Tenet (2020): Film Review
Christopher Nolan is back. I wish I wasn't this disappointed.
Hailed as the film to "save theatergoing", there was already a huge weight on Christopher Nolan's long-awaited Tenet in the immediate months leading up to its original release date of July 17th. On top of being one of the most anticipated films of 2020, if not the most anticipated, the COVID-19 pandemic had shuttered cinemas all around the world. Scheduled pretty early on to be the first major release once theatres reopen (albeit, too early), the hype kept gaining around the 150 minute product. There were expectations because of Nolan, because of the film's big budget and original concept, and because of how the film-going landscape has switched so drastically from the beginning of 2020 to where we are now. Pretty early on in the film, it becomes quite obvious that even without these newly added burdens, there isn't really too many signs of a fantastic movie here. At all.
To put it in the mildest of terms (and spoiler free), Tenet is an espionage thriller centered around "The Protagonist" (John David Washington), who fights to save the world from World War III, poised by a character early on in the film to be "worse than a nuclear holocaust". Of course, since Christopher Nolan is behind the script, there's twists and turns practically everywhere, with an emphasis on dimensions and time. On paper, it sounds promising – while difficult to pull of, when a spy thriller is done right, it can be a really entertaining and memorable experience. The issue: Tenet might be entertaining (when it wants to be), but it plays as anything but memorable.
Here, it's all style over substance. All of the characters are always dressed up in the nicest of suits, the sound is always booming, and the visuals and backdrops are always just aesthetically pleasing enough to keep your attention. But, an overabundance of style is not an excuse for a lack of cohesion or a compelling enough plot. The film's first half, mostly focused on setting things up, is unbelievably unengaging, with no character development or pacing present. With a few action-packed scenes here and there and a whole lot of empty calories in between, it becomes difficult to build a connection to what is happening on-screen just because of how disconnecting everything feels. This disconnect is carried over to the second half as well, where issues posed the first half are answered to some extent. Without understanding why anything is happening, it becomes difficult to care about what is happening.
On some level, though, it's quite obvious that Nolan knows this. The director has always been known to twist with viewer's perceptions in new and exciting ways, one of the many reasons he is so acclaimed by cinephiles and general audience members alike. But, usually there is a reason for why Nolan shapes the film in such way. In Interstellar, it was about learning how to reckon with the past to shape future, and the price of choosing to save all versus choosing to save one. In Inception, it was about regret and how love shapes our perceptions of reality. There is nothing in Tenet. The film only exists as a chance for Nolan to emphasize the parts of his filmmaking that he likes the most.
That's not to say the film is bad. Some of the action sequences are incredibly engaging, and there are some ideas that are really intriguing and unique. It's a real shame these ideas aren't explored in a way that is memorable. Characters never really feel human, rather devices used exclusively to drive the plot forward. The plot and script never really feel like they made it past the first draft, used to fill the awkward space as Tenet moves from one gigantic action set piece to another. And the sound, the non-existent sound mixing and editing. Let's just say the bass of the soundtrack exists only to shake viewers up or accidentally cover up anything the characters are saying to each other.
So, when it all comes down to it, should you see Tenet? The answer to that question is complicated to say the least. There is so much Nolan presence here, almost too much, yet the film itself feels incredibly empty and devoid of creativity. It's interesting, and moves relatively quickly for an 150 minute film, but at the same time, that doesn't make up for it's lack of viewer engagement or character development in a genre where those two things are desperately needed. And honestly, on the concept of time, Tenet appears to be quicker to forget about than quite a number of other films.