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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Movie Review: Tenet

Tenet is the 11th film that Christopher Nolan has directed. It stars John David Washington as The Protagonist, an American operative given a mission to stop the end of the world. Scientists discover that some objects are moving backwards in time through a process called inversion and it is The Protagonist's job to determine what is causing inversion and needs to stop it. Basically, Tenet is Nolan's version of a Bond film. The Protagonist gets help from a sidekick named Neil (Robert Pattinson) and they jet set all over the world, from India to Estonia to hanging out off of the coast of Vietnam, to take down a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh)- who is using a McGuffin to destroy the world- with help of the oligarch's beautiful wife (Elizabeth Debicki). 

I could go into the plot further, but the story of what happens in this movie is so damn confusing, that it's basically better to visit the r/Tenet Reddit thread to figure out what happens. The first third of this film is all confusing exposition dumps of people sitting down and talking to each other and the rest of the film sees characters going forward and backwards through time yet partaking in the same events. The whole film is needlessly elaborate and makes for a frustrating moviegoing experience.

I normally love Christopher Nolan films and don't generally mind his long-winded attempts to explain the rules of the film. The first third of Inception is also basically full of exposition dumps, but Nolan found a way to entertain the audience while clearly explaining the rules. He fucking flips an entire city on itself! I also don't mind if the film is confusing and messes with the concept of time, when again, Nolan clearly communicates that in the movie. Tenet follows a lot of the same rules of Memento. But whereas Memento firmly establishes how to watch the film and what it is (the present day scenes are going in reverse chronological order intercut with the main character talking on the phone about Sammy Jenkins), Tenet is a narrative mess. Everything does make sense and loop together as Reddit has confirmed, but the film itself doesn't convey that well. I don't mind a Nolan film that doesn't explain itself fully upon a first viewing and requires multiple rewatches, but it needs to be entertaining and make somewhat sense the first time around. Tenet does not. 

At this point in his career, Christopher Nolan is ripping off himself. That worked to his advantage with his previous film Dunkirk. That film had great practical effects and set pieces, it messes with time in order to enhance the narrative flow, and the characters are fairly emotionless (see Interstellar where Nolan does not know what real emotions are). While Dunkirk is Nolan at his Most Nolan in the best possible way, Tenet is Nolan at his Most Nolan in the worst possible way. The time bending element is so needlessly elaborate and confusing the rules of which take way too long to establish that it bogs down the entire film. The set pieces are rendered moot because you don't care for the stakes because you don't understand them. Tenet also straight up rips off elements from Nolan's previous films like Memento (the narrative structure of simultaneously going forwards and backwards through time is the same), Inception (exposition dumps about a confusing new world), and The Dark Knight (there's a car chase scenes involving trucks that mirrors the Joker's attack on Harvey Dent on Lower Wacker) which I personally found distracting and annoying. Whereas Dunkirk lifted general elements of what makes Nolan Nolan, Tenet feels like an AI bot that pieced together a script having only seen Nolan's previous works.

There's a scene in Rian Johnson's 2012 classic Looper, a film about time traveling hitmen, where Bruce Willis's character says to his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." The movie is outright telling the audience, "Don't worry about it. Yes, time travel is confusing, but we set up our rules, now don't think about it too hard any more and just enjoy the rest of the movie". Tenet tries to do the same thing. When the scientist is first talking about inversion to The Protagonist, she tells him, "Don't try to understand it. Feel it.". The problem is that Christopher Nolan doesn't take his own advice, and he spends the next two and half hours trying to explain to the audience the rules of inversion and going forward and backward in time. If all Tenet was was Nolan giving the audience excellent action sequences like crashing a plane into a building or flipping a car during a chase sequence and saying "don't worry about this inversion thing and going backwards through time nonsense" then at least I could have enjoyed that. But he pigeon-holes so many rules and exposition throughout the entire movie so Reddit nerds can proclaim "see how this all lines up and makes sense!" that even the set pieces are hard to enjoy.

The worst part about Tenet is that I am worried about Christopher Nolan's career going forward. Three of his last four films (The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and now Tenet) are Nolan's three worst films and he's now at the point of his career where it feels like he's run out of ideas - that's why he has to lift from himself. Christopher Nolan is one of my personal all-time favorite directors. Films like The Dark Knight, Memento, and Inception mean a lot to me. I don't want to live in a world where  I can't get films like that anymore. It certainly appears that there are at least a large minority of Nolan fanboys like myself that hated Tenet, so I just hope Nolan can learn from his mistakes as he goes forward and doesn't look backwards.

Written and Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, & Elizabeth Debicki