Updated: Apr 14, 2021
As much as I enjoyed it, Tenet in many ways was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of the year for me, but largely not due to the quality of the film itself. Director Christopher Nolan remains one of the most outspoken proponents of movie theaters and the traditional cinema experience, and this finally took a tangible effect when Tenet opened in US theaters on September 3rd, 2020 - right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis of whether or not this was a good decision could be its entirely own post, but the relevant context here is that for those unable or unwilling to visit a movie theater at the time, the only option to see this film was to wait over 3 more months for the home video release. For a film like this where one’s experience clearly benefits from the biggest screen and loudest sound system possible, it’s a shame that many of us have yet to have the opportunity to see it in a theater. But I digress, and a film deserves to be judged on the merits of it as a film alone, and to that end, Tenet delivers on its lofty expectations - to a degree.
Early on in Tenet, a character says to our Protagonist - “don’t try to understand it, feel it” - cheekily relaying Nolan’s message to the audience in parallel. Nolan’s fascination with time is far from a secret at this point, and this film naturally takes the concept of interweaving time with a narrative to the next level. At its core, Tenet aspires to be a mind-melting action thriller but imbues itself with a palindromic quality stemming from the idea of “time inversion”: a term used in the film to describe an object that carries the characteristic of moving backward in time. An “inverted” handgun, for example, would appear to inhale a fired bullet back into its chamber.
Throughout the film, this concept adds another element to the already impressive spectacle- car chases include vehicles driving forward as well as backward, soldiers on a battlefield appear in reverse to one another, and traditional hand-to-hand combat now feels more unpredictable and desperate. These scenes are all visually stunning and technically well-executed, using practical effects to great effect in selling their realism and grittiness. The cinematography is confident and focused, with a surprisingly large portion of the film being shot on IMAX camera along with the traditional 70mm film, resulting in an enthralling perspective throughout critical action sequences - although the aspect ratio switching frequently mid-scene proved somewhat distracting at points. As the film proceeds, the stakes get higher, and correspondingly the set pieces and choreography get more grand and ambitious, but never quite to the point of absurdity. It’s all immensely satisfying and entertaining to see unfold.
However, these exhilarating action sequences and set pieces are frequently punctuated by drawn-out scenes in which characters deliver long bouts of exposition to further progress the narrative and explain the film’s concepts. In the latter half of the film, as Tenet seems to be nearing its climactic destination, the pacing of the film suddenly grinds to a halt to allow the cast to explain the grandfather paradox to each other. Although I’m sure some moviegoers may have benefited from translating it in layman’s terms (a la the infamous wormhole scene in Event Horizon and Interstellar), adding it in this fashion and this late in the film almost seems to detract from the main characters’ intelligence. In a way it seems like an odd complaint since Tenet is by no means a simple popcorn flick that can easily be understood fully by someone at half attention; but suddenly jumping from the cryptic, nearly pretentious dialogue in the former half of the film and pivoting towards a grade school explanation makes the film feel a bit unfocused.
In a stylistic move presumably to shift the emphasis of the film further towards the concept rather than the characters, John David Washington plays an unnamed Protagonist who lies at the center of the film’s conflict. He performs more than serviceably in the role of an everyman thrust into a world of action and spectacle, although lacking the charisma to convincingly pull off some of the script’s tonally dissonant quips and one-liners. The supporting cast (primarily consisting of Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh) all hold their own in terms of acting chops, but the writing for some leaves a bit to be desired; those in particular who are central to the plot seem underdeveloped and fail to fully sell their investment in the conflict. Had the film focused more on the action/thriller/espionage aspects this may have been more forgivable, but the emphasis on a stone-faced and relatively bland Protagonist seems to clash wholeheartedly with the emotional decision making that ends up being crucial to the story’s progression.
Tenet is the first of Nolan’s films since The Prestige to not be scored by Hans Zimmer, with the incredibly talented Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Creed, The Mandalorian) taking up the reins instead. Göransson’s score does a fantastic job of underscoring the tension and pace of the film with a familiarly hypnotic, percussive rhythm that has now become a hallmark of Nolan’s work over the past decade. Although it may not reach the same blaring and aggressive heights as Zimmer’s scores for Inception or Interstellar, it suits the more grounded tone and variable tempo of Tenet very well. It’s a shame that the audio for the film is mixed in such a way as to elevate the score above all else - resulting in what should be an incredible auditory experience ultimately detracting from the audience’s understanding of the film itself, as much of the critical dialogue is easily missed unless viewing the film with subtitles.
That all being said, Tenet is a visual and auditory treat in every sense of the word. Despite its issues with its pacing and narrative, I still found myself on the edge of my seat throughout its 150-minute running time. It may not quite meet the bar set by Nolan’s prior works - Interstellar being one of my favorite films of all time - but it’s still absolutely worth watching in the biggest, loudest viewing environment you can find. Maybe even twice.
Written by my good friend, Amitoj Setia