Tenet (2020) – Movie Review

Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey

Tenet represents the best and worst part of the cinema experience. After an extended hiatus from the big screen, it seems fitting that Christopher Nolan’s latest twisty-turny thriller is the blockbuster being used to entice people back into the theatre.

On the one hand, this film has all the ingredients to be a massive success. The musical score is epic, the action sequences breathtaking and the 2.5 hour run-time zips by at an incredible pace. However, for every positive aspect this film also brings its own heist-sized issues that are hard to look past.

For one, that aforementioned pacing is far too frenetic to really understand the full narrative the first time around. Despite scribbling a litany of notes in the dark, I – like many others I assume – came away from this more than a little confused.

The other problem comes from the audio. I’m not sure what happened but the sound mixing here is pretty atrocious. Dialogue is muffled – partly thanks to close-up scenes of masks and breathing apparatus obscuring the mouth – and the score distractedly bleeds into that too. With subtitles this could perhaps have been alleviated but without it, many will find themselves straining to hear exactly what these characters are saying. And that’s a bit of a problem because Tenet’s intriguing ideas require your utmost attention to fully grasp the concepts being played with here.

It’s difficult to explain without spoiling large parts of the story but instead, the best explanation falls to The Doctor’s monologue on Doctor Who during the episode ‘Blink’. For those unaware, his speech goes like this:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”

Timey-wimey indeed; Nolan’s wibbly wobbly thriller plays with these ideas of cause and effect constantly. It’s big, bold, bombastic stuff and all of this is projected through the inclusion of inverted objects and inversion.

What begins as a simple idea of catching bullets and stealing paintings, soon progresses to a concept so horrific and mind-bending that – if completed – could cause the end of everything, everywhere, forever. A total collapse of time itself. No pressure then for our protagonist!

The protagonist tasked with trying to prevent this happening is John David Washington who’s simply referred to as ‘The Protagonist’. Alongside his trusty partner Neil, the two begin with a scene that feels like it’s been ripped right from The Dark Knight. An opera is invaded by armed police and as bullets rain down, all of this crescendos into an explosive finish.

It’s a breathless, adrenaline-soaked opener and when we’re given space to catch our breath, the main narrative comes into view. There’s a lot going on here but the gist of this ties elements of a heist together with an apocalyptic countdown. Despite its unusual ideas, the basic structure of the screenplay follows the usual narrative highs, lows and climactic battle at the end.

Thematically at least, Tenet has a lot going for it and this intricate puzzle box really benefits from repeat watches. Only, instead of films like The Butterfly Effect, Inception or Coherence, this film feels intentionally designed to force you back into the cinema in a bid to understand what you’ve just watched.

This is, of course, different from an intentional foreshadowed bite of dialogue or an Easter Egg noticed a second or third time around. This will inevitably split the movie-going community in half. After all, why should someone spend double the money to understand something they should the first time around?

This task is made all the more difficult by the sheer lack of empathy toward characters. The Protagonist is a nameless mystery and his lack of back-story really makes it difficult to warm to his mission. More of why he’s doing this is explained later on but I can’t help but feel even red herring nods to a life once lived would have been welcome. Instead, it’s more of a blank slate.

The Protagonist’s friend Neil is given a bit more colour to his persona, and Robert Pattinson does a fine job bringing him to life. It’s just a pity he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue to work with outside of plot exposition.

Lending a feminine voice to the group is Kat, who winds up integral to the main narrative and happens to be the easiest character to warm to. Enslaved to her oppressive and overbearing husband Andrei Sator, Kat’s struggle feels grounded in realism and her motivations are much more simplistic than that of the moody and mysterious Protagonist. Thanks to his sway over their son, Kat is promised a way out by The Protagonist when he arrives, and she clings to this with both hands.

Ultimately though Tenet feels like a “Greatest Hits” picture; a patchwork of various different films to form a familiar yet distant screenplay. There’s shades of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who era, Inception, Interstellar and even Looper at work here but nothing that feels as warm or inviting as any of those pictures.

Tenet is a movie that almost radiates an air of pretentiousness about itself, smugly demanding multiple re-watches and scoffing at anyone straining to hear the muffled dialogue.

When it comes to the final conflict you’ll either be fully invested or fully checked out – there really is no middle ground here. This is going to be a very polarizing film for a lot of people.

Despite its ambitious reach, Nolan’s latest picture stretches itself but just misses the top rung on the step ladder. Props to the team for the ambition with this though and one of the best aspects with the big screen comes from the constant desire to push boundaries and try new things.

Despite some strong ideas and breathtaking set pieces, everything around this front fails to reach the high bar Christopher Nolan has set for itself. The result is a cinematic movie that ironically would have served better as a VOD or streaming title.

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  • Verdict - 7/10

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