The team behind Tenet was so preoccupied with whether this story could be made, that they didn’t stop to think if it should be made. This is Christopher Nolan’s most complex concept film yet. And, in order to make it somewhat digestible in 2.5 hours, all while having the usual Nolan action sequences and long-winded expositions, they made something that feels like a chore to actually watch.
Tenet is immediately incomprehensible and doesn’t invite you to try to understand any of it until discrete moments later on. While watching it, I never really felt like I was piecing together a mystery. This isn’t a whodunnit like Knives Out, where you can develop theories as you make your way to the grand explanation at the end of the film. It feels more like walking into a math class 30 minutes late, and then having a friend explain the stuff you missed in the cafeteria.
This is not a fun way to watch a movie. Understanding can be its own reward, but the road to that understanding is paved in some of Nolan’s most drab characters and setpieces. Everything is in service to the story, meaning action scenes must follow the timey-wimey rules and protagonists are just as opaque as the plot itself.
On paper, a fight scene in which one character is moving backwards through time while the other is moving forward sounds cool. In practice, it results in some very basic brawls, shootouts, and car chases that all have a tinge of awkwardness. Nolan has pulled off many high concept action scenes in the past, but here they buckle under the weight of Tenet’s core premise.
Nolan has also received criticism in the past for making movies that feel emotionally vacant. That criticism never really rang true for me before, but I absolutely see it with Tenet. The main character is intentionally reserved, his sidekicks are plot devices, and the villain is a sneering, wife-beating cartoon character. There isn’t any kind of audience surrogate with whom you could relate to or get help from when they ask the same questions you have.
There’s a moment later in the film that illustrates this alien-like disconnect with human emotions. The villain is slapping his wife around for meddling in his plans, and this is paired with some blaring musical cues akin to the Inception horn. In a dark moment like this, the music should probably take a backseat. Instead, Tenet has sirens screaming, “The bad guy is bad! The bad guy is bad!”
How did we fall this far, this quickly? Before Tenet, Christopher Nolan films were a known quantity for me. I was shameless in my enjoyment of them. I loved even the “bad” ones, like Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises. This is the first time I truly didn’t enjoy watching one of his films.
This year certainly hasn’t helped. Before 2020, I didn’t have to hear Nolan open his mouth. I could simply appreciate his craft. But seeing the man put his precious work so far above the health and safety of others, in the height of a pandemic, certainly soured my opinion of him. When folks are looking for safe entertainment while being asked to isolate and stay home as much as possible, a truly great entertainer would have called for his film to be released at home.
After a very weird year for movies, at a time when my opinion of Nolan is at an all-time low. I still went into Tenet, despite Nolan’s big head, expecting to like it. But I really didn’t.
After watching one of the hundreds of Tenet timeline explainer videos on YouTube (just to make sure), I felt like I understood Tenet. That’s not the point. I “got” it, but I never enjoyed the journey getting there. It felt like a movie that Nolan had to make, an idea he couldn’t get out of his head, force-fed, script-to-screen whether it worked or not. That’s a little weird, coming from a director known for making big budget, high concept movies that excite and delight the masses.
Note: The original version of this review attributed the score to Hans Zimmer (can you blame me?), but it was actually scored by Ludwig Göransson.