Tenet ★★★½

Tenet is a work of breathtaking originality at times. Christopher Nolan has once again succeeded in delivering a cerebral, cool blockbuster. This may not be a film for those wanting genuine emotional stakes or something light to play in the background, but if you want complex plotting centred on grounded action scenes and Nolan's usual time travel trickery, Tenet delivers. For cinema-goers who appreciate the surface level "smart" of a film, I can only imagine admiration for Tenet. As for me, I like puzzle-box premises in my blockbusters. Nolan may be a cold director, but no other blockbuster filmmaker keeps me so thrilled so consistently.

Sadly Tenet is also a disappointment. Coming off five great films, Nolan doesn't meet his own high standards in Tenet. The flaws here are mostly the same as Nolan's other films, but there simply isn't enough strengths to hoist the film above them. There are no mindblowing performances to lift the film above its silliness. There is no deeply profound moment that justifies the time spent with the film. There isn't even a giant set piece to wow you over. There are plenty of incredible action scenes, especially one long car chase involving a heist, but nothing even comes close to matching Nolan's work in The Dark Knight or Inception. Some action scenes even suffer from jittery editing and messy framing. While Tenet may be an undeniable blockbuster, it seems pretty small for Nolan. He's done bigger and he's done better.

Tenet is like Nolan's attempt at a James Bond movie, with intrigue and globe-trotting mystery central to the entire set-up of the film. Yet Tenet has no sexuality or joy that those films possess. It's a very serious work. I don't say this as a criticism, but as an observation. Tenet is designed to be concentrated on and dissected, not just be a blast of fun. The three main actors (John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki) all play bland, straight-faced characters. Kenneth Branagh is the only actor to bring vitalizing energy to the film. Some may find Tenet detached, but it is a film enamoured with its plot, not its characters. The story itself is rather thin and a tad predictable regarding time travel tropes, but it is the complicated way the film tells the story that makes it compelling.

Inception is the closest Nolan film to Tenet, but Tenet is mostly like the opening act of Inception, pre-dream. So basically Tenet is similar to the weakest part of Nolan's best original blockbuster. That doesn't make Tenet bad, but it is therefore a less ambitious film, and less ambition allows flaws to surface. Nolan has always been weaker with emotional scenes and character moments, and they just stick out more in Tenet. A harsh critic may dismiss Tenet as a soulless exercise in intelligent filmmaking. There's some truth to that, but as I said before, I like movies that play as intricate puzzles, even if they lack the warm embrace of a human touch.

Tenet is worth seeing. It is smart and engaging and the long runtime breezes by. Most blockbuster directors would gain more respect from me if they made Tenet. But coming from Christopher Nolan, it feels like a lower-tier work. The filmmaking is smooth and impressive, but playing on a smaller level it lacks the sweeping genius that makes his recent work so great. It's a little disappointing, but still intriguing and worthwhile.

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