Tenet ★★½

There was a brief period during which Christopher Nolan was my favourite working director. Coming off of The Dark Knight and Inception, Chris and his writing partner Jonathan Nolan had just made two of my top 25 favourite films of all time. Since separating from his brother, I've enjoyed Nolan's films less with each entry. Tenet is no exception.

Nobody likes when a movie holds their hand. We like to feel like we're doing a bit of the work when watching a film. Unfortunately, Tenet makes you do more than a bit of the work. In fact, if you have any aspirations of keeping track of the film's plot, you'll spend so much time trying to piece the film together that it will largely prevent you from actually enjoying it. I was so mentally strained from trying to work out the narrative's underlying mechanics that it was difficult to emotionally engage with the characters. Even if I wasn't so exhausted from the film's complexity, there just isn't much to latch onto in terms of character. Nobody has as much emotional depth as DiCaprio's Cobb or McConaughey's Cooper. Even during action sequences, each of which is immaculately shot and elegantly choreographed, it's difficult to feel the impact as you're trying to figure out how you would fight someone moving backwards through time.

Tenet also features Nolan's worst villain by far. It's astounding that the Kenneth Branagh's uninspired Russian arms dealer antagonist came from the same mind as Ledger's Joker. Our villain's goal? Destroy the world. Why? Because he's evil... and bitter. Why is anyone working with him? Great question. Seriously, this guy is less complex than Plankton from Spongebob. The rest of the cast delivers solid performances, though across the board are a step down from the performances in past Nolan films. That may be because their characters similarly ill-defined, mostly characterized by one or two prominent traits without much to make you care about them as individuals.

But, the visuals are fantastic. While this is a concept we've seen before in films like Doctor Strange and Click, Nolan explores it more fully than those films, and with a much sharper eye for visual storytelling. He knows how to inspire awe with set pieces and originality.

But while elements of Tenet feel fresh, I am growing tired of deterministic time travel narratives. I've seen at least four this year alone, and the satisfaction of watching events line up diminishes with each new entry into the subgenre. In my experience, the mechanic also detracts from the characters and the stakes, in that I feel neither that the characters have agency, nor that the events being depicted actually matter given everything is predetermined. While Dark and Devs are at least attempting to expand on the deterministic time travel concept, Tenet doesn't have anything new to contribute, and instead just feels familiar.

The score by new Nolan collaborator, Ludwig Goranson, is also solid, though at times feels more like a series of Zimmer imitations than original compositions. It's occasionally so similar that I suspect the filmmakers used Zimmer's previous Nolan scores as the temp music for Tenet. But for people who haven't listened to The Dark Knight's score on repeat, it should still be pretty effective.

There's also some REALLY irritating "meta" dialogue in this movie. There are constant references to audience expectations and story convention, with particular focus on John David Washington being "the protagonist" of this story. It's easy, it's lazy, it's tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film, and it never failed to take me out of the moment.

And the climax is... terrible? While the last 5 minutes deliver a satisfying conclusion, the proceeding 30 minutes are muddled, unclear, and largely absent of tension given the final battle is essentially a training exercise. And why? Seemingly because Nolan can't find another sensical reason for inverted soldiers to fight uninverted soldiers. Admittedly, there's probably a better explanation, but not one that's integral enough for me to pick up on. And frankly, if the reason isn't that important, it isn't worth crafting a convoluted and tension-less climax around.

Tenet isn't a bad film. There's plenty to be admired from the innovative set pieces to solid performances. But Nolan puts too much focus on the external. The stakes are largely external, and the runtime is almost entirely devoted to furthering the plot rather than taking a moment to turn inward and explore the internal lives of these characters or why we should care about their journeys.

Controlling Idea - 4/10
Artistic Merit - 6/10
Entertainment - 4/10
Craft - 4/10
Technical Elements - 9/10


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