; maybe I’ll come back and edit or write a new post upon reflection and a second viewing, but for now I’ll just say that they’re unavoidable and I don’t hold it against Nolan if the temporal logic isn’t theoretically sound. Though the phrase “temporal pincer movement” is cool as hell so props to you, Nolan.
With all this being said, I feel like I’m very ambivalent on the film, perhaps leaning towards liking it. I tend to prioritise character and theme work over large-scale cinematic flair and great technicals, so I’m probably not Tenet‘s ideal audience. Though I do think Nolan needs to sort out his problems with these things, lest his entire catalogue be tainted with machinated plot points and lifeless characters who are plot devices rather than fleshed out people. We’ll see what his next film brings, I suppose.
For now, I’ll try and properly figure out my feelings about this one with more viewings, and hopefully I’ll hear more of the dialogue this time, but if it’s just more expository nonsense then perhaps some of it is better left as a whisper into the chasm where nobody can hear it.
Tenet is in cinemas now in the UK, Canada, Japan, and across the majority of Europe. It arrives in US cinemas on September 3rd in selected cities.
Stay safe everyone, until next time!