NothingRevealed’s review published on Letterboxd:
Christopher Nolan's Tenet is undoubtedly a fascinating piece of filmmaking to exist. Having followed the film from its inception (haha see what I did there!) on various forums and platforms, it left me more than bummed to not be able to see it in IMAX. Man, the anticipation was killing me and the hype surrounding Tenet was just infectious. Here's a long overdue bit of thoughts on this ambitious piece of blockbuster filmmaking, though there is little to be said that hasn't been said already.
Given these rather testing times, and rather unfavourable climate to release a movie this big, Tenet had a lot to live up to. Tenet's release could not have come at a worse time. Riddled with a slightly difficult production and an even more troubling release, which is unfortunate really. This is in dire need of another theatrical release, even though this is probably just me being bitter.
The Nolan fanboy in me wants to forgive and ignore all the flaws in Tenet, but I don't want to lose all credibility as a reviewer on this site, so I'll spare you my biased take on everything. In the simplest way to put it, every flaw Nolan is known for is unfortunately both magnified and amplified as a result of him completely embracing what makes a Nolan film one of his own. The film follows this to such a great extent that it almost borders on self-parody given the comical stakes and the unnatural flow of the writing.
Having watched the first hour and forty minutes (unfortunately my VOD copy had trouble playing video past that point) tried to make the most of what I was working with. The audio mixing really isn't great at all (also because, well, it was a digital copy), which is disappointing given how much his previous films focused on excellent sound design. I really don't know what Nolan has against surround sound, would love to see one of his films with a good DTS:X or Dolby Atmos track.
By now you likely know the basic plot synopsis, and it would be a waste of my time and yours to speak of that now, and while I won't avoid it, I will be doing much less of that today, that'll definitely be for a later watch/review, given just how consistently enigmatic this movie is.
Watching Tenet is like listening to a newly released album from your favourite band that you've anticipated from the first day you were invested in their music, but being severely disappointed despite it being a good record in it's own right. The direction that Nolan is going in is similar to a tv show achieving mainstream success and letting that make changes to what it does best. Tenet is also the kind of film which would be labelled as "over-ambitious", "weakly written" and overall just "hit or miss filmmaking" which misses the mark more often than not. If any other director made this with more budgetary constraints, less star power, and overall less access to the more luxurious aspects of filmmaking which Nolan has at his hand, this would be a worser, lesser film, once stripped down to the bland characters and bad dialogue.
This film was rather unfittingly marketed as Nolan's magnum opus during the pandemic, which already left it doing more harm than good for the audiences, the Warner Bros. marketing scheme being ridiculously loud and of epic proportions (as we all expected the film to be). This is likely due to it being a little less benign and uninviting in comparison to Nolan's other more accessible blockbusters or his indie thrillers.
Scenes like the plane crash and buildings simultaneously imploding in forwards and reverse, feel tiny in comparison to what else could goes on in the world seen in Tenet. While films like Inception, which seem rather small scale in comparison to what Tenet is being described as, explore the limits of the dreamscape the film places it's characters in, to the fullest. While in that sense, Tenet left me scratching my head, marveling at the set pieces but also going "why?". The plane crash scene is particularly anti-climactic in that all it involves is John David-Washington and Robert Pattinson minding their own business doing their work indoors, while two dudes we haven't seen previously are hired as just to drive a plane a couple metres forward into the airport art gallery (???).
That's what separates Nolan from either making a work that rivals Kubrick or De Palma style spy/action movies here. Everything feels so... Unnatural. Plain. Sterile. All of Nolan's trademark flaws are magnified and stylistic quirks highlighted to a great extent in Tenet. Nolan is often compared to these directors, but I disagree. He's like a weird mix of Spielberg, Christopher McQuarrie, Brad Bird, and even those comparisons are a stretch. He was a master of making crowd-pleasers which tackled ambitious, large scale concepts which were worthwhile watches for the most ambivalent of critics, and the seasoned movie-goer. At least up until the release of this film.
Part of this is definitely intentional, and I honestly don't mind given how I feel this way about the newer Mission: Impossible and Bond films, but at least they don't take themselves this seriously. But this... uh aesthetic Nolan's testing out can definitely alienate audiences. It's safe to say I started this with all three members of my family, and everyone except my dad got up to leave, and he wasn't even paying attention to the movie. Now unfortunately it'll be a long time before I can introduce any of Nolan's other films to them, given that they despise his "borderline unwatchable" filmmaking.
Moving on to the performances and the writing of the characters. Kenneth Branagh plays a really cartoonish villain, a archetypal evil oligarch, his performance is definitely the most over-the-top, and a nice contrast to the cold professionalism the protagonists exude. Neil (played by Pattinson) a charismatic and witty machine delivering exposition to the Protagonist (Washington), but unfortunately not much else for most of the film. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the woman play by Elizabeth Debicki which should give you a good idea of how half-baked the character she plays is. Everyone plays their characters methodically, convincingly and very well given they are actors of this calibre, however none the characters have the unwavering energy or suave elegance that other similar spy franchises learn to develop over time with their characters, a partially intentional choice from Nolan.
Given how Christopher Nolan advocates for stand-alone films, which I vehemently agree with, I really feel like a film like Tenet could do with a prequel, sequel or trilogy. The whole film feels like a tease, and it technically functions as its own sequel, given how multiple watches unearth so much minute details and misheard conversations. The most significant of which is a greater understanding of the first act and the reasoning behind Neil (the true protagonist)'s actions. Despite a lot of issues with the characters I'm sure being resolved, it's no excuse for weak writing as the film really suffers in that respect. Unlike Nolan's previous films which reveal evidence of what's going on despite still maintaining a level of ambiguity, Tenet very deliberately heavily conceals so much information from the viewer because how simple it is to figure out the basic plot. Too many scenes concern themself with the temporal physics, while being as vague as possible, leaving the audience with smug, ham-fisted and feeble attempts at pseudo-scientific "exposition" which gets tiring when it severely undermines the storytelling.
There's a really great plot within Tenet, but Nolan intentionally makes really silly decisions with the direction it goes in that it leaves very little to appreciate. If there was a better balance between concept/lore/worldbuilding and story to get us invested in these really crudely defined and represented "characters" then Tenet would be nothing short of spectacular. Given the former isn't even done that well, and how I tend to go with whatever ridiculous fantasy the film throws at me, the film could've have done really well if it focused more on the people. I couldn't care less about a future, war, the worst we've ever seen. Apathy is a dangerous thing when it comes to film. So is boredom.
The sound mixing is atrocious, but you know that already. Not sure what Nolan has against surround sound either. The score by Ludwig Göransson is fine. It does the job. However, the absence of a composer or producer like Hans Zimmer is really noticeable. While the score is atmospheric and serviceable, it really doesn't echo the amazing, unparalleled melodies crafted by the likes of Hans Zimmer. I wouldn't have minded if Nolan recycled some of his previous pieces for this, they are just that good.
In fact, this could be said for so much of the rest of Tenet. In a way, it's something to admire, being rare these days that we have such an unapprehensive creator, unfazed by his popularity, that makes what they want, admittedly having a fairly anti-altruistic approach to the reception of his work. That is something to marvel at. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, our collective recognisation of the lesser parts of this film, all the qualms and misgivings related to Tenet really don't matter, and it should really just be defended for what it is. I know I always will inherently admire everything Tenet did. It's certainly enjoyable and I look forward earnestly to his next film. Rumoured to be a darker noir/thriller, and not necessarily one to be released by Warner given how disorganised he thinks streaming with HBO max in the future will be. Do you have high hopes for Nolan's next endeavour? Or do you think he is losing steam in terms of appeal? Tenet is an ultimately disappointing but consistently endearing piece of filmmaking, and this should be enough for you to give it's convoluted and mostly rewarding premise a try.