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Review: ‘Tenet’ collapses under the weight of Christopher Nolan’s ambition

“Tenet” is Christopher Nolan’s loudest, biggest, most convoluted film ever – but that doesn’t mean it’s his best. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Christopher Nolan is the reason I fell in love with film. 

Sitting in a sold-out midnight showing of “The Dark Knight” in July 2008, I watched in awe as Heath Ledger’s Joker became an instant icon. My mind was blown as I watched Paris fold on itself during “Inception” two years later. The emotional power of both “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk” brought tears to my eyes. The latter film was perhaps the greatest directorial achievement of Nolan’s career, receiving rave reviews and earning eight Academy Award nominations – including Best Picture and his first nomination for Best Director. It grossed over $500 million worldwide, continuing to cement him as the modern box office king. 

What can you do after that? Anything you want, apparently.

John David Washington as The Protagonist and Robert Pattinson as Neil in “Tenet.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Tenet” is a sci-fi action flick in the vein of “Inception,” but this time, the James Bond vibes have been pumped to the max. John David Washington’s Protagonist (yes, this is literally what he’s referred to as for the entire film) is enlisted by a shadow organization fighting a cold war by means of “time inversion.” His journey brings him into an entanglement with Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator is a Russian arms dealer with mysterious ties to time inversion who abuses Kat, his wife and quasi-prisoner.

I won’t go into specifics about the plot considering many probably haven’t seen the film yet, but also because I doubt I could even if I wanted to. I could maybe give a general summary, but the order of events, character motivations, names and technical terminology would all escape me. “Tenet” is Nolan without anyone to tell him no. It’s his loudest, biggest, most convoluted film ever. Without his long-time editor Lee Smith here to help guide Nolan and prevent him from falling victim to his basest instincts, the film is relentless and unforgiving in its breakneck pacing and expositional dialogue that never stops coming. It isn’t so much a film that challenges its audience as much as one that assaults them and leaves them for dead.

It isn’t without some bright spots, though. Washington does well enough as the film’s star, especially in the incredibly physical fight scenes and stunts. Robert Pattinson as Neil is a proper foil to the Protagonist, with his witty British charm keeping the affair light. Debicki and Branagh both turn in respectable performances, but the duo has the most work to do in regard to elevating very clunky and almost laughable dialogue. The whole cast is nice to look at – suave and believable in their parts.

Robert Pattinson as Neil in “Tenet.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The MVP of the film for many will be Ludwig Göransson’s relentless score, which is the best of the year, so far. He retains the electronic stylings we’ve heard from him in “Black Panther” and “The Mandalorian,” while still tuning into Nolan’s sensibilities. The overall production value is through the roof, as always. Massive sets, great costumes, absurd amount of extras. The stunt work is incredibly complex and choreographed to the nth degree. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is good, but it never features the same jaw-dropping camera movements or unforgettable compositions that we think of from “Interstellar” or “Dunkirk.” Even the film’s color timing lacks a certain pop and feels sterile compared to those films.

Back in May, I confidently predicted “Tenet” would be a Best Picture nominee and have success comparable to “Dunkirk.” In this strange year, that may still be true. The field is more limited, and Nolan’s position as the savior of cinema has the potential to be a powerful narrative. But even for his standards, the technical aspects and formal elements were sloppier than usual. The sound mix is worse than ever, with Nolan prioritizing the score and sound effects over important dialogue. Still, in a pandemic year, I have no doubt this will be nominated for Best Sound at the Oscars, but there is absolutely no way it should win considering how obnoxiously loud and grating the mix is. Loud sound does not equal the best sound.

When it comes to the messy and confusing screenplay, Nolan found himself in a sort of No Man’s Land with regards to the exposition and rules of the world. It doesn’t have the finesse of “Inception” or the emotional buoying of “Interstellar.” Nolan could have given more exposition more clearly in “Tenet” at the expense of the film’s pacing, but then the audience would at least know what is going on. Or, Nolan could have forgone almost all of the exposition and streamlined the rules to make it easier for audiences to settle in and keep up with the breakneck pacing of the film.

Instead, he did neither, and I find it hard to believe the majority of viewers won’t find themselves in perpetual confusion as the plot jumps from one location and set piece to another. Editor Jennifer Lame (“Manchester by the Sea,” “Hereditary”) is usually incredible, but her work here on her first-ever big-budget film feels sloppy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan had the final say in most every instance, and Lame just did what she was told rather than reining in the auteur. A simple dinner scene features shots that don’t last longer than two seconds and some of the action sequences are impossible to decipher, especially when intercut with another scene.

Elizabeth Debicki as Kat in “Tenet.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Tenet” is being touted as Nolan’s biggest and best action film ever. Sure, it’s undoubtedly the biggest. They filmed in seven nations and took over massive swathes of city and countryside to achieve some of the sequences. There are plenty of practical explosions and crashes, often with dozens or hundreds of extras involved. However, nothing in this film is as gripping in the moment or as memorable afterward as sequences or films throughout the rest of his career. There is no semi truck-Batpod chase scene from “The Dark Knight,” or spinning hallway fight from “Inception,” or the docking sequence from the third act of “Interstellar.” Even the dog fights in “Dunkirk” are easier to invest in and find compelling, despite the fighter pilots being masked and essentially nameless.

Why? Because in all of his other films, you actually understand what you’re watching. You know the rules of the world, what the character’s motivations are and what the desired outcome is. From the opening sequence to the grand finale, there was not a single action set piece in “Tenet” where all the elements were perfectly clear. Sometimes, none of them were clear. The audience can’t be pushed to the edge of their seat by sheer technical achievement alone. Action scenes need to further the plot, yes, but they must also reveal character. Kind of hard to do when the characters are rail-thin.

Robert Pattinson told Esquire a few months ago: “There were months at a time where I’m like, ‘Am I . . . I actually, honestly, have no idea if I’m even vaguely understanding what’s happening.’ And yeah, I would definitely say that to John David. On the last day, I asked him a question about what was happening in a scene, and it was just so profoundly the wrong take on the character. And it was like, ‘Have you been thinking this the entire time?’” Kenneth Branagh told Syfy that he read the film’s screenplay “more times than I have ever read any other thing I have ever worked on. It was like doing the Times crossword puzzle every day, I would imagine.” 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if the world-class performers you are directing and writing the script for don’t understand what they’re reading or how they’re supposed to be playing a particular scene, then you have failed as a director and as a screenwriter. I had been looking forward to “Tenet” from the moment John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and the rest of the cast and crew were hired, because I love and trust Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. 

But when a project that you have been ruminating on for a decade and producing for three years leaves the viewer with a headache rather than an urge to see it again, it’s time to reflect on what exactly your goals are as the most powerful director in the world.

Star Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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