Review – TENET (2020)

While my review comes some days after the film rolling out into (most but not all) cinemas, it’s interesting that discussion following TENET‘s second weekend in theaters is all about the box-office (or possible lack-thereof). Director Christopher Nolan has carved out a particular niche in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking where every two or three years, he takes the concept of familiar film genres and crafts a unique take on them by applying thoughtful and methodical plotting to well-crafted conventional filming techniques. His films are hits that keep people coming back, because they are markedly different from almost all other films in the marketplace. His name alone now prompts attention from cinephiles, because while we may not know exactly what we’re getting, we know how well we’ll be getting it.

I say all of that because Hollywood, amidst the year of theater closures due to COVID-19, has positioned TENET to be the film that will largely welcome moviegoers back to cinemas. The film is crafted to be seen on as big of a screen as possible, and the ideas and theoretical concepts in play are even bigger than anything we see. That makes the pressure of being our way back to theaters particularly tricky, because while the film is huge in so many ways, it’s appeal won’t be there for everybody. Had this film released in 2019, it would have made bank, won over a die-hard cult following in subsequent years, and pleased Nolan fans just by being a Nolan film amidst the other typical blockbusters. That reaction would have looked like Dunkirk and his other films. This year, though, it has to be much more than what it was made to be, making it OK for audiences to safely return. The international discourse makes it next to impossible to review TENET the film, while not seeing it as TENET the event, and ultimately that hurts the experience on display.

I won’t say much of the plot, because outlining it would be both difficult and antithetical to discovering what works best in this movie. Seeing what the trailer offers tantalizingly through its visuals and imagery should get those who will enjoy this film most in the seats to see it. Let’s just say that this film is framed familiarly as an action-packed, high-concept globe-trotting espionage film, dealing with saving the world from an existential threat. It’s James Bond, only if he majored in theoretical physics; in fact, having a healthy knowledge of theoretical physics helps in understanding what all takes place. Even if you aren’t that familiar with such things, the concepts central to the plot are laid out in the story, but I did feel it was at the expense of good character development. The main protagonist is named The Protagonist (John David Washington), so seeing that you don’t get his name, there isn’t much more given about the man either. He is joined by Neil (Robert Pattinson), and much of the film follows their unraveling of the destructive plans of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and protection of Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).

The film jumps right in, and it doesn’t let up. Plot exposition is delivered at a rapid fire pace, which isn’t always an issue in some films. The issue I had with this film was that dialogue was difficult for me to keep up with because it came across as mumbled. I don’t think this was a screening issue, as sound mixing has been a common complaint I’ve read. I admire that Ludwig Goransson was able to score the film without any assembled orchestration, due to COVID-19 forcing him to assemble pieces of the score one instrument at a time, but knowing that fact highlights that the audio in the film had to be handled differently than it ordinarily would have. I don’t know if that caused the issues overall, but I found myself having to intensely concentrate on every word being said, because it doesn’t let up at any point. Aside from the audio, the visuals are crisp, inventive, and genuinely engrossing, which I expect from Nolan at this point. I saw things on display here that I have really never seen before, and due to the unique concept of the film, they fit the premise and will likely only be in a film like this, should another come in the future. That makes the film worth watching, even when some of its parts don’t quite measure up to that standard.

In regard to performances, they effectively move do the job, but honestly, the screenplay is geared more towards set pieces than it is character relationships. I’m sure each actor enjoyed making the film, but Nolan has written characters better than what we get here. Those who call his direction “cold” will have more evidence to their case to point to here than they had before. The staging of this film and its action sequences show that the director is doing things other can’t or won’t do, but this film could have been legendary if the audience was given more to connect to with the characters. Now, when I inevitably rewatch this film, I’m sure there will be a myriad of connections to make that will keep me invested; in fact, I was amazed at the number of references to Hollywood history that come up visually and through dialogue. Still, to me, characters are key in film, and TENET was lacking there.

Content-wise, the film is frenetic than violent, but a couple sequences will likely be intense for many audience members. Much of the film’s dialogue is clean, but the villain does drop an F-bomb midway through that felt completely unnecessary to me. Alongside this, there are some instances of sexual dialogue that cemented the PG-13 rating. Spiritual content felt lacking; nothing is really made of such matters, and while the themes of protection, friendship, and standing up to possessiveness are on display, they never struck me as allegorical to faith in the way some films do.

All-in-all, even as it fumbles in key ways, TENET will fit the expectations set by most Nolan fans: a gorgeous traditionally-shot film that is staged from the ground up in non-traditional ways. That in itself is enough for recommending a watch, even while this proves to be one of Nolan‘s lesser films, in my opinion. Even as his prior films have exhibited high trust in an audience’s ability to comprehend complexity, I’ve yet to see it to this degree, and the ideas on display will be too much to fully process in one sitting for many. Yet, I feel some will lose interest in the journey because the characters don’t connect as well as they could. Nolan has juggled heady concepts with compelling relationships better before, but that feels a little lost here, especially in a film that is having to be even more than it was ever meant to be. Still, lesser work from Nolan is still better than most of what we get as moviegoers, so enjoy the ride!

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