jing’s review published on Letterboxd:
What’s happened happened.
What a year 2020 has been. And what better way to end this hell of a ride than by watching not necessarily the objectively “best” movie of 2020, but the one with the most divisive reception and with the release most symbolic of this pandemic-ridden year. In any other year, Tenet would’ve made much more at the box office. In any other year, Christopher Nolan’s determination to show his movie in theaters wouldn’t have caused a discussion. In any other year, films wouldn’t have been delayed multiple times until they’re postponed indefinitely. In any other year, directors wouldn’t be pushing back against a studio’s decision to put their movies on a streaming service. Hell, in any other year, no studio would’ve made that decision in the first place.
But 2020 is no ordinary year, and as the world has been grappling with an unprecedented crisis, cinema has obviously, and unfortunately, become less of a focus, with movie theaters shutting down like so many aspects of public life and films many were looking forward to postponed to 2021. I’m beyond grateful that, despite the pandemic, cinemas had been open for over four months, giving me the chance to see not only Tenet on the big screen, but also Interstellar and Inception.
Even after seven watches, Tenet remains a compelling, if baffling, puzzle. With its extraordinarily original plot and enormous set pieces, Christopher Nolan once again demonstrates his ability to interweave physical concepts with highly entertaining filmmaking—and also his ability to receive a 250 million dollar production budget for an original story. The movie’s originality is, in my view, its strong suit and biggest selling point. Reversing an object’s entropy? Reversing humans? Tenet leaves you thinking about its concepts long after its credits have rolled, and, in the end, it’s a reminder that this is what films are about: contemplating imaginative scenarios based on the movie’s premise, discussing said scenarios with friends and even making new friends thanks to the discussions.
Over the years, Nolan’s movies have given him so much success he was able to push the boundaries with Tenet, basing the movie off of an idea beyond Inception’s or Interstellar’s realms. As a result, this film is as frustrating as it is captivating and maybe even rewarding; frustrating because as soon as one detail clicks into place, almost a gazillion more questions float to the surface, captivating because the more minutiae click into place, the more fascinating the film gets, and rewarding because in the end, when enough pieces to the puzzle have been scraped up and put together, quite literally looking at the bigger picture puts the 150-minute runtime in perspective.
However, it requires a lot of patience for the film to become rewarding, and it’s not the same patience needed for slow-paced films to become rewarding. As a consequence, Tenet fails to take the audience on the same journey, subsequently leading many to criticize its shallow characters and self-absorbed style. Although the underlying concept and the execution of the concept alone are simply astonishing, the narrative carrying the theory unfortunately isn’t, or at least not exciting enough to be outstanding on its own. Blandly put, it’s an almost stereotypical “bad-russian-good-american” story with little emotional depth working in its favor, and the explanations of the premise itself aren’t enough to fully grasp the workings of the movie. Nolan gets so wrapped up in the premise he forgets the audience is seeing the film for the first time, almost like a professor explaining a topic trivial to him because he’s studied it for years to a group of people completely unfamiliar with the subject.
Original, ambitious, entertaining and intriguing, Tenet, in spite of its shortfalls, will remain one of my top movies of 2020. Does it have Inception’s inventiveness? Probably not. Does it have Interstellar’s heart? Not really. Does it have Dunkirk’s beauty? Also no. But what it does have is a rich concept wrapped in a solid narrative to be turned over in your mind, to be picked apart and dissected, and to keep conversations going for years to come. Tenet is the only film that, despite having seen in seven times, still manages to fascinate me and still leaves me with the urge to understand every bit of its story. And that, to me, is what makes this an outstanding film, especially in a year as tumultuous as this one. I’m wishing every single one of you a happy new year and all the best for 2021, thanks so much for putting up with me this year!
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