Directed by: Christopher Nolan || Produced by: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan || Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh
Music by: Ludwig Göransson || Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema || Edited by: Jennifer Lame || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 150 minutes
“The movie that was supposed to ‘save’ theatres and bring them back, and bring the hordes of people back was Tenet… and it flopped horribly (Budget = $200 million; Box Office Gross = $358 million). So, all these movies that were gonna come out in like November, December, [studio executives] were like, ‘Eh, never mind!’ So, Tenet was ironically the movie that killed theatres. And just to be clear, for all the people who keep saying, ‘When are you gonna review Tenet? When are you gonna review Tenet?’ (1) We’re not going to the fucking movie theatres, and (2) I didn’t care about Tenet either way! More Christopher Nolan stuff — I bet it’s just as good as other Christopher Nolan movies and I don’t give a shit.” — Jay Bauman
I’ve noticed a trend of general disdain for Christopher Nolan movies amongst particular sidestream, niche film critics like Red Letter Media and Every Frame a Painting. These particular online media personalities —- working filmmakers themselves who’ve accumulated fanbases of the more sardonic, irreverent, and cynical kind (i.e. people like me) — admit Nolan’s visual strengths as a director while lampooning his self-serious attitude and convoluted screenwriting tendencies. My guess is this backhanded compliment-summation of Nolan’s filmography amongst the more subversive, reactionary filmmaking community is a result of Nolan’s eclectic storytelling preferences, overwhelming mainstream acceptance, and most of all, his wildly inconsistent directorial execution. If you know or knew of any amateur cinephiles in high-school, chances are most of them loved Nolan’s work, and chances are you also know or knew of a smaller group of film nerds who argued the lion’s share of Nolan’s filmography are good-looking yet incoherent nonsense.
Given my affection for Nolan’s early works (e.g. Memento ) and his reinvention of Batman (i.e. Batman Begins , The Dark Knight ), as well as my impatience for much of his later work (e.g. Inception , The Dark Knight Rises ), I’ve somewhat “outgrown” my following of Nolan’s career as he continues to produce the same two movies over and over. In light of the near limitless creative freedom and tentpole budgets afforded him by major Hollywood studios, I’ve tired of his refusal to commit to explicit cinematic violence and his now cliched overwritten plot devices. He’s a talented yet sloppy filmmaker.
Enter Tenet, which functions as a spiritual sequel to Inception, one of Nolan’s most successful yet also satirized “mind-bending” blockbusters. Most people’s affection for the latter film are rooted in narrative features I find unimpressive, such as its characters’ ability to warp into alternative-reality, multi-layered “dream worlds”, which I see as little more than a watered down, confusing version of The Matrix (1999). The return of these sorts of complicated plot devices and overthought narrative premises in Tenet indicate the plot-driven, historical dramatization of Dunkirk (2017) was indeed an exception to Nolan’s filmmaking rule. Tenet involves another blank-slate protagonist (John David Washington) motivated by his relationship with an underwritten female lead (Elizabeth Debicki) trying to solve an elaborate terrorist conspiracy centered around another reality-altering plot device (a type of “inverted-entropy” or time-travel machine). Combine this narrative outline with a memorable, non-melodic soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson and a complete lack of blood squibs or gore, and longtime Nolan fans will feel a distinct sense of déjà vu. We’ve been here before, folks.
Remaining faithful to established formula is not a justifiable point of criticism unto itself, however. Execution is what matters. My initial frustrations with Nolan repeating his past excesses (e.g. long running-times, uninteresting side characters, bloodless PG-13 violence, etc.) were temporarily pushed aside for my desire for another sampling of the director’s impressive visuals and venerable acting-direction. That Tenet’s strengths and weaknesses are 100% characteristic of Nolan’s greater filmography should surprise nobody, and least of all, me. In fact, I would place Tenet alongside Inception as the two features most representative of Nolan’s style as a screenwriter and director. Those who love most everything the man has ever done will find enough to like here, while those who dislike Nolan’s ambitious yet often heavy-handed storytelling will walk away feeling their prejudices justified.
With regards to the film’s strengths, Tenet is a great-looking movie whose diverse action sequences take advantage of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s slick camera movements, Göransson’s pulse-pounding soundtrack, and Washington’s nuanced physical performance. Jennifer Lame replaces longtime collaborator Lee Smith as editor, streamlining both vehicular and foot-chases for maximum clarity and suspense. The film’s massive budget helps all the above, allowing for spectacular stunts with everything from commercial airliners to Humvees.
Tenet’s shortcomings are as unsurprising as its selling points, including a bloated, forgettable ensemble cast beyond Washington and costar Robert Pattinson, none more notable for their lackluster performances than the story’s weakest link, Debicki. Additional weaknesses endemic to Nolan’s auteur style include the film’s engorged running time (150 minutes), filler dialogue, bizarre sound-mixing, and obvious censorship of extreme violence. While I’ve grown used to the latter (there’s not a drop of blood in the entire film despite its plethora of weaponry and vehicular carnage), numerous unnecessary scenes in the film’s first act drag the movie’s pacing and feel truly excessive by the story’s bombastic final set-piece. The film’s overwhelming sound FX and soundtrack, which are mixed so loud they often obscure crucial exposition during action sequences, only add to this confusion.
In the end, Tenet’s “failure” to save theatrical movie-going in 2020 is an unfair critique given the current (November 2019 as of this writing) state of the industry. No single film, no matter how unique or well marketed, could’ve salvaged the international box office this year given the public theatre model’s inherent weaknesses even prior to COVID-19; and yet, beyond the circumstances of its release, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet fails to expand beyond the established limitations of its filmmaker: It’s a well made, good-looking action movie with a notable science-fiction twist that exacerbates, rather than minimizes, the long-winded storytelling sloppiness part and parcel to its auteur’s rigid personal formula.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With production values any genre filmmaker would envy, practical stunts that would make cartoon nonsense like Fast and the Furious (2001-) blush, and a clever time-travel premise only Christopher Nolan could describe, Tenet should be far better than the big-budget SyFy Original feature that it feels like. A bloated running-time, a pointless ensemble cast, and inexplicable sound mixing make this movie feel like a less obnoxious version of Inception or The Old Guard (2020) instead of the genre-hybrid mind-bender it’s trying to be.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Wait a minute, John David Washington’s protagonist doesn’t even have a name?