Tenet (MOVIE REVIEW)
Runtime: 150 Minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Going to see a new Christopher Nolan movie is very much like opening a box of assorted chocolates. On one hand, you never know what you’re going to get with some of it, but at the same time, you know you will be bathing in the comfort of some similar ideas linked to the themes of time. TENET, his newest film, in a lot of ways feels like a huge amalgamation of the filmmaker’s favourite ideas with the concept of time, by taking this aspect and translating it into a massive film about industrial espionage. However, after two decades of experimenting with many outlandish ideas with convoluted approaches to his screenplays, only now does it feel as though Nolan may have unfortunately bit off more than he could chew. While TENET isn’t without its merits primarily thanks to Nolan’s signature filmmaking prowess alongside many terrific action sequences, the messy structure of the story and the almost inaccessible approach to its science fiction elements make it one of the weaker films in his entire catalogue.
TENET follows a CIA agent called The Protagonist (I’m not joking, that’s his official name in the cast list) who is recruited as a secret agent for a secret society with only a word to help him on his mission, “TENET”. He slowly uncovers a giant mystery regarding a plot to start World War 3 where technology was developed in the future to reverse engineer an object’s velocity to go backwards in time. With this technology being in the hands of tyrants who want to use it to change the timeline itself to their whim, it’s up to The Protagonist and a few other select individuals to save the world and use this newfound inversion technique to their own advantage.
The synopsis just given was me trying my absolute hardest to give you a basic idea of what the film is about, and there is where TENET’s biggest problem lies: the fact that its WAY TOO convoluted for its own good. On the whole, the film has a very fun and unique concept. The idea of objects and living beings being able to move backwards through time is undeniably cool and placing this into a film that is mainly about spy espionage, it should realistically make for an awesome film. Time themes are no stranger to Christopher Nolan films and even in projects like Inception where there might be a bit of a hard grasp for audiences to catch onto with how he presents his stories, as long as you get a rough idea of what his gimmicks are, you should realistically be able to follow along just fine. But the big problem with TENET is that it’s idea in regards to the concept of time exceeds its own grasp to the point where it becomes a bit of a mess structurally. It’s a painfully difficult film to follow along with and though there is admirability in how Christopher Nolan decided to approach this story to the point where multiple re-watches will be much appreciated to catch hidden details, there is little reason to even return if you aren’t able to even grasp the story to some extent.
None of this really helps the film either when some of the film’s spectacle also gets in the way of being able to follow along with the story. Like most Nolan films, it’s undeniable that this is an absolute must watch in the cinema (at your own discretion given the pandemic). The cinematography is big and ambitious, the stunt work is beyond incredible, and the surprisingly minimal use of visual effects in favour of practical filmmaking is something that will always amaze me about this man’s filmography. The way he and cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, were able to use only basic in-camera reversing and trickery to bring to life the amount of shots using inverted time is a remarkable feat and at this scale and scope, it’s nothing short of cinema magic. There are little to no problems with TENET on a technical level, however most of the issues with its intrusion to the story lie in the obnoxious sound mixing. The film gets extremely loud at times, especially on an IMAX sound mix. So much so to the point where it gets in the way of being able to comfortably hear dialogue which is crucial to being able to follow along with this story. It’s a trend that’s been going on with Christopher Nolan as early as The Dark Knight Rises and no matter what creative intentions he might have towards these claims, it doesn’t stop it from being counterintuitive to being able to appreciate the story to a farther level.
And it really is a shame because this isn’t a bad film at all. Even if you only just have a bare grasp on what TENET has to offer with it plot, you will still more of less be mesmerised by the cinematic spectacle of it all even if its concepts get in the way of its characterisation. Much of the cast like John David Washington and Robert Pattinson work extremely well together and their chemistry ignites on the screen. The same also applies with Kenneth Branagh who is clearly having great fun as the overtly stereotypical Russian villain of this picture. They all do their best with the material they are given, which is a plus when it’s kind of obvious that the characters sort of take a back seat to the action and the concepts on display. When our film’s main character literally doesn’t have a name and is simply billed as “The Protagonist”, it is fairly clear on that front how little the characters matter on this level. It’s definitely at a hindrance to the writing and it makes John David Washington feel somewhat stale in the film, even though he is so clearly doing his best despite the weak characterisation. Elizabeth Debicki’s character is the only member of the cast I truly cared about, mainly because she feels like the only one with a defined personality and a backstory you can get behind. She has a layer of sympathy that is needed for this story to stay elevated and it only makes her husband, Kenneth Branagh, even more wretched and slimy. It’s small moments like that that help make TENET all the more engaging because if a film cares more for the style than the substance, then there is only so far you can go.
TENET is a bit of a disappointment on the whole coming from Christopher Nolan. Even though it is arguably a good film as a whole with amazing production values, a creative concept, a solidly enjoyable cast and such a mind blowing sense of filmmaking prowess, there is only so far you can go with this when the story exceeds the grasp of even its own ideas. The film’s approach to time is so utterly exhausting compared to his other works, and when its hard to follow along with its story, it only makes it more difficult to connect to Nolan’s creative intentions on any deeper level. It is worth seeing though, mainly because it is still so amazing how Nolan can still make big and ambitious original projects like this is a franchise-ridden studio space, but if you are a longtime fan, try to keep your expectations realistic. TENET is more of an overt conceptual piece that favours the style over any real development towards its characters. It may work well for those who want to escape into the amazing world of the cinema again after the COVID-19 lockdown, but for those who want an easier story to latch onto, you might want to look elsewhere. But then again, this is coming from a man who made a film about dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams within--
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (OKAY)
A strong cast
Groundbreaking practical and visual effects
Terrific cinematography and IMAX presentation
A heavily convoluted plot
Obnoxiously loud sound mix