Tenet (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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.level txen eht ot tfarc sih ekat ot hsiw ohw rekammlif a sa etanoissap tsom sih ta eh si roN .relletyrots a sa tseb sih ta naloN ton si siht raelc si tI .ekaf ,decrof ,suounegnisid ssorca emoc setunim gnisolc s’eivom eht gnirud stnemom gniggut-traeh eb-dluow ,tseb ta suounet era snoitcennoc eseht esuaceb dnA .slaog lanoisseforp dna lanosrep rieht hsilpmocca ot tca driht eht gnirud maet a sa krow yeht taht deriuqer si ti esuaceb egnarts—evitcelloc a sa ro yllaudividni ,snoitavitom dna spihsnoitaler rieht fo )noitaicerppa dna( gnidnatsrednu hguoroht a dedivorp era ew taht os peed gid dna nwod wols ot srehtob reven lairetam eht ,ylevitcepser ,)hganarB htenneK( hcragilo naissuR a fo efiw eht dna reldnah s’tsinogatorP gniyartrop ,ikcibeD htebazilE dna nosnittaP treboR ,srats-oc sih htiw yrtsimehc serahs notgnihsaW hguohtlA

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It is ironic that although Christopher Nolan’s latest project is propelled by big ideas—so-called inverted entropy, reverse chronology, how we perceive the flow of time, cause and effect versus fate or destiny—not much of value can be gleaned out of it. Because given the choice between patient analysis (whether in regard to the paradoxical concepts it broaches or the curious characters we end up following) and spectacle, the screenplay almost always chooses the latter. Halfway through, I couldn’t help but wonder how the picture might have ended up differently had the writer-director been given only ten percent of its two hundred million budget. By the end of it, it made me yearn for the Nolan who helmed the excellent “Memento” and the humble but terrific “Insomnia.” At least these projects come across as though they’re actually about something.

“Tenet” is a showcase of special and visual effects. This is a fact that cannot be denied. Nearly every other scene must offer something eye-popping, luxurious, beautiful, expensive. An early standout involves a scientist explaining the concept of inverted entropy through an example—how an object that possesses such a characteristic, when in action, is perceived to be traveling backward in time instead of forward. Thus, a gun that is shot (forward) is actually a bullet being caught by the gun (backward). Watching this sequence is like sitting through a neat magic trick; it made me smile. However, the more it is exercised, our curiosity and excitement tend to wane.

The reason is because not much is done to explore this fascinating phenomenon. We are provided rules but not exceptions, a fairly labyrinthine plot but not a convincing, involving human drama. It were as if Nolan had forgotten one of the basic tenets of science-fiction: That underneath the most complex ideas, mysterious alien worlds, and unimaginable unknowns must lie humanity so bright, flaws and all, that it outshines—no, overpowers—every other element that can be bought by money. Notice that if you strip away this picture’s spectacle, it is reduced to a series of expository dialogues backed by an out of control score designed 1) to drown out the boredom and 2) to create an illusion that something monumental is transpiring on screen. Discerning viewers will not be fooled by such decorations.

The endgame is as tired as they come: prevent the end of all humanity. To achieve this, a CIA agent is recruited to uncover the source of items that possess aforementioned inverted entropy which are becoming more prevalent by the day. It is believed that these items come from the future. Our lead character is known only as Protagonist (yes, this cringe-worthy decision deserves an eye-roll) and he is played by John David Washington, a performer of considerable talent who is stuck playing a one-note caricature of a hero. (Observe, for instance, that not once are we given a glimpse of what he thinks of the mad journey he is thrusted into.)

Although Washington shares chemistry with his co-stars, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, portraying Protagonist’s handler and the wife of a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh), respectively, the material never bothers to slow down and dig deep so that we are provided a thorough understanding (and appreciation) of their relationships and motivations, individually or as a collective—strange because it is required that they work as a team during the third act to accomplish their personal and professional goals. And because these connections are tenuous at best, would-be heart-tugging moments during the movie’s closing minutes come across disingenuous, forced, fake. It is clear this is not Nolan at his best as a storyteller. Nor is he at his most passionate as a filmmaker who wish to take his craft to the next level.

I’m not sure who the movie is for. It is not for viewers who love science or science-fiction. The universe presented here is not detailed enough to be worthy of close inspection. It has nothing of value to say about us as a species or as a modern society. It is cerebral-lite, one cousin removed from being a dullard. It is not for viewers who love visceral action movies either. Aside from a plane crashing into a building, most of the stunts are too choreographed, clean, offering minimal risk or danger, simulated or not. And it is not for viewers who wish to experience a new angle regarding time travel. In fact, a handful of themes and ideas here are better examined—and played with—in a Netflix original series called “Dark” co-created by Boran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. In short, there is almost no joy to be had in “Tenet,” a project of half-cocked ideas, generic execution, and empty dynamism.

9 replies »

  1. I was blown away by the attention to detail from Nolan during that opening sequence; he’s such a talented director. And a few minutes later when the scientist was explaining about the backwards technology was fascinating to listen to, but I felt like during the first act my head hurt from all of the information I had just processed. lol. I felt like it was too much. And then when he met Robert Pattinson it really started dawning on me how there was just no character development, and I thought there was 0 chemistry between these two…

    I actually became bored very quickly, and took a break from it, and intended to go back to it, but haven’t as of yet. And judging by your review, It seems there really isn’t much to go back to. I’ll probably finish it one day, but i’m not in a hurry. Your review confirmed what I was thinking and feeling, no character development. In the Dark Knight trilogy, it was always Bruce Wayne’s character that kept the story on-track. I’m kind of surprised Nolan seemed to forget that’s what connects the audience to the movie.

  2. Nolan has done such spectacular work in the past, and is so beloved from salvaging the Batman franchise and turning a mere superhero tale into a legitimate crime drama, worthy of Oscar consideration, that he has a very long leash, and what he accomplished w/ The Dark Knight and the way he used Heath Ledger, will always subconsciously influence the opinions of his future works; no one wants to criticize the director who created arguably the greatest trilogy of all-time. Only serious critics like you and I will offer fair criticism of him, and even we’ll both remain fans of him for what he did w/ Dark Knight even if he puts out a slew of duds; even in “Tenet” and even if the writing wasn’t as strong as it should have been, what an incredible vision Nolan had; it seems like the script needed to be further developed, and was a bit rushed. but notice when there’s an issue with a Christopher Nolan film it still doesn’t suck? None of his films are terrible; it’s just you come to expect greatness for each of his films b/c he has set the bar so high…

    I wasn’t a fan of “Dunkirk” and “Inception” but I was blown away by his vision and directing, as was I with “Tenet”, as well. I think that’s why people are defending him b/c you just don’t see visuals like this very often; same with James Cameron. These two guys are constantly raising the bar every film they direct. I really hope Cameron gets these Avatar sequels done. I have been excited about the new visuals he has for underwater Pandora. I went and saw “Avatar” 4 times at the theater to watch in 3D on the IMAX screen; the script wasn’t the best, but the visuals were mesmerizing; also, loved James Horner’s score; a score can really amplify a film when done right. I think that was why I liked “Man of Steel” more than most others b/c I absolutely loved that score by Hans Zimmer. MOS had a lot of problems with the script, but with that score and watching Cavill play Superman made up for it to me, as I think Cavill was the perfect cast for the role, and even on the same level as Reeves. Also, very disappointing James Horner passed, so won’t be around to score the Avatar sequels; maybe they can get Hans Zimmer.

    • “arguably the greatest trilogy of all-time”


      I wasn’t a fan of “Dunkirk” and “Inception”


      I read somewhere that “Tenet” has been a passion project of Nolan’s for YEARS. So I’m surprise this one turned out to be a dud. I loved “Inception” (#1 pick that year) as well as “Dunkirk” (made it onto my Top 10 that year) because it came across like he had a vision and knew precisely how to execute it. Those two movies are so different yet they work both as entertainment and art (in my eyes).

      But with this one and “Interstellar” (I don’t know which is worse), they were rough to sit through. Both movies are all over the place. Like you said, Nolan is given a very long leash. But maybe he shouldn’t.

      I miss him doing smaller films with much smaller budget.

      • dude, i liked Interstellar. LOL. I liked Dunkirk, but there were parts in the dark where I could not tell who was who, and that became frustrating to me b/c I didn’t know who was dying, and who was surviving. I also liked Inception okay, but felt it was too convoluted. I just didn’t get it; maybe if I watched it another time or two I’d grasp more of it. It’s just I didn’t think it was interesting enough to sit through again…

        I am assuming that was your way of disagreeing about my assessment of The Dark Knight being the best trilogy. So, what trilogy do you think is better? It’s definitely the best super hero trilogy. Most trilogies usually have one film that isn’t very good; and I know the Dark Knight Rises could have been better, but Nolan had to regroup since Ledger unexpectedly passed; so with everything going on, i think it was well done; if Ledger hadn’t passed, I’m sure it would have been better; but even with the DKR lacking, it still had a lot of memorable moments, particularly with Bane.

  3. Tenet sounds like cinematic self-indulgence that only directors like Nolan could afford because they already have their names and reputation :) I haven’t seen this film and actually looking at the story it all sounds too complicating and in the cast list I don’t see a single actor who can provide emotional intensity and imbue the picture with the necessary power emotionally (in my personal opinion). DiCaprio is known to bring this to any picture and almost single-handendly delivered this in Inception and that is why it has both brains and a heart. I hope Nolan does not end up like Aronofsky in a long run since I consider Aronofsky’s earlier and smaller budget production (Requiem for A Dream) far superior to his big budget ones (Noah). With a lot of money and great expectations certain directors do make a mess out of their films.

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