Matthew at the Movies: Tenet (2020)

Tenet: a Saturday-morning ‘James Bond’ cartoon.

Christopher Nolan’s newest highly anticipated film, Tenet, was set to release this summer. But COVID lit the world on fire and both he and the studio, Warner Bros, were forced to push it back. In came the decision of whether to release the film digitally, like many films are doing, or release it traditionally in theaters, like fewer films are doing.

This should come apparent to anyone familiar with Nolan’s work, but for those that don’t know, Nolan loves the theatrical experience. He finds sacredness in it, it’s a religious event to him (and honestly, me too). So, he and the studio decided to hold off and delay the film a few weeks in order to release it theatrically, then they delayed it a few more times before it came to theaters in the US in early September.

The main question I’m going to answer for this review is this, “is it worth risking my life to see Nolan’s Tenet?” – the short answer, no. The long answer, also no but let me explain why:

Tenet is about the Protagonist (John David Washington), and yes, that’s the character’s name, going a secret mission to prevent World War III by traversing time itself. But the Protagonist (I really hate that name) can’t do it alone, he gets some assistance from Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Kat is married to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian arms dealer who wants to end the world. 

As with any Nolan film, he has a keen eye for cool looking visuals. The action sequences, especially towards the end, were spectacular to look at. However, neat visuals do not a good movie make, you need more than that, and Tenet doesn’t have much more to it.

If I have one glaring flaw with the film, it’s the editing. The editing was very clunky at times, which also greatly affects the pacing, and for a two hour-and thirty-minute movie, good pacing is key, and Tenet has none of that. Some scenes flash by and others overstay their welcome. Because of this, it was very hard to understand what was happening and why, and for a film like Tenet, if you didn’t catch it the first time, you won’t get a second chance. 

If I have another glaring flaw, it’s the sound mixing. The sound, by itself, is fine. They’re your traditional ‘bhwams’ and ‘blares’ Nolan has trademarked, and the score is decent, but the mixing in of those sounds and the score was just awful. The action scenes were fine, as the main focus is visual, so over-blaring sound is fine and helps elevate the drama of the action. However, the dialogue scenes were confusing as the score and sound made it very hard to hear what people were saying.

In Nolan’s films, the characters explain what’s happening and what’s going to happen (particularly this film and Inception), so when you can’t hear the dialogue, it makes for a confusing viewing experience. To repeat, if you didn’t catch it the first time, you won’t get a second chance.

That leads to another issue: the writing. Nolan is a director that loves concepts over everything, he’s a filmmaker obsessed with the toy-box of cinema and playing with our notions of time and reality. Tenet is that idea to its extreme. There is very little personality (other than Nolan’s style) in this film. Every character spit out the same, expository dialogue as other Nolan films. 

Speaking of the characters, there are none, well, one exception. Kat (Debicki) is tired of her controlling and abusive husband, Andrei (Branagh). She is the heart and emotional core of the film as Andrei’s keeping her from seeing their son, and if she doesn’t obey him, she’ll never see her son again. For some reason or another, The Protagonist (Washington) takes a liking to Kat. Could be because her story is sympathetic, and he wants to help, or it could be something else. There is no reason given as to why.

Out of any of the characters, he has the weakest one. The Protagonist has no personality, aside from a charismatic line here and there. Which is very unfortunate since Washington is a good actor (See: BlacKkKlansman), except he’s given little to work with. He is a blank-slate character (which is a surrogate character for the audience with no beliefs, nor opinions, and no knowledge of the world they’re about to enter), but unlike other blank-slate characters, The Protagonist easily becomes accustomed to this inverse reality, while I was still wondering what was happening at all.

As the heart of the film, Debicki gives a somewhat decent performance as the abused wife who wants her son back. However, while she does a fine job, her character was awful. She is very uninteresting and very one-note as her motivation and personality boils down to paternal love and protection, which works fine, but it isn’t really gripping as there are only a few interactions between her and her son, and they’re all at a distance. There is no time dedicated in developing an emotional interest in seeing her get custody of her son. I don’t even think we get a clear look at her son’s face.

Pattinson is entertaining and charming every now and then, which is also unfortunate since he is a great actor (See: High Life or The Lighthouse), but he’s given very little to work with. Branagh hams up every scene he’s given, which should be a nice change of pace in this zero-personality film, yet his role is very one-note. He plays it like an overly-serious Bond villain, yet his lines and motivation are comically bland and blatant, which could be on purpose, but his motivation needed to be more nuanced than just ending the world like a cartoon villain.

With the Bond look and feel, basic character motivations, and a hammed-up villain, it feels like a ‘James Bond’ Saturday-morning cartoon. You know the type, G.I. JoeHe-ManTransformersTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The comical villain’s motivations are of world domination and the righteous heroes try to stop them. In addition, the espionage mission and characters make it seem like a parody of James Bond, when it’s really taking the ideas seriously. 

Tenet is a run-of-the-mill Nolan experience: intense sound design and high-key concepts over plot and characters. For fans of Nolan’s other work, you’ll probably have the time of your life. For people who don’t usually love his films (which is me), you’ll probably get tinnitus from the loud score and not have the best time. For the casual moviegoer, it’s a decent and somewhat entertaining experience, but definitely not worth risking your life over.

Tenet, as a film, is just fine. It’s not terrible but not great. (5/10)

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