Jacob_Ray’s review published on Letterboxd:
Allow me to begin by saying that I am historically a big Nolan fan. I think his films are simple and straightforward so as to be easy for a large audience to understand, yet juuuuust interesting enough to get people thinking. Christopher Nolan is, as far as I’m concerned, a perfectly solid blockbuster filmmaker.
This film is the most incomprehensible, amateurish, self-absorbed release that I’ve seen from Nolan, or indeed that I’ve seen in a while. It may not be as flat out bad as something like Jurassic World or Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but it’s by far the least competent. It’s wholly clear that nobody was around to tell him “no” during production, a fact I know because some of my works have come out like this when not subjected to an editing process. There’s potential for something there, and I’ll always respect an artist who just pushes ahead and makes what they want to make regardless of interference, but that absolutely does not mean I have to like it.
The film starts off with a cold open, like the vast majority of Nolan’s films, and then literally never slows down. Not even exaggerating, if your head is whirling at the 5-minute mark, it’s gonna keep on spinning until the credits roll. We are dropped into a scene with no idea what is going on, and then it is slowly (yet simultaneously quickly) explained to us in excruciating detail. There are no character introductions, because, strictly speaking, there are no characters. Nobody has any goals at all, aside from the villain’s goal of ending the world. The other characters don’t even know why or how they’re going to stop him because, spoiler alert, they won’t come up with the idea or the plan until many years in the future. I am not exaggerating when I say that nobody knows what’s going on. Due to this, all of the characters are utterly flat, with the only hints of personality being a few quips made by The Protagonist and Neil, and Elizabeth Debicki being the Sad Woman in a Nolan MovieTM. The villain is simultaneously underdeveloped, with his motivation only being made clear at the very end, and it not being a particularly good one. Spoilers again, he wanted money.
The film is cut together in a way that is difficult to describe. I said earlier that it was too fast, but that’s not quite right. It’s more as if every bit of fat is trimmed off. Establishing shots? Unnecessary. Introductions? Unnecessary. Scene transitions? Unnecessary. For a movie that’s 2 and a half hours long (and you feel every second of that runtime, by the way), there is absolutely zero wasted space. This should be a positive thing, but the result is that your mind never really has time to process anything that’s going on. You’re always a few minutes behind everything, and if that’s the case, well, sucks to be you, I guess. The film has no sympathy for anyone who can’t keep up, which again, would be a positive thing if it gave the audience any help in this whatsoever.
Christopher Nolan’s action scenes have always been carried exclusively by whatever weird timey-wimey gimmick he’s got going on in that particular film, as well as by the practical effects. Unfortunately, in this film, the practical effects boil down to a few cool explosions as well as the, admittedly pretty neat plane shot. There’s nothing too fancy going on with the staging, just a bunch of guys running around and shooting guns.
Said guys, by the way, are all wearing masks so that they’re indistinguishable from each other, and the camera is both shaky and unfocused, leading the audience to have absolutely no clue what’s going on in any given fight scene. The final scene especially is simply atrocious for this, as the camera whizzes around the battlefield, focusing on random soldiers doing random soldier things for no reason other than the fact that it’s a fight scene, so you’ve gotta have dudes shooting at things. At least, I assume they’re random soldiers. They may have been main characters shooting at very important targets, but I have no way to tell.
This brings me to my big pain point here: the time travel shtick is so poorly explained visually speaking. Oh, they explain it verbally in great detail, as I grumbled above, and I understood the concepts perfectly. But once they try to implement it into the actual action, everything sort of goes out the window in terms of logic. I’m sure you could create a whiteboard chart with a bunch of strings leading around a maze like a conspiracy theorist that would enable you to understand what on earth is going on at any point, but the fact that I have not done this means that I simply do not get it. The entire midsection where they intersect with the present and begin moving backwards through the movie is so poorly executed that I’m pretty sure I blacked out at one point.
The reason for all of this, of course, is the same reason why my fiction writing often gets panned in peer reviews: since I already know how this all works (because I invented it), it’s difficult for me to figure out what my audience might not understand yet. Nolan gets how these timelines interweave because he’s the one who wove them together, and the fact that nobody else could see the intricacies of his tapestry without a ton of training and hours of close inspection is utterly lost on him. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t care.
I’m sympathetic, of course. The fact that he’s using this massive budget that he has to do something so totally esoteric and weird is impressive and respectable. On some level, I’m glad this exists, but I also feel as though it’s accumulating more credit than it deserves simply because people like his other movies and don’t want to feel dumb for not understanding a blockbuster.
Tenet is a bad movie, and it annoyed me greatly, and it does deserve some credit for that. Not a lot, though, and not enough for it to be worthy of an ounce more praise than criticism.