Tenet (2020)

If ever there were a movie where the accusation of being “pretentious” was accurate, that movie might just be Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet. The film, whose plot is so top-secret that I might go to Film Jail for simply mentioning the most minute details, thinks that it’s more clever than it is and goes out of its way to rub that in our faces. Meanwhile, we’re three steps ahead of it waiting for it to get to the point and, when it never does, we leave feeling disappointed, even if the experience on the whole was a positive one.

Tenet stars John David Washington as “The Protagonist,” an otherwise nameless character who is a super spy and super good guy, except when he’s not. He almost dies in the film’s opening scene, but awakens only to learn that he’s now off-the-grid and needs to stop a plot that very well could destroy not just America, not just the present, but the past and the future of the entire universe. Yes, it involves time travel, although probably not how you’d expect. Most of its time elements involve an inverse of time and action. Instead of throwing the ball, it lifts from the ground into your hand. Instead of firing a gun, the bullet retreats from the wall and through its target and back into your chamber.

If you’re confused, don’t worry: Tenet will spend a large portion of its running time explaining its time elements to you. There’s probably too much exposition all things considered, as it continues to explain things even once we’ve grasped the general idea. Maybe this is Christopher Nolan trying to make sure that the “too confusing” criticism of Inception isn’t levied here. Inception, after all, wasn’t that confusing. Neither is Tenet.

But what Inception did was use its high-concept to achieve a goal. Tenet misses that mark. It’s too busy shoving its time elements in our faces and explaining how they work that it fails to use them in any meaningful way. It throws a handful of “twists” and “surprises” our way, but if you hadn’t figured them out by the point they happen I have to believe you aren’t paying attention or this is your first movie. And Tenet is more concerned with those revelations that it forgot to craft a meaningful plot around them. There’s little payoff to it all—both from a narrative and emotional perspective—and because we’re usually ahead of the movie by the time they happen, they fail in the moment, too.

This has been a negative review, primarily, thus far, which is strange. I mostly enjoyed Tenet in the moment. It’s a visual delight, the actors—Washington in particular—are great, and there are a couple of solid action scenes scattered throughout. It’s never boring, which I think can be said of most, if not all, of Nolan’s films. But unlike an Inception or a Memento, Tenet lacks staying power and becomes more frustrating the more one thinks about it.

While I was mostly down on Tenet, I do think it’s a movie that’s worth watching. It’s filled with a lot of exposition and a lack of emotional and narrative payoff, but it’s an enjoyable in-the-moment experience and it has a very neat concept that gets a lot of play. Its actors are great, there’s solid action, and there are some minute-to-minute thrills. While it likely won’t hold up to more thought and closer inspection, its interesting premise makes it stand out from the blockbuster crowd.

Conclusion: Tenet has some thrills and is enjoyable in the moment, but its lack of payoff means it struggles to have a positive lasting impression.

Recommendation: Tenet‘s premise, action, and acting make it worth seeing. Just temper expectations.

  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10

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