by Nick L’Barrow
It’s finally here. The film that has been deemed the cinematic experience that will “re-open cinemas” all around the world. The film that has been on movie-lovers minds for months and months, in eager anticipation of its arrival. The film playing the classic “will it release/won’t in release” game with all of our hearts. From visionary director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy) comes the new sci-fi/action blockbuster, Tenet.
Starring John David Washington (BlackKklansman), Tenet follows his character, simply credited as The Protagonist, as he is introduced to a world of international espionage when assigned a mission that will determine the fate of the entire world. However, as events leading to this potential Armageddon begin to unfold around him, The Protagonist is required to go outside the realms of time as we know it in order to succeed. Joined by an incredibly renowned supporting cast including Robert Patterson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Tenet has set itself up to be the blockbuster-movie event of the year.
If there is one thing writer/director Nolan knows, it’s creating spectacle on an unbelievably epic scale. Each one of his films seemingly become larger in scale than the last. There is no denying that Nolan is a master in creating blockbuster cinema experiences, filled with tension and action extravaganza. Tenet is absolutely no exception in this regard. With his largest film budget to date, coming in a $205 million USD, Nolan uses every last cent of that to create a visual feast with insane action set pieces throughout this film. Right from the opening scene, the movie throws the audience into an exciting action-filled scene, putting the pedal to the floor pacing wise.
Each action set-piece in the film is a remarkable feat. Thrilling shoot outs, brutal hand-to-hand combat, tense car chases, explosions, battles and insane stunts – all shot practically to enhance the awe factor of what is being pulled off. There are genuine jaw dropping moments of action and stunt work, which is a huge testament to Nolan’s directing capabilities, but even more so to the actors and stunt teams for pulling them off. Washington and Patterson also really hold their own in every fight scene or shoot-out they encounter. Tenet is not shy with using a good chunk of the run time for these huge set pieces. Most of the major action scenes go for 10-15 minutes at a time, with the climatic battle taking up a large portion of the last 30 minutes. Whenever action is on screen, the movie is break-neck paced and exciting as hell.
The cinematography from previous Nolan collaborator, Hoyte Van Hoytema is astounding. Even though this screening wasn’t in IMAX format, there was no denying how amazing this movie would look on an IMAX screen. Each shot is beautiful too look at and the use of lighting and colour grading really adds a fantastical element to Tenet’s sci-fi flare. Although, there is much to be desired with the sound mixing of this film. This has been a gripe that movie-goers have had with Nolan before (specifically Interstellar) where dialogue is muffled and muted by loud background sounds. In the early scenes of Tenet it seems that important dialogue goes unheard because of how the sounds have been mixed, which was a distracting element of the experience.
But what about when Tenet slows its pace to tell the story? Well, this isn’t where Nolan’s strengths come to play. It’s probably no surprise to anyone after films like Inception and Interstellar that Nolan is a fan of convoluted premises that require a fair bit of attention from the audience to follow along with. Tenet is quite messy in this regard. Nolan doesn’t take the time to explain how the fundamental rules of this universe work. Most of the time, a plot element is explained in one scene (sometimes even one line of dialogue) and then the film quickly rushes to either the next element or action scene. There isn’t enough time to digest the complexity of what is happening in the moment.
In fairness, it becomes easier to understand and grasp the concept as the movie goes on, but more often than not, it’s more head scratching in deep thought rather than enjoying the movie as it’s happening. Tenet’s “science” (for lack of a better word) feels more complicated than Inception or Interstellar, which does add more excitement and possibility, but ultimately takes away from the movie’s experience.
Along with this, no character has an arc to grab on to emotionally. The characters come across very surface level with their intentions and emotions. Even when Tenet goes for its emotional ending, it feels a little empty and more focused on keeping a (at this point expected) Nolan-esque ambiguity for the characters. This isn’t to take away from the performances, because each actor is quite great in their respective roles.
It’s time to get personal. I’m breaking the fourth wall on this review. Tenet for me was disappointing. I went in with high expectations and I was on board with the hype train. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, because it’s not a bad movie at all. I loved every action scene, I loved Ludwig Goransson’s score, I loved the cinematography, visuals and I really enjoyed the performances. But this story was very poorly structured by Nolan.
Like I said earlier, Nolan loves spectacle on film, and he delivers that in droves. However, when he is given the free reign to do what he wants story wise with no one to pull him in on his ideas, it can get a little too much. And I think subconsciously he knows that. It feels like Nolan doubles down on super exciting moments because the story is shallow and characters are uninteresting. The movie isn’t smarter than the audience, but it tries to be by being too convoluted for its own good. I walked out of the screening and I felt exhausted after watching it. I didn’t enjoy the experience. I spoke with some of my fellow reviewer friends and we all felt similar feelings: it’s not a bad movie, it’s just not that good. And after taking a day to think about it before writing this review, I understand why.
Tenet is a visually stunning, action packed, blockbuster thrill-ride. And that’s all it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
Review by Nick L’Barrow