Point/Counterpoint: Is Tenet Disappointing or Good?

Since its release in August, Christopher Nolan’s latest film has proven to be a divisive topic.

Fans are split on whether Tenet is another excellent worthwhile offering from Nolan or a disappointment best left alone. Movie critics themselves cannot decide what to think about the science-fiction time-bending action thriller.

See what our writers think about the movie and you can decide whether it is worthwhile to see in theatres or not.

Tenet is Disappointing

Coming from a faithful fan, the newest Christopher Nolan film is a disappointment. Tenet made clear to me the similar traits in his latest movies that hold them back from competing with Memento or The Prestige.

One of the film’s largest issues is the lack of characterization. Tenet is a plot heavy movie. There is a lot that needs to be explained all the way to the end. The characters suffer heavily because of this. 

When it comes to immersing ourselves fully in a story, we need something to care about. There is very little time spent in creating an emotional connection between any of the characters and the audience. They serve better as chess pieces than anything.

John David Washington’s character is literally called The Protagonist. And that is basically all you learn about him in the two and a half hour runtime. Sator, Kenneth Branagh’s character, takes the mustache-twirling villain to darker and grittier heights. He is no different than any other bad guy who wants to end the world. 

There are several technical aspects of a film that viewers generally don’t notice unless they are done poorly. In Tenet’s case, the sound design is frustratingly bad. The music and sound effects constantly overpower dialogue. This is part of a growing pattern in Nolan’s latest films to create realistic soundscapes. In real life, it would be hard to understand someone whispering while wearing a gas mask, on top of an explosion. However, even in quiet scenes, the soundtrack is so loud that you will be craning your ear to hear.

As a result, you won’t be paying attention to the plot. Every bit of dialogue is important, and it is delivered very quickly. Whether it’s people with strong accents, whispering, eating, wearing masks, or a combination of the above, it is shocking how difficult this film is to understand. Tenet’s plot lost some of its appeal particularly when I was struggling to listen to Michael Caine talking with his mouth full.

For a director who usually hits it out of the park, Tenet is a letdown. The dialogue and sound issues will certainly improve by turning on subtitles once it hits Blu Ray. Sadly, subtitles will not fix flat characters. But one cannot deny the raw spectacle and majesty of seeing this picture on the big screen.

— Damian Lachacz

Tenet is excellent

While not my favourite Christopher Nolan movie, Tenet is still an excellent spectacle to enjoy on the big screen.

Nolan’s Inception used a heist movie as a vehicle to explore time, consciousness, and chronology while Tenet uses a tricked out espionage film with some added flavours of science fiction to continue developing the commentary surrounding these themes. The ingenious pairing of spies trying to prevent global catastrophe with time-bending technology modernizes the genre in an original direction. The film’s dialogue will again prove to be just like Inception, more about psychology and philosophy than simply action.

That being said, the action is still quite the spectacle. Having characters fighting in the forward-moving present and others who are inverted — or battling backwards — is jaw dropping. The film literally changed and redefined how a typical set had to work to accommodate the stunts. What’s even more impressive is Nolan’s continued emphasis on employing practical stunt work as opposed to green screened post-production reliant effects.

The script takes viewers on a wild ride as it is skimpy with details early on. You don’t get the full picture, exposition, or situational awareness until late in the film. Rather than being frustrated, enjoy the ride as you journey alongside the protagonist (both literally and metaphorically since the main character is named The Protagonist). It acts as a Nolan puzzle, with breadcrumbs and puzzles along the way. There’s more to savour and debate as much of the film’s details are not cut and dry.

While viewers have been dissecting the film and exposing some inconsistencies, these are minor in the grand scheme of things and by no means detractors to the overall experience of Tenet.

I disagree completely with those who say it’s sound mixing issues are reason enough to skip the film entirely. I believe the sound was designed intentionally, just as how the cinematography and musical score, force you to be part of the action. This means not hearing every single word or being 100 per cent clear all the time.

The score, produced by Ludwig Göransson, becomes a character onscreen — matching the pacing from fast-moving action sequences with highly synthesized sections to beds of gentle ambience for dialogue-laden scenes. It ebbs and flows, overpowers and softens all while adding flavour and development to the film.

Take for example the scene where the algorithm is first explained. Not only is there the dialogue, but a track featuring an orchestra with forward flowing strings that inverts — just like the characters — into a morphing electronic beat and the same orchestral strings only reversed.

In terms of characterization criticism, here I take departure with the harsh criticisms. I would argue there is a lot of emotion and development to be found within Tenet, so long as you know where to look.

The emotional impact of the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Kat — the art appraiser and Sator’s estranged wife. Kat is acting as the stranger to this situation, she’s forced into the action like the viewer and has no experience or formal training to aid in facing life-or-death scenarios. She is the most relatable character in the film as most of us have no inkling of what it is like to be a CIA operative. Kat is the emotional leverage you need to fully understand what Nolan is exploring within the film. That’s why The Protagonist has no name, you aren’t supposed to be relating to him.

We all should take a line from Barbara — the scientist explaining inversion for the first time — who tells The Protagonist to not strictly understand inversion, but to feel it. Tenet is meant to inspire conversation. The feel of the film is amazing; the editing, pacing, score, and action are all spot on and allow you to experience something special despite starting to get to know the characters after only limited interactions.

— Adam Lachacz

Adam Lachacz

Adam Lachacz was the Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway for 2020-21. Previously, he was the 2019-20 News Editor, 2018-19 Staff Reporter, and a senior volunteer contributor from 2016-18. He is a fifth-year student studying history and political science. Adam is addicted to the news, an aspiring sneakerhead, and loves a good cup of black coffee.

Damian Lachacz

Damian Lachacz is a second-year English major and the Deputy Opinion Editor at The Gateway. He spends his free time wondering if plants can use the Force, watching niche movies/tv, reading the grittiest mystery novels and crushing his foes at board games.

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