Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 14, 2020)
By September 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused multiple potential blockbuster movies to change release dates. Eventually, Warner Bros. decided to make Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated Tenet the canary in the coalmine.
The bird didn’t survive. Given the circumstances, the movie’s $57 million in the US didn’t turn into a complete catastrophe, but given that studios and exhibitors alike hoped Tenet would become the carrot to lure audiences back to multiplexes en masse, it failed to achieve it goals.
Perhaps those aforementioned studios and exhibitors expected too much from Tenet. A two-and-a-half hour thriller with a complex plot and little star power beyond its director’s reputation, it becomes uncertain that Tenet would’ve found a huge audience even without the shutdowns connected to the pandemic.
A CIA operative credited solely as “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) participates in a siege on a Ukrainian opera house. This pretends to revolve around the recovery of stolen plutonium, but instead, it acts solely to test the Protagonist and determine his strength and abilities.
When he passes this measure, the Protagonist finds himself recruited into a mysterious organization known only as “Tenet”. As part of this group, the Protagonist finds himself with the assignment to focus on billionaire Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a figure who appears determined to start World War III.
One major complication occurs due to Sator’s methods, as he possesses the ability to literally invert time in a number of ways. The Protagonist needs to access the same skills and stop Sator’s crusade, a mission he attempts partly through a personal connection with Sator’s estranged wife Katherine Barton (Elizabeth Debicki).
At the start of the review, I referred to Tenet as a film with a complex plot. If you look at that synopsis and think “hey dummy, what’s so complex about that?” then I wouldn’t blame you.
In truth, Tenet comes with a pretty simple narrative. At its core, it follows the James Bond mold: bad guy wants to create massive havoc and secret agent tries to stop him.
However, Nolan being Nolan, he can’t just tell a straight “A to B” version of the story. Instead, he muddies the waters with all sorts of complications that make this apparently straightforward tale decidedly difficult to follow.
Many viewers leave their first run-through of Tenet confused, and I count among that population. While I didn’t feel completely at sea during my initial screening, I know I wound up more confused than I’d expected.
Unsurprisingly, this changed during my next viewing. Because I already knew the basics of the story, I could better separate the narrative wheat from the chaff and not become quite as distracted by Nolan’s attempts to add “complexity” to the experience.
On one hand, I admire Nolan’s unwillingness to create a film that sticks with all the usual conventions. He became arguably the hottest semi-young director out there today because he makes movies with ambition, so it becomes tough to get mad at him for his excesses.
However, Nolan sometimes seems eager to overcomplicate his movies just for the sake of “complexity”. There must exist a happy medium between the often perplexing story found in Tenet and a more “by the numbers” spy tale.
Nolan fans will find the closest analogy to 2010’s Inception, another spy movie with a twist. Indeed, one glimpse back at my review of Inception reveals some of the same criticisms I level here, mainly related to the way that Nolan takes an inherently simple story and makes it excessively complicated.
Perhaps it becomes no surprise that like Inception, I find Tenet to offer an interesting experience but not one that wholly clicks for me. At his best with flicks like the Dark Knight trilogy or Interstellar, Nolan created truly great films that I count among my favorites.
At his worst, Nolan remains interesting. Even his weakest studio efforts – which I view as 2002’s Insomnia and 2006’s The Prestige - still offer quality films that just don’t reach the greatness of his better movies.
Like Inception, I’d place Tenet above that “bottom tier” of Nolan, but it never threatens to make it to the upper echelon with Interstellar and the Batman flicks. Honestly, a lot of that relates back to the messiness of the narrative, as even after a few screenings, the story leaves matters so confused that it becomes tough to really invest in the story.
My advice? Try to avoid the temptation to figure out the science behind Tenet. It becomes inevitable that you’ll want to break down the “inversion” content, and that becomes a death trap because nothing here really seems to make sense.
As best you can, just accept that weird “backwards stuff” happens here and try to go with the flow. You probably won’t fully succeed, but the more you can ignore the desire to work out the details, the more likely you become to enjoy the story.
Of course, Tenet doesn’t offer the first “turn off your brain to be entertained” film in history, but it might be the first with such highfalutin aspirations. Usually viewers need to ignore idiotic slips in logic or just general filmmaker stupidity, whereas Tenet distracts because it tries too hard to come across as deep and complicated.
As a basic action flick, Tenet does well, though I admit Nolan threatens to fall into self-parody here. Often criticized for supposedly humorless films, Tenet takes itself more seriously than most of his flicks, and that can become a bit of a drag.
It doesn’t help that Nolan’s ear for dialogue can be made of tin. We find plenty of clunky lines here, and combined with the near-total lack of lightness, these elements occasionally turn off the viewer.
Still, Nolan knows his way around an action scene, and since we find plenty of those in Tenet, the movie manages to come to life on a semi-regular basis. From the literally explosive siege in the opera house to the major military battle in the finale, Tenet brings lots of firepower and visceral excitement to the table.
And that becomes enough to make Tenet an entertaining experience despite its flaws. Even less-than-peak Nolan still becomes better than average, so although Tenet doesn’t live up to the director’s track record, it nonetheless gives us a mostly good ride.