A trailblazer of modern cinema, Christopher Nolan has mastered the art of event-cinema. After a far-too-long hiatus, his mind-bending palindromic thriller marked my gleeful return to the movies. But, as I constantly found myself in a state between ‘Wait, how did he do that?’ and ‘Wait, what?’, Tenet became a 150-minute-long reminder that yours truly might just be dumb.
Tenet’s biggest strength is Nolan himself and he knows it. Every frame is an excuse to flex his visual magic and as a visual experience alone, Tenet doesn’t disappoint. While not reaching the heights of the cinematic experience that was Dunkirk, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema still ensure your eyes are glued to the screen.
Blending a massive action film with a plot that definitely requires repeat viewings to understand, Tenet is easily Nolan’s most ambitious work to date. I don’t want to spoil anything but car chases have never been this exciting. His Nolan’s penchant for remarkable in-camera practical effects easily make for film’s most exciting bits and the massive budget has clearly been put to good use here.
While the film is a supreme showcase for Nolan’s strengths as a director of grand action and spectacle, his weaknesses couldn’t be more apparent. His writing continues to get weaker and weaker as his budget grows. John David Washington’s commitment to the ridiculously difficult action choreography is a joy to watch. But, while he and Robert Pattinson bring their A-game, their efforts go in vain as they’re saddled with shallow characters in an emotionally distant screenplay. Any actor could sleepwalk through either one of their characters and the script hardly does justice to either of their talents. Washington, especially, serves as nothing more than an enhanced version of Ellen Page’s Ariadne from Inception, a vehicle for heavy doses of exposition.
Nolan’s exposition-heavy dialogue is clunkier than ever. Characters seem to just know information, out of the blue, and more frustratingly, on several occasions, they withhold information only to reveal it after a large action sequence. Their motivations for withholding the information is never clear. It’s obvious that Nolan wants to challenge his audience with a mind-bending plot, but he simultaneously assumes that the bar is low – some of the film’s moments only exist to draw attention to his and the plot’s ‘intelligence’. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat is easily one of the better written characters in Tenet, but her relationship with Washington never seems convincing and is easily forgettable. Despite a rushed epilogue, the runtime could have been further trimmed for a much tighter experience.
Tenet is nowhere near Nolan’s best, but even Nolan at his worst is a far cry from bad. I can’t claim I understood a lot of the plot, but I was entertained
The majority of the dialogue is extremely weak and elaborate monologues can’t make up for the overall weariness. And that’s just the dialogue I could hear. In a curious strategy since The Dark Knight, Nolan has been cranking up the volume of his films’ score and overall sound design, drowning out a lot of dialogue. The score was almost deafening here and while it may have spared audiences more bad dialogue, it also drowned out crucial conversations which were mumbled too quickly to understand.
Ludwig Göransson does a great job scoring the film, playing around with Tenet’s palindromic themes a lot. However, the score sounds far too Zimmer-esque. While that isn’t inherently a bad thing, Zimmer’s loud brass and signature ‘braaaaam’s are becoming action movie staples, which is exhausting. The film seems to have muzzled Göransson’s unique voice, limiting it to mimicry. While there isn’t a better composer to mimic, it does feel like a lost opportunity.
Tenet is nowhere near Nolan’s best, but even Nolan at his worst is a far cry from bad. I can’t claim I understood a lot of the plot, but I was entertained. As an action movie, Tenet is easily one of the best, with Nolan’s ability as an action director growing exponentially since Batman Begins. Unfortunately, the screenwriting buckles under the weight of the massive production and Nolan’s indulgence is limited to the spectacle. The spectacle though, is jaw-dropping and Tenet is nothing if not entertaining and a worthy return to the movies (only a head-scratching one at that).
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.