Tenet was the first major blockbusters to hit the theaters since the start of the corona pandemic. Delayed several times, it served as litmus test to see if people could be drawn back to the big screen. This was of course before the upsurge in recent months. For the sound design, visual spectacle and immersion, perhaps only a theater viewing would have done Tenet justice. But what about the story? To better answer that question, let us start with the film’s director.
The rest of this post contains minor spoilers for Nolan’s previous 2010 film Inception. Spoilers for Tenet, beyond the first few minutes of the film, are hidden in click-to-expand sections (gray). So, you can safely read on if you haven’t seen Tenet yet.
Some will recognize the name Christopher Nolan instantly. He both wrote and directed Tenet. Nolan’s life-long fascination in three keywords? Time, recursion and non-linear storytelling. Virtually all his movies include one or more of these elements. An early short, Doodlebug (3 minutes), already includes all of them. Though Memento really cemented this.
Nolan’s peak was in the late noughties. Where he released films that despite their layered complexity remained understandable. These include The Prestige, The Dark Night and Inception. It is that last movie, Inception, with which Tenet shares most. Of these two Inception is also the better movie. We’ll get to why later. Let’s first take a closer look at Tenet.
Tenet immediately draws us into the action as the first few minutes we watch a terrorist attack unfold through the eyes of the unnamed protagonist of the movie played by John David Washington. He is also the main asset of the movie delivering strong acting performance, as does his co-star Robert Pattinson playing Neil.
We follow the protagonist on a journey. He learns that there is something weird going on with time early on. This revealing of a mechanic early in the movie bears resemblance to the first part of Inception. There we learn about the mechanic of entering someone’s mind through dreaming and planting an idea. We also get hints that doing so recursively is possible, but dangerous (the endlessly parodied dream in a dream).
Style & Flaw
Both Tenet and Inception are heist movies: the main characters needs to steal something for some specific purpose. However, where Inception allows its viewers some time to soak up the unconventional ideas it presents, Tenet seems to just rush forward through them. What doesn’t help here is the large amount of telling, instead of showing. This reliance on exposition does not help convey the movies’ ideas well on other than a rational level.
Let’s forgive all of that, since the main weakness of Tenet lies elsewhere. The movie makes many obvious nods to the spy genre, and an attractive lady is part of that: Kat. However, she is much more central to the plot than the average Bond girl, or so it seems.
Let’s go back again to Inception. There the female lead character Mal (Marion Cottilard) plays a similarly central role as Kat does in Tenet. However, Mal’s personal story was very effectively intertwined with the movie itself. Affecting the main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Inception wouldn’t have really made sense without Mal.
The problem with Kat is what sets her part in motion. Her predicament doesn’t really get us to care for her, nor do her first interactions with the protagonist. This makes it all the less believable that he makes choices that reveal reciprocal care for her. This I think is the film’s main flaw: it is highly cerebral and misses several key emotional beats that were present in Inception.
The other relation in the movie, between the two male leads, does seem to work a lot better. Kat feels much more ‘tacked on’, which is shame since her actions are so pivotal to the plot.
I think Tenet presents an interesting time-related mechanic, that is re-used in novel ways as the movie progresses. That usage also gets increasingly more convoluted, and confusing, as the movie approaches its final act. I think Nolan overplayed his hand, with unnecessarily complex storytelling. He expects a bit too much from the audience in that regard. There also a noticeable lack of emotional depth that contrast with previous movies of his hand.
Understanding the plot feels like work. While I don’t mind a puzzle, I think for most people that will take the entertainment out of it. For a select group of others this movie will yield more and more when watched repeatedly. Lending itself to likely numerous explainer videos, articles and theories. Perhaps that’s what separates a regular blockbuster from a Christopher Nolan flavoured one. However, this does not take away that his previous blockbusters: Dunkirk, Interstellar and Inception were better structured, easier understood and resonated better emotionally.
What ultimately saves Tenet is that for the most part the protagonist’s goals are clear, the music and sound design are excellent, the visuals spectacular and engaging and the acting is strong. Looking back it did not exactly ‘bust’ the ‘block’ upon release. However, that has more to do with global circumstances than the potential of Tenet to attract an audience.
Tenet is an intellectually demanding and confusing mess, as well as an entertaining blockbuster with major immersive set pieces. Thus: a mixed bag, that may deliver depending on what you are looking for.