Tenet is the latest film from director Christopher Nolan, which finally debuted at the tail end of the 2020 summer movie season; if one wants to say this summer has had a movie season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tenet was heralded as Nolan’s grand epic, this year’s most anticipated film, the one that would salvage the summer movie season. Well, unfortunately, the film falls short of such aspirations.
This does not mean that Tenet is a disaster or a poorly made film. No, actually it is an ambitious film with high-end production values and the acting is generally good. The latter is due to the strength of the film’s lead John David Washington who is simply known as the Protagonist. The fact that Nolan could not be bothered to give the main character a name indicates one fo the problem with Tenet. The film is technically well crafted, but it lacks an emotional soul. This has been a flaw with some of Christopher Nolan’s other films, but in this instance, the issue overtakes the film. It is difficult to care about what is going on in the film even though there are high stakes in its meandering plot.
Christopher Nolan’s new film is a spy thriller with an Inception-inspired sci-fi angle. The Protagonist is a CIA agent who is recruited to prevent a world war and is involved with nefarious arms dealers and a secret organization called Tenet. During his mission, the Protagonist learns of bullets and other objects that run backwards in time due to a process called “inversion,” which means that if he tries to fire a gun with inversion bullets, from his point of view the bullets are already fired and fly back into the barrel of the gun. He learns the bullets came from a Russian arms dealer called Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who is gathering intel from the future and wants to create a doomsday event using artifacts that are inverted in time. Along the way, the Protagonist travels throughout Europe and Asia and finds himself operating backwards in time; in many instances revisting scenes from earlier in the film from a new viewpoint.
If this sounds confusing, you are not alone. Nolan is so enamored with having scenes play backwards throughout the film and trying to be too smart for the film’s own good. The result is a film with a disjointed nature that only add to the convoluted nature of the film’s plot. You have to pay very special attention to the film and frankly, watching Tenet several times is necessary in order to fully grasp it. The problem here is that the film is not engaging enough to make you want to bother watching it all over again (the film is nearly two and a half hours). The visuals are impressive and up to par with what Nolan has delivered in the past, but the inversion scenes quickly feel gimmicky. By the time, we get to the film’s climax, the entire viewing experience is just underwhelming and disappointing despite the film’s technical wizardry.
What makes matters worse is that the sound mixing is shockingly poor and leaves much of the dialogue difficult to hear. Most attempts to explain the convoluted and complex plot or how inversion works are garbled and spoken very quickly or too low from characters, which makes following the polt a chore. Unlike Inception where the process of entering people’s dreams was not important, Tenet demands a sound explanation of how inversion works in order to understand what is going on, but Tenet fails in this aspect.
Who knows? Maybe a third or fourth viewing of Tenet may improve it, but a film has to engage you from the initial watch to make you want to revisit it again. Tenet only calls for it just to watch the well-crafted visuals of inverted fights and car chases. But doing that will be easier and more rewarding when watching it at home instead of theaters. At least from your device or TV you can skip over the plodding and convoluted first half of the film and get right into the off-kilter action scenes.