Tenet

Tenet ★★

Let me preface this by saying I genuinely like Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. He's made some incredible, iconic films and has a dedication to practical effects that I have to admire. Moreover, Inception is one of my favorite films of all time. But, Tenet feels very much like the anti Inception. Or if that isn't quite appropriate, it feels like if you take all of the elements of Inception and somehow managed to make them incredibly underwhelming. I like Inception because it manages to expertly center a real sense of humanity and philosophy into a film with complex visual storytelling, large scale action scenes, big name stars, and the kind of high stress editing that has become so strongly associated with Nolan.

Tenet, has all of those things, but uh. Well, worse. The references to fate and humanity and love and hate and whatever else feel so forced and shallow that it's genuinely frustrating to watch unfold. The performances are good across the board, so the actors aren't responsible. The movie feels like what happens when Christopher Nolan doesn't have anyone to call him out on his bullshit. There are these really cringe inducing, bald faced discussions of the grandfather paradox and duality and time manipulation that comes off as incredibly patronizing and forced (whereas Inception did a good job of establishing Elliot Page's character as a good audience proxy). Nolan has been criticized for throwing oodles of technical exposition at the audience at the expense of naturalistic writing. I haven't always agreed with that criticism, but it absolutely holds true with Tenet.

The action scenes, when you can actually follow them (which I'll get back to) are pretty tame and don't really offer spectacle any better than what we've seen from Nolan before. As for the scenes where he really bends time over his knee, there is the feeling that what you are watching is clever and cool, but that feeling was fleeting. The whole conceit of using time manipulation to explain specific visuals and plot points found in the linear flow portions of the film isn't as impressive as much as it is expected of this kind of movie.

Maybe it's not fair to deny credit to these moments, but I don't care. Nolan can and has done better. The entire time you are watching, you are already thinking forward as to what role a shot or a character or a lone is going to play in Nolan's puzzle box approach to filmmaking. This far into his career, most of the appeal of this method of visual storytelling had worn off.

The final action sequence is absolutely unacceptable. The aesthetics, cinematography, and designated "wow" moments were all incredibly underwhelming, save for the shots of the building essentially being rebuilt by an RPG (that was genuinely pretty cool). But, the direction here is so convoluted that is defuses any kind of tension or emotional investment that might have existed. I made a very sincere attempt to follow the action as we essentially watched it out play simultaneously backwards and forwards. And despite that effort (or perhaps because of it) I couldn't muster any emotional investment of feelings of tension while watching. Some of this is attributed to the fact that I expected a happy ending. Some of it is because the actual moment to moment editing when combined with the action choreography is visually incomprehensible.

Let's see. What else. Well, the use of exotic locales for nothing more than pretty looking window dressing is pretty played out. The general aesthetic of the film lacks the sense of individual character that has been present in basically ever other Nolan film I can think of. And I think the film's biggest sin is feeling like it's trying to be heady and intelligent and clever, all while completely lacking any kind of real personal philosophy or meaning. Whether you like Nolan's other works, you can usually feel that there is this beating heart to them. When you cut through all the action pieces and famous actors and time/space bending tomfoolery, there is always an emotional center to connect to. Love, fear, determination, sadness, loss, etc. I, just, don't feel like that was really here in Tenet. There are attempts to provide a center, but the efforts fall short.

I know I've spent a lot of time shitting on the movie. I think it's only fair I end with some positives. The performances are good across the board. Robert Pattinson and John David Washington make a charming, it occasionally dull duo. Elizabeth Debicki is great and provides the closest thing to a real emotional center to the movie (the fact she doesn't is more a fault of the script than of her acting). Kenneth Branagh is wonderful as always. The times when the setup and payoff via time manipulation work are genuinely fun. The hand to hand combat scenes are the best choreographed of Nolan's career. And the music: good god the music is excellent. Ludwig Göransson did an amazing job here. The music is easily the best part of the movie.

Well. This was my first watch of 2021. Not a great start admittedly, but, if nothing else, it makes me appreciate Nolan's past work more. Now, if Christopher Nolan can have a Guillermo del Toro style return to basics film a la The Shape of Water, I think we could have something special. But if he continues in this direction, then these kinds of reviews are gonna become more and more common and necessary.

Hamza liked this review