Tenet ★★★★½

Tenet: To Boldly Go Where Nolan Has Gone Before

After six months since I, and many others last stepped foot in a movie theater, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will be the gateway back into our weekly trips to the theater. As long as they are following proper safety precautions and guidelines to make our viewing experience as safe and healthy as possible. As for Tenet, the response seems to be wildly mixed amongst Nolanites, and general audiences alike. It’s a booming and ambitious blockbuster that seems to bite off more than it can chew, but Nolan’s experience and uncomparable film-making ability winds and rewinds Tenet into an air-tight container. Fastening every screw, assembling every piece, and sometimes blasting it’s way through the walls of Nolan’s most maddening maze yet. 

For all of Nolan’s most notable sensibilities, his exposition crutches seem to be his biggest standout, for all the wrong reasons. As vehemently obsessed with film-makers and films that rely heavily on the camera doing all the talking, Nolan’s written language never seems to compliment his visual language. Which is ultimately why 2017’s Dunkirk seems to be one of his most universally revered works. Not only for the technical mastercraft, but the reliance on the camera’s images and swift editing techniques to tell the story. It finally seemed like Nolan was beginning to deviate from those crutches that caused so much emotional disconnect from his work dating back to the few who malign Inception. Instead, Tenet is a plot fueled punching bag for jargon, but the twist is that it’s all table decoration, and the real meat and potatoes is what the camera is doing and how the characters choose to act. 

When you look at the long history of movies and some of history’s finest, many of their films, or perhaps just a few, present their world and characters without question. There’s no real explanation as to why the world exists as it does, and those films are sprinkled with movie magic, but it never goes out of the way to really give it’s cast (and simultaneously the world) a reason for their behaviors. They are defined by simply acting on a scenario that is presented to them, and we discover who they are by what they choose to do from moment to moment. This is how Nolan approaches the main characters in Tenet, and it works really well for the type of movie it is. This is a movie so submerged in it’s reality, that it rides on technicalities and specifics as the driving force of the narrative. There isn’t really any proper emotion or resounding sense of catharsis by the time the film ends. Which by all means is fine given the goals that the film wants to achieve. 

To be fully loaded with enough plot focused buzzwords and lingo to fire back and forth between characters, there really isn’t much time for characters to have emotional connections driving their respective motivations. It’d be wholly unnecessary and incredibly trite for Tenet to have something as extensive and underlying as Cobb’s guilt in Inception. In many ways, Nolan took his most critiqued aspect of Dunkirk (the lack of characters/personalities worth investing in), tinkered with it, and made his cast an outlet for copious amounts of exposition as a “boo-hoo” to anyone who had an issue with it before. Something perhaps stemming from Nolan’s lifelong inspiration, Ridley Scott, and his intention to make movies for himself and no one else. Which is really what Nolan seems to be aiming for with Tenet when it’s all said and done. 

That may be unfair considering Nolan has been outspoken on creating movies with the moviegoing audience in mind, but Tenet feels like he made a movie for himself before the audience (at least since Memento). Which may be where much of the disconnect is coming from, but for a film-maker who has devoted his life to film, he has earned a chance to deliver something that he can showcase as an event for his indulgences, inspirations, and ambitions. Leaving very little room for studio input, or focus groups and screen tests. At the end of the day, Tenet is a movie that is really unafraid to be a trademarked Christopher Nolan movie, and that’s incredibly admirable. In the current state of affairs, a tired and typically crass blockbuster season, it is so refreshing to see a Nolan film headlining a respective year or Summer season. There is so much to be taken aback by, so much to challenge how we continue to watch movies in the modern era, and ultimately, redefining the structure by which many big films are made. 

Tenet, for all of the buildup, the complicated moral decisions on release dates, and Nolan’s obsession with the movie-going experience, this is a movie well worth the wait. It’s a film that is as kinetic as it is patient with reveals and developments. The pacing is snappy and constantly presenting us with new sights and sounds to keep our mind moving frenetically. Some would say it’s a reason why it falters, but there is excitement at every turn, and a Ludwig Goransson score to propel you forward on a damned rocket ship. The characters don’t have noticeable qualities or attributes we can strictly define; but why would that matter when they accept the reality they live in and simply act on it? At its core it does lack much of the hidden emotion that does underline Nolan’s mechanical and occassionally hamfisted exposition, but a movie this technical with it’s jargon, rules and world-building, accepting it is the first step in getting comfortable with the movie. Beyond that, there are plenty of visual aids that assist in telling the story for us while we try to recover from some admittedly rough sound mixing. 

This, all en route to topping itself off in a manner I never could have anticipated. One where I sat back and realized that the entire experience was a love letter to everything that we associate with Christopher Nolan. Sure, maybe it’s a bit self-congratulatory, but at the same time it’s a movie that toasts the likes of Tony and Ridley Scott, James Bond, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, and yes, Nolan’s entire catalogue of work. Why? Because he wouldn’t be who he is today without every single one of those people or franchises that turned him from the little kid aweing at 2001 and Star Wars, into the most accomplished film-maker in the last 10-15 years. An ode to the bond of brotherhood and how something as specific and technical as time can’t restrict something that spans a lifetime. Tenet is some sort of self-aware meets temporal mental gymnastics movie that positions itself as a median between the ghosts of the past, the alarming present, and how that could force us to acclimate how we watch movies in the future.

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