Living in these unprecedented times, I found myself contemplating two questions. First, will Christopher Nolan cave in and go straight to video-on-demand with his newest time-bending extravaganza, Tenet? And second, if it were to come to theatres, would it be worth it risking my life to catch it on the big screen?
Eight months into quarantine, I have the answers to those questions. Firstly, for some reason that can only be boiled down to “it was how Nolan intended the movie to be seen,” Tenet has been released in theatres amidst a worldwide pandemic. My answer to the second question however, is please do not risk your life for this movie. I promise you it is not worth it.
Tenet follows the “Protagonist” (John David Washington), a former CIA operative who passes a secret test and finds himself in the centre of a world-changing mission. He is equipped with only the word ‘Tenet’ and the knowledge that he must somehow prevent a mind-bending world war. What he experiences during his classified mission is a confusing and backwards reality that he must learn to navigate.
Christopher Nolan has been known to mess with time in earlier films such as Memento (2000), Interstellar (2014), and Inception (2010). These are widely regarded as chronological masterpieces; they each carry a very dense narrative throughout a relentlessly long runtime.
The difference with Tenet is that the cast cannot carry Nolan’s admittedly dull script. It is no secret that Nolan’s scripts have always been the low point of his intense productions (save maybe for The Dark Knight), yet what saves his writing has been the consistent benefits of an experienced, star-studded cast. This is essentially what Tenet lacks. While John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are not bad actors, it is clear they cannot improve Nolan’s mediocre dialogue the same as the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConaughey.
We’ve seen glimpses of Nolan’s malfeasance in his earlier works, but they were few and far between. Every line of Tenet seems sappy and plot-driven, as if every time a character speaks the audience is given new information to cache for later. It is incredibly off-putting as a viewer to watch an incredible 20-minute long action sequence followed by a 20-minutes of seemingly important dialogue with another new character.
This structure gives the film multiple, inconsistent tonal shifts, and leaves the viewer wondering if they need to remember everything they just heard, assuming they could hear it. More often than not, the sound mixing and diverse blend of accents does not allow for much of the dialogue to be understood. It becomes very tough to follow, especially with the booming score making it difficult to hear the characters in the first place.
While none of these criticisms are necessarily awful things about Tenet, the movie makes it very clear that Nolan needs the right cast to pull the imaginative ideas out of his lacklustre writing. Nolan is able to pull off fantastical action sequences when the characters aren’t speaking; it is mesmerizing to watch a car chase that is half in forward motion and half in backwards motion. Yet when you take a step back from the action and attempt to understand the mechanics of time, all you see is a B-movie plot with passable writing and a vast production.