Published on September 1st, 2020 | by Craig Silliphant2
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is as spellbinding as it is frustrating. And the theatres should be handing out hearing aids because we couldn’t hear a thing.
The release of Christopher Nolan’s new film, Tenet, is an important one for filmmaking and the continued existence of the theatrical distribution model, even without the world being in the throes of a pandemic. I had tried to avoid hearing anything going in, but one impression was clear — this was going to be a divisive film. Some people were hollering that it was hot garbage, and some were shouting it was his most brilliant film yet.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s a lot to love about Tenet, but also, a lot to frustrate. Like, a lot. No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, you’re not wrong. Tenet is capable of being two things at once, pushing against each other, like the future and the past.
Without giving too much away, Tenet is about a spy that is pulled into a bigger world of intrigue and danger as he tries to stop an impending apocalypse.
It’s a bold, ambitious movie. It had big ideas to chew on and those ideas are turned into some pretty spell-binding action sequences. They even crash a real 747 into a building in a stunning use of practical effects. It moves fast enough to stop you from asking questions, even when questions beg to be asked.
The look of the film speaks of dizzying cinematography, set in a world of beautiful concrete architecture and jet-setting locales. In fact, it has 10% Miami Vice in its DNA; it’s full of rich people in expensive suits racing around on speedboats and chillin’ on arms dealer yachts.
A quick word about the cast — John David Washington (yes, that is Denzel’s son) has plenty of swagger and charisma to spare. Robert Pattinson is proving every day that he’s much more than ‘the guy from Twilight.’ Kenneth Branagh is suitably creepy. Alfred Michael Caine shows up for a brief cameo. And Elizabeth Debicki is acting well beyond the ‘pretty woman in a Mission Impossible movie you’ll never see again after the credits roll’ trope. Side note: she’s obviously a foot taller than everyone else and it’s an interesting choice that they shoot it this way instead of giving everyone a Tom Cruise apple box to stand on.
So, if I’ve made it sound so awesome, speedboats and all — what’s the catch?
Well, the catch is that the film’s ambition doesn’t always manifest in the best ways. For starters, it’s really just action wrapped around big ideas. There’s not much in the way of a human story or characters to care too much about. And anything that might be there gets lost in the noise and confusion of what’s happening.
There are constant exposition dumps as they explain the different pieces of the ‘inversion’ story device. So, take the scene in Inception when Leo is explaining to Ellen Page how the Inception tech works — now make a whole movie out of that, and bam, you’ve got Tenet. Those scenes can be very exciting, like a heist planning sequence, but it can also feel like a brick to the head, again and again, when it’s the whole movie.
Tenet sometimes feels like a James Bond movie, which are almost always weak in terms of character development, or even a cohesive plot; you’re following Bond as he follows a series of MacGuffins. Go get the girl who knows where the plans to the machine are, then go get the plans, then go get the diamond that runs the machine, then go get the machine to put the diamond in, etc, etc, etc. You often lose sight of why Bond is even doing something, but hey, whatever, he’s on skiis being shot at by hired goons on snowmobiles so you have my attention. Tenet may have loftier ideas, but it’s also a lot of following the bouncing ball with the only payoff being another big action piece.
The biggest barrier is that the movie is hard to understand. Not that the ideas are too big for my dumb little brain (though they were), but that it was literally, physically hard to hear what was happening. I don’t know if there were sound issues in the theatre or if he was purposely obfuscating things (there is a scene in a sailboat with loud water and wind and they’re talking through headsets, explaining important plot points, so that seems on purpose).
Combine this with some aggressive music and sound design — and over use of The Booj at every turn and you have a problem. It’s raining technical information on your head, and you need to understand it to get what’s happening for the next few scenes — but it’s, “Mumble mumble time is a flat circle mumble — BOOOOOJ! BOOOOJ!” Followed by an action sequence. Then rinse and repeat.
I know it took Nolan over ten years to work the details of this idea out in his head, but I also wonder if he shouldn’t have taken a step back and figured out how to humanize the story more. How to take these cool, mind-bending concepts, and give true life to the film by giving life to characters within the world. Debicki’s character comes closest to having a human motivation in her son, but when I don’t know what she’s doing or why because I couldn’t make it out in the noise, then nothing matters and there are no stakes.
You can’t tell me I have to care because World War Three BOOOOOJ. You have to make me care through characters and feelings and moments that I understand and empathize with. It’s a very unwieldy film in this way. It’s Tenet’s way or the highway.
All that said, I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle of the love/hate spectrum and repeat viewings will push me one way or the other. My guess is I’ll lean towards, ‘I like it, but it’s deeply flawed.’ (And gimmie some subtitles next time).
If I can hazard a guess at what audiences will feel over time, I think that Tenet is a movie that will probably continue to grow in division — the film, as an experience, is only going to get better or more annoying over time, depending on what you got out of it.