‘Tenet’ Is Loud and Confusing, Only Sometimes Fun

Did I drive three hours across state lines to see this because theaters are still closed in New York? Yup.

“Tenet” is the latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan, and follows a CIA agent (John David Washington) who must figure out a mysterious time-altering technique in order to stop an apocalyptic event. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, and Kenneth Branagh also star.

All summer all any of us heard about was “Tenet,” “Tenet,” “Tenet,” and its half-dozen delays from the initial July 17 date. Nolan, a champion of the traditional theater experience, vouched to get this thing seen on the big screen, pandemic be damned, and he finally got his wish in September. And having not seen a film in a brick-and-mortar theater since “Bloodshot” in March, and with flu season and another possible lockdown looming, I made the decision that this could be my last opportunity to see a film in theater until the spring. And is “Tenet” worth the additional effort or health risks? I mean, not really, but it was nice to be back in a theater again. 

At this point we know what we’re getting with a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse: impressive visuals, booming scores, and high-concept stories, partnered with thin characters and some head-scratching plot holes. “Tenet” almost plays like a parody of Nolan movies, making no effort to flesh out its characters (outside Elizabeth Debicki, a welcome change for Nolan who has been accused of neglecting his female roles in the past) but offering a feast for the senses.

John David Washington continues his rise to fame, and has long established his own career outside of his father Denzel’s shadow. Here, Washington (aptly named simply “The Protagonist”) doesn’t do much emoting, but carries his scenes well-enough and handles the action sequences with finesse. He isn’t the next James Bond, but the role hardly called for charisma or a smooth attitude (traits Washington has shown he has in other roles).

Robert Pattinson returns to blockbusters after spending years in the indie circuit (which earned him critical acclaim but by his own admission “no one watches those movies”), and brings the charm and serious tone that we’d expect at this point. I doubt this character is anything like Pattinson will bring to his Batman role next year, but it’s nice to see him on the big screen again (I saw “The Lighthouse” in theaters but let’s be honest, did you?). The rest of the cast is solid; Debicki continues to add to her rising stock and “Yesterday” star Himesh Patel and Sir Michael Caine show up in extended cameos. 

The only bad performance is Kenneth Branagh. A Irish-British actor, Branagh dons a Russian accent and spits and screams and… it’s just a lot. He seems to be in an entirely different movie, and on two occasions made me laugh because of how cheesy he was being.

Nolan has claimed that most everything we see on-screen here is practical, and that there are “less special effects than your typical romantic comedy.” That is impressive, considering some of the set pieces here, from flipping cars to crashing a Boeing 747 into a building, are quite ambitious. And the film does look good, that will never be the issue with a Nolan film.

The issue here is everything to do with the time-bending elements. I would like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person, and usually I can get to the bottom of a film while watching it, if not after a discussion. Here, I have almost no idea what happened, or rather how things happened, and it’s not for a lack of trying. My brother walked out baffled as well, and even the Wikipedia plot summary and a fairly detailed map of the film’s structure only muddled the waters more. Even the characters seem to not know what the rules of the world are, telling each other “don’t bother trying to understand it.” Nolan went out of his way to flex his “time inversion” theory, and the result is you trying to figure out what and why a scene is happening instead of enjoying it. 

The sound mixing is also not great, with characters talking at already low levels overplayed with a (admittedly pretty good) score by Hoyte van Hoytema and other ambient noises. This film deserves to be seen on the big screen, but would benefit more from a small one (with subtitles). 

“Tenet” left me confused (but not in a good way like “Inception”) and wanting more (but not in an anticipatory way like “Batman Begins”). At 150 minutes it could have been trimmed at points, and there’s no excuse for Nolan to have made it as convoluted as he did. I can’t recommend you seek out a theater to see this, but I’ll eventually rewatch it from my couch and that’s when you should check it out, too. Knowing what I know now, a repeat viewing could prove to be beneficial, or could make the film collapse upon itself; time will tell.

Critics Rating: 5/10

Warner Bros.

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