Nolan Went Too Far: A Review Of Tenet (Spoiler Free)

Hello Interwebs! “And now for something completely different” (to quote Monty Python): a movie review! You might question why I’d bother doing such a thing seeing as A) many theatres around the world are still closed and B) I once made a disastrous attempt at a review series before. Well, I can clear up that first point momentarily, but as to the second: I figured a text-based review would play more to my strengths than those old videos could. Read on for my thoughts about Tenet (non-spoiler)!

Obligatory PSA:
​So, to clear up my first point in the intro: I’m lucky enough to live in a region where most theatres have re-opened. Most medical professionals still frown on theatre attendance, however, ’cause long periods of time in an enclosed space with recirculated air might be a decent way to catch Covid-19. That said, I live in a small town, and there were literally 3 other people in the theatre with me (and one of them was my mother)… It’s a calculated risk that I put myself through because I’m stubborn and super passionate about film. I can’t tell you what to do, but I’d suggest you listen to medical professionals and stay away from theatres if you can. Go to a drive-in instead. They’re really cool!

On that note, I’m declaring a minor (personal) celebration over Tenet. It’s the first new movie to hit theatres in months and it happens to be made by my favourite modern director! Woohoo! Anway– on to the review:

John David Washington on the poster for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

So, the other day I was seated in the theatre, popcorn in hand, anticipating a new cinematic experience. The lights dimmed, the opening credits started and then NOISE!!!!!! Tenet starts off super loud– like ridiculously loud. I’m not exaggerating when I say Tenet is probably the loudest film I’ve ever seen in my life. Try getting sound like that on a home-theatre setup (I’ll bet Nolan had a similar thought). The experience was certainly jarring and definitely unnerving. While borderline painful for my ears, the loudness provided immersion in the world and immediately put me on edge more than most action films. The effect wore off in my mind relatively quickly, but it still managed to get a reaction from me.

However, the sound was also a hindrance to my enjoyment of the story. There were a huge number of dialogue scenes nearly drowned out by the music and sound-effects. I have no idea why the movie was made this way. The plot was hard enough to follow without having to strain your hearing for key exposition. But, once again, maybe that was the point. Nolan likes to play with his audience, so this could be some annoying joke. By making the audience fight to understand what’s happening, Nolan forces us to pay attention and demands we work our brains to unlock the puzzle. In any case, this will probably somehow still win Best Sound-mixing at the Oscars… Not like there’s a lot of competition this year. 

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet

Alright, now I want to really get into it (but not really, cause I said no spoilers). I’ve already hit this point but I’m gonna take it further: the plot is super hard to understand. To be honest, I was barely following Tenet for the first hour. And I was hanging on every word. I went in to this thing expecting it to be confusing, followed along as closely as I could, and still barely understood what I’d watched by the time it was over. Not to say it didn’t make any sense, because that’s not true; but the narrative sort of drops you in right away without any context and doesn’t start providing any till about halfway through the film. Things started clicking together from that point on though. I’m just saying, you have to be super patient with this movie and pay attention to absolutely everything if you don’t want to be confused. Just know that, even if you do all that, you’ll probably still end up confused. I think Tenet requires at least two viewings to understand, but I question how many people will enjoy their first experience enough to try again.

That leads me to the main problem with this film: the challenge of piecing together the complex plot is one of few reasons to care about the movie. I’m the kind of person that requires compelling characters to drive a story. If I care about the people in the movie, I tend to care what happens to them and their world. But I didn’t care about any of the characters in Tenet.

The main character is literally just called “the Protagonist”. He doesn’t even have a name! John David Washington played him charismatic enough, in a cold James Bond sort of way, but The Protagonist does not have many compelling character traits. Kenneth Branagh was fun to watch; Elizabeth Debicki was serviceable but not used very well. I think Robert Pattinson’s character was the only one that felt like a decently fleshed-out and compelling human being. I feel like Nolan was a lot more interested in building the convoluted plot than rounding out his characters. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing but the film loses a lot of heart for that choice.  

Some classy guys in a classy place (telling you where might count as spoilers)

Because I didn’t care about most of the characters and the plot was so hard to follow, Tenet is mostly about the spectacle of stuff happening on the screen. In that regard, the movie is mostly successful. Once again, I find it hard to care about dangerous situations when I don’t care about the characters, but I can still marvel at the technical mastery of Nolan’s film-making. The man knows how to craft an action sequence! I respect his commitment to practically making as much of the set-pieces as possible. Genuine stuntwork/ destruction goes a long way to creating a grounded world. CGI can produce magnificent sequences, but there’s often this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that what’s happening on screen is fake. Not so with this film! Everything from the hand-to-hand combat to the big action scenes felt like it was actually happening. And even the strange action element unique to Tenet is utilized well for the most part. I have little idea how Nolan pulled off that concept. Sorry I’m being vague. No spoilers…

really want to give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here. As I said up top, he’s my favourite modern director. I’m unabashedly a fanboy of his work. However, if Tenet wasn’t a Christopher Nolan film, I don’t think I would have liked it. I’d probably say straight up that it’s an incoherent and unemotional film that I wasn’t invested in. That much is true. However, because it is a Nolan movie, I genuinely believe Tenet is an intriguing project. For better or worse, even the most frustrating of choices were likely intentional. This is cinematic art. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently good, but I don’t think it deserves to be examined solely as Hollywood entertainment. 

Christopher Nolan and John David Washington

Tenet is a puzzle (which I’ve begun to crack with some further thought and a bit of online help), and the big picture of that puzzle is interesting. But it’s one of those 1000-piece puzzles. You know the kind? Your enjoyment of this movie depends on whether you’re the type of person who likes putting those things together or if the very thought gets you anxious.

No matter my criticisms, I have a great deal of respect for this film. How often is it that something so unique, imaginative, and completely unrelated to any intellectual property gets green-lit with this big a budget? In 2020 that’s astounding! Whether or not the film is good is besides the point. I feel I have to support this kind of filmmaking and the people who develop movies like this. In many ways Tenet missed the mark, but I’m so happy it even took a shot.

I don’t have an established rating system yet so I’m just gonna make it up as I go…

Tenet is worth a watch (but maybe see it at a drive-in or wait a few months).

Be sure to give this article a like on Facebook and share if you enjoyed. Also, perhaps you’d like to leave a comment. What’s your favourite Nolan movie? Do you have any ideas for future articles? Let me know!

P.S. This review series will be sporadic and rarely end up being the main Sunday article. I’ll just write one up whenever I see something new.

Till next time.

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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