Christopher Nolan’s newest film is the first major release to venture into theaters after the summer lockdown. It finds the revered director tackling his fantasy project of a spy thriller, but on his own terms.
If there is anything certain in this world, it is the fact that Christopher Nolan will always surprise you with his newest release. For the most part, his films have defied expectations in the best way, and in that manner have been embraced by audiences and critics. He has solidified his legacy as one of the most creative filmmakers in the industry by constantly challenging his audiences with new ideas and perspectives. His most impressive talent is the way he is able to confuse us while maintaining a high entertainment factor. The unwelcome effort associated with unraveling a complicated plot or idea becomes a fun puzzle-solving experience.
Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, certainly surprises, but in a different and unwelcome way compared to his previous releases. Tenet has a creative framework, mind-altering ideas, and inventive action sequences unlike you’ve seen before. Yet, the foundation for this latest Nolan puzzler is strikingly familiar. This is the sophisticated heist-like plot of Inception, told with a sleight of hand which mimics The Prestige, edited in a way that recalls Memento, and with realistic hero/villian studies a’la The Dark Knight. Tenet is not an entirely new thing from Nolan, but instead a collection of his greatest hits.
What this means is Nolan isn’t venturing into new territory. It’s familiar. That observation on its own is not necessarily a bad thing. Picking good parts out of great things to create a new thing is what the industry has been doing for decades. It’s just not exactly what Nolan has been doing. Nolan DOES make films which are homage to his classic inspirations, but this one is an homage to himself.
But still, that’s not enough to condemn Tenet on its own. Even if Nolan made a duplicate film which literally borrowed footage from his previous efforts, it would still probably be good. The problem with Tenet is that Nolan’s efforts for pushing the envelope on the front end cause some details to be overlooked on the back end. The film focuses so hard on the little ideas, it compromises the big ones. It’s the movie equivalent of an over-engineered pop-up tent. Meticulously and lovingly crafted, but still very difficult to fit all the parts back in the bag.
The surprise of Tenet is that instead of being a smart sophisticated action film, it becomes a complicated, confounding one. It’s not a dumb movie, but it is less smart than what we’ve come to expect from Nolan. It's not a mess, but its messy. It is so complicated it borders on tedious. Nolan has always been able to weave his complicated patterns in an artistic, sophisticated way. Tenet can’t get out of the way of its own two feet. It just keeps piling on more and more details, suffocating the audience’s enjoyment of the film because we are so busy trying to catch up. The pacing is breakneck, and for a two and a half hour film the unrelenting push forward leaves you battered rather than amused.
Nolan’s films typically start with a scene in the future or past which doesn’t make a lot of sense to the audience. Nolan then spends the rest of the film filling in those details to make the beginning comprehensible. Tenet has the same kind of awe-inspiring but perplexing opening, yet those crucial details to make sense of it are not convincingly conveyed later on. The dialogue is detail-laden, but it comes at you so quickly its hard to pick up on everything. Rather than show us what is happening, as he does in his other films, Nolan has no choice but to tell us.
As a result, the dialogue has an unnatural, plot-filler nature. Usually that type of obvious attempt at spoken exposition by writers is accommodated at the beginning of a film, but this one has it all the way through. Every moment not spent in a thrilling action sequence is spent stitching together the plot to allow the next one. Luckily, Nolan does leave enough little nuggets for the audience to latch onto so that they can realize the general direction of the plot. There are identifiable ideas like MacGuffins, nifty gadgets, plans for mass destruction, and villains with fallible egos. Christopher Nolan has always said he wanted to direct a James Bond film, and he brings some of those genre staples to this film.
From a performance perspective, the actors do a good enough, but not great job. The contrived dialogue does not do any favors to John David Washington’s delivery. His character is also very under-developed, at the end of the film we don’t know much more about him than we did at the beginning. Perhaps its an ode to the traditional non-characterization of secret agent protagonists in mainstream cinema, but it also just feels like the film ran out of time and had to prioritize. Both Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Kenneth Branagh are nearly unrecognizable, and as such I found their performances to be the most engaging. Branagh especially chews up the scenery as a formidable baddie, but everyone else is monotonous.
Nolan himself does some fine work. We see little easter eggs and his detail-oriented approach keeps things interesting on multiple levels. This is a film that is probably a lot of fun to watch a second or third time - actually I would say it is required. There’s a loud, brash, techno-electronic soundtrack which takes over, and distracts for better or for worse. On the technical side, I found the sound mixing to be problematic. With so much importance given to the dialogue to explain things to the audience, it needed to be clearer, crisper, and better executed. Production-wise, this film is similar to Nolan’s other works, but his decision to eschew CGI and green screens as much as possible really pays off.
I’ve purposely avoided giving a plot summary in this review because I don’t want to spoil anything. Tenet really does have some mind-blowing ideas which have never been brought to cinema before. Nolan is the only filmmaker I can think of who could be capable of tackling something like this, and the fact that even HE struggles with it is proof of how ambitious it is. Witnessing that type of paradigm shift is probably the most enjoyable aspect of Tenet, and such an experience could otherwise be diminished by having some knowledge of key plot details walking in.
But, at the same time, Tenet is a film which needs a better explanation. In this manner, Nolan’s ambition gets the better of him. He has some really intriguing ideas here, but isn’t able to nail them down in a convincing manner or arrange them in a way he hasn't already done before. Add in some of the technical, writing, and acting blemishes, and it is easy to name this among Nolan’s worst films to date. These are the types of filmmaking errors which we have not seen from Nolan before, which makes this film even more perplexing than the convoluted plot. Tenet is an interesting but not entirely entertaining action film.
Is it enough to merit the trek back to theaters? That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. Nolan has yet to make a bad film, and this one is no exception. What I can say is Tenet is a film which needs to be seen several times to be completely understood. Not only does this bring additional scrutiny to the studio’s decision to push for a theatrical release, it means the film will probably remain misunderstood for some time.
What's Bad: Unnecessarily complicated and unwieldy plot, struggles to provide sufficient details to the audience when they are needed, relies too heavily on the dialogue for exposition which makes it tedious, underdeveloped characters, some technical blemishes, treads into familiar Nolan territory but is also not as well polished as we expect from him.