Tenet

Tenet ★★★

[Not that Tenet can be spoiled, but this review is spoiler free]

Christopher Nolan is the object of study and obsession, his films often generating strong passions and “blowing minds,” especially the most malleable ones. He’s defended by many, criticized by a few, but almost no-one is completely indifferent to his output. What makes Nolan such a suis generis filmmaker is how he remixes his cinematic heroes to offer grand spectacles, in the process becoming a sort of hybrid of multiple award winning and commercially loved directors. He’s obsessed with Kubrick’s intellectualism, David Lean’s scope, Satoshi Kon’s treatment of time and timelines, and Spielberg’s sense of adventure, to name a few. These influences culminated in Interstellar, perhaps Nolan’s most divisive endeavor. After that massive spectacle with big ideas and big set pieces, the filmmaker went ‘small’ with Dunkirk, focusing on a story that reflects his own heritage, but still applying those time-bending concepts he’s so fascinated by. 

Tenet promised a return to the type of ‘big ideas’ blockbuster that needs to be experienced in the biggest, widest screen possible. The trailer dropped in late December and the internet lost their collective minds, quickly attempting to figure out just what was happening in it and how it connected to Nolan’s larger thematic interests. More importantly, it promised answers in 7 months. Cue COVID-19 and the subsequent worldwide turmoil. Tenet became the center of the cultural conversation regarding the theatrical experience. Nolan stayed faithful to his desire of not postponing the film, instead pushing it by a matter of weeks to ensure Tenet was still a “summer movie.” This approach generated spirited discussions among filmmakers, movie goers, cinephiles and the general public. 

Now, Tenet is here.

As with most Nolan films, the ideas driving the plot are complex and complexly told, but not always satisfying, perhaps becoming deceivingly brainy. This is to say that the coat of glitter seduces and exhausts the mind in equal measure. When it works, it’s exhilarating. When it doesn’t, it might lead to exasperation, confusion, and some eye rolls. Early into the movie— as John David Washington is being introduced to the concept of “inverted time”—, Nolan uses dialogue to warn the viewer: “Don’t try and understand it. Feel it.” That seems like a paradox worthy of the mechanics of Tenet itself, as it’s virtually impossible to feel something that is always begging for understanding. In other words, Nolan is asking the viewer to do two opposing things at once, and none is entirely justifiable.

Tenet is undoubtedly the most ambitious Nolan film to date, an idea that carries considerable weight in lieu of his filmography. When it comes to concepts of physics and playing with timelines, Nolan already went— and I say this loosely— micro, with Memento, The Prestige, and Dunkirk; and macro, with Inception and Interstellar. In Tenet, he goes uber, with it generating key considerations aptly anticipated by The Royal Ocean Film Society. The fact Nolan continues to strive to offer big-brained entertainment not previously based on any IP is both commendable and welcome. The Tenet issue, however, boils down to concept vs execution. While the juicy nature of a storyline that moves forwards and backwards simultaneously is apropos of Nolan’s obsessions, the filmmaker can never distill these intricate concepts into a cohesive and thematically enlightening experience. The viewer is always playing ‘catch up’, and when he does, a series of new events and complicated plot points introduce new narrative chaos. 


Nolan manages to land this turbulent trip with the type of third act only he could pull off, although the overall journey may not feel completely satisfactory. The clunky and repetitive dialogue, overly-reliance on exposition, and confusing geography (something the filmmaker usually excels at) bring some underlying script shortcoming to the fore. The reasoning behind the villainous plan, which is never quite established, is one of them. Simply, the masterplan is stated very close to the end of the movie. And while the intention is noteworthy— even important, from an environmental perspective—, Nolan simply doesn’t do enough throughout to justify it. Usually, these inconsistencies are disguised by charismatic and gripping performances, which Tenet lacks, with the notable exception of Kenneth Branagh and the always propulsive Elizabeth Debicki. 

Tenet works as a sort of high-concept James Bond film, the type of espionage tale Nolan grew up on and always admired. The idea is brilliant, but the final product doesn’t manage to capture the imagination quite the same way as other Nolan high-concept films, and it’s hard to argue that it generates the type of iconic imagery or mind-blowing set pieces that made The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar or Dunkirk such exhilarating cinema. Chaos is the operating word here, sometimes serving the narrative, other times not, depending on the clarity one has at any given moment. In that sense, Tenet is Nolan’s Schroedinger’s Paradox. It’s always alive and dead. The viewer simply has to choose which frequency to tune into.

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