Movie Review: Tenet

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PG-13 |  2h 30min

Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki

by Jason Koenigsberg

Finally, cinemas are open and a motion picture has returned that is trying to be a blockbuster event during the time of COVID-19. The coronavirus put a halt on life as we knew it back in March of 2020 and ever since nothing this year has been the same. As we slowly adapt to the new normal, movie theaters have been one of the biggest casualties with the government mandated social distancing and the entire summer movie season suffered tremendously. Now it is officially autumn and people are finally getting comfortable enough to return to indoor eating establishments, and leaving their homes to go to the multiplexes with capacities relegated to less than 100%. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was supposed to be one of the biggest movies of the summer and unlike other movies that were meant to be blockbusters released in cinemas, Nolan stubbornly refused to have his film relegated to being an at home streaming option. Good for him for his support of movie theaters and insisting that movies be big events for groups to experience. But was his uncompromising vision and support of cinemas worth it with his latest mind trip Tenet? Yes and No. Regardless of whether Tenet is any good or not, its legacy is that it will forever be known as the first wide release to attempt to get audiences back in cinemas during the 2020 pandemic.

The opening shot is of an audience about to witness an orchestral performance. That right there might make the viewer nostalgic for simpler times when communal events were not forbidden and face masks were not required. It then jumps right into the action and we meet our protagonist played by John David Washington (Denzel’s son) in his first major movie since his breakout role in BlackkKlansman (2018). Right away the viewers will notice that Tenet has a distinct sound design. This movie features very loud gunshots reminiscent of the live rounds in Michael Mann’s crime thriller Heat (1995) which Nolan has professed his love for. But also the dialogue is muddled, so much so that certain scenes it is very tough to understand what the characters are saying. Clearly this was done on purpose but it would have been nice to have the option to put subtitles on.

The cinematography looks great as it always does in any film directed by Christopher Nolan and one cannot tell if the scenes on camera were done on location or in front of a green screen. Most likely both were used and the images are blended seamlessly. So is the action which smoothly combines both practical and CGI effects to the point that the viewer will never be able to tell the difference. The action and cinematography are the two main reasons to see Tenet on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, they are the only two reasons to go out of your way for this film.

The intense action set pieces are sandwiched between banal expository dialogue that was never as compelling as it should have been. John David Washington is joined by talented actors such as Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh and yet all of the scenes that do not involve gunplay or explosions feel oddly stilted and forced. It was as if Christopher Nolan forgot how to direct a simple conversation. Tenet feels like when George Lucas directed Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with special effects that are very impressive (for its time) but he forgot how to direct actors to give performances that will drive the story. One of the characters is a woman played by Elizabeth Debicki who keeps talking about protecting her son, yet we never see her son, nor do we care about the stakes involved regarding her or any of these characters that we do get to know onscreen. This makes Tenet a frustrating movie when it is not showering us with action and effects. One might find themselves checking their watches or cell phones in between the action because those scenes never amount to anything satisfying and they feel like they go on forever.

With a run time of 150 minutes Tenet definitely continued the trend of blockbusters going on way too long than they need to. At least thirty minutes could have been trimmed and it would have helped the pacing. But would the complicated explanations for the narrative have suffered? The plot for Tenet is so convoluted and overstuffed it did not make much sense to begin with. Subtitles, and a second viewing, would absolutely help and determine if any of the elaborate explanations about space and time make any cohesive sense.

Christopher Nolan is once again playing with time, and physics as he has in some of his previous films like Memento (2001), and Interstellar (2014). But Tenet is an exercise in making audiences ask the question, is this all really worth it? If the characters are not developed in a way to make viewers care about their fate then there are no high stakes involved putting them in these deadly situations where the special effects team gets to show off their prowess. Tenet is the type of blockbuster where I found myself wanting more of the logic defying action sequences and ignoring the scientific explanations about how they occurred. About halfway through the film I gave up on trying to figure out what was actually going on and how this world worked that Nolan had built and just wanted to see the next breathtaking stunt sequence.

The plot involves time and being able to reverse time and some very wealthy people that control it and could use this technology to create mass destruction. At least that is what I think it is about and because of that we are treated to a lot of scenes where the action plays backwards. The climax felt like the movie gave itself a get-out-of-jail-free card that it did not earn. Which might make the viewer feel like they wish they could go in reverse and walk back into the lobby and then into their car and then not buy the ticket for Tenet in the first place.

That last sentence may be a little too harsh. Tenet is not on the same level as a lot of the dumbest big budget spectacles. In fact it may have the opposite problem and be too smart for its own good. It just needed to be more grounded in reality and less scientific mumbo jumbo in between the big moments. The final shot seems to hit home that Tenet was about relationships and the importance of family, yet very little of the movie would point the audience in that direction. In the end, if one is willing to take the risk to see Tenet in the cinema it may be worth it to them especially since Tenet is undeniably the type of picture meant to be seen on the big screen. Sadly, if you opt to skip this movie, you may as well skip it altogether since it will not be nearly as impressive at home, despite the fact that it might make more sense with subtitles on.

Skip Tenet and check out Christopher Nolan’s masterwork Inception (2010) which deals with dreams and uses that as an excuse to alter the conventions of time and linear narrative. Plus, Inception works better as a film about the bond of love and strength of family much more than Tenet does.



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