I wanted to like Tenet more, I really did.
To write about the plot of Tenet is going to require me to watch the film a second and third time to help wrap my head around what happened. I will watch it a second time soon enough, but I am writing this review fresh after my first screening of the movie.
Protagonist (John David Washington, yes that is the name of the character) is recruited into an ultra-secret organization that has a secret word (“Tenet”) and secret hand gesture. He is on a mission to save the world from a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of talkative a Russian villain, Sator (Kenneth Branagh). There’s some sci-fi stuff that happens which is the driving point of the film, but to write about that would be to ruin the film. I’ll write about that in the spoilers section.
John David Washington is great as Protagonist, imbuing him with a stoicism that is needed for what happens to and around him during the film. If ever we need a new Bond, Washington would make a fantastic Bond. Robert Pattinson plays Neil who is a bit of a sidekick to Protagonist – kinda – and he gets all the good lines. I liked Pattinson in the film and look forward to seeing him as Batman. Elizabeth Debicki was underutilized in the film. Like most Nolan films, Michael Caine got a cameo and he got a really great line also.
Anyone notice that Branagh is essentially playing the exact same character that he did in 2014’s film Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit? Insane, mentally unbalanced, hidden rage and always yelling Russian/Soviet villain who is dying of some disease and is hell bent on destroying the world. I’ll cut and paste what I wrote about Branagh in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit because his performance and character are the same: “As for his character, it was a bit bland and basic – But, Branagh elevates the character and the villain is quite creepy and good.” You can do better than this Branagh, but I understand that everyone still needs a paycheck.
I want to write about the audio in the film. The score by Ludwig Göransson is spot on and I really loved it. Much like his work on the score for The Mandalorian, it is filled with a sonic texture that is both distinct and uneasy – and matches the feel and tone of the film perfectly. The sound effects done throughout the film also are perfect. The big drawback of the film is the voice mix on the dialogue – it is really hard to hear what characters are saying. I might turn on subtitles when I watch this film again.
The visuals of the film are outstanding. I love that they were mostly practical, which makes them even more impressive – thinking of the airplane scene.
I am not sure what Nolan’s obsession with time is, but the gimmick is getting old. Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk and now Tenet all use time as part of the film experience – sometimes to the point where it’s unnecessary, looking at you Dunkirk. It’s time to move on Mr. Nolan (see what I did there?)
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography in the film is gorgeous and gives the clinical direction of Nolan’s something lively.
Tenet is a visually dazzling, overly complicated and self-indulgent film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. I will be very clear, after my first viewing, I am not impressed by this film at all. Having said that though, I said the same thing about Nolan’s film Interstellar, and after subsequent viewings of that film, I have grown to like it – I rate Interstellar as his best film. What Interstellar has and Tenet does not is an emotional hook. I can see that Debicki’s character could have been it, but she (and her son whom we don’t really get to meet) are so underdeveloped that I couldn’t relate to them or even care if they lived or died. Interstellar had that emotional connection between father and daughter that worked and worked so well.
Ultimately, as the credits rolled, I felt disappointed in Tenet for being overly complicated and too clever for its own good.
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The way that Tenet uses time is overly complicated and unimpressive. There have been many films that have handled time much more elegantly than Tenet. The one that comes to mind instantly is the Back to the Future series. Not only do those films have an internal logic to all the time travel, but they are written and edited in a fashion that uses time to its fullest. Back to the Future is brilliant in that on the most superficial level, it gives mass audiences something that is fun, funny, easy to follow and entertaining. But, the films also give those watching closely the joy of discovering things that are hidden. Tenet does none of this. It uses time in the most convoluted way, relying on exposition to explain how things are instead of showing – it is when exposition has to do the heavy lifting that I know that a film is a tad too elaborate for its own good.
The four set pieces in the film are visual feasts. The opening sequence in the opera house was well done and exciting. The car chase (both forward and backward) were visually fantastic. The airplane crash and subsequent fight scene were mind blowing. The last action sequence where they invade the Hyper-something-or-another (couldn’t hear the dialogue) was the disappointing one. It lacked a sense of excitement and while there were bits where time was used creatively, I expected more. I found that closing action sequence to be quite lacking.
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