In a tumultuous time where visual media has done everything humanly possible–expect for implanting computer chips in consumers’ skulls–to provide itself for in-home viewing, theater chains’ unhurried efforts to return to business in the United States have officially received the first potential money-maker in the form of Warner Bros. Pictures’ Tenet. The science fiction, spy-thriller blockbuster (in appearance only), originally scheduled to be released back in July of this year, has stood out as the first major gamble by any studio to achieve profits through theater revenue since March. Advertisements across all platforms in Colorado have touted the buzzworthy phrase, “Big Movies are Back in Denver”, as if the risk of visiting a theater is outweighed by the film’s enjoyment. Therefore, there appears to be one question on potential moviegoers’ minds: is it any good? When answering the question, one may contemplate and find it humorous that the quality of the film is like the premise itself, since it proves to be working forwards and backwards in almost every aspect.
Tenet is certainly one of the most ambitious high-budget films to ever come out; this is both for better and for worse. Writer-director Christopher Nolan, who has gone on record as stating that the completion of the script took almost seven years, proved himself as the next big blockbuster director with hits like the Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), Inception (2010), and Interstellar (2014). Drawing from themes of human resilience and pathos in addition to cerebral frameworks, Nolan has almost always attempted to push the envelope further with how “out there” his art may become. Unfortunately, in the case of Tenet, this may have led him to bite off more than he can chew. It certainly may be described as ambitious, even at just a glance of the premise and general execution, but as the tired saying goes, pride comes before the fall (even if the fall is, by all accounts, not that far).
When the film commences, and that familiar, rich sound of deep bass and percussion made popular by the Inception soundtrack starts, the screen almost immediately engrosses the viewer into the high-stakes world of espionage. Many moving parts commence, and the audience races against the clock with The Protagonist (yes, the main character does adopt the codename, “The Protagonist”) in an exhilarating mission of many moving, well-executed elements. It is these same elements that also admittedly overwhelm the audience, since so many pieces working at once makes the overall introduction somewhat difficult to follow. After only ten minutes, one may be leaning over to their friend–with social distancing, of course–and asking if they understood the exact information delivered in the phlegmatic yet hasty dialogue. To make things worse, this dialogue is often overshadowed by the intensity of Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack, which, while successful in keeping with the energy and pace of the action, also intrudes on important information in a story where the audience already must pay full attention to understand everything occurring. It boggles the mind as to why the post-production team did not triple check their sound mixing before release.
Tenet’s story, while not possessing the most perspicacious themes, stands as another strong example of working for both the betterment and detriment of the film. To tell a constantly developing plot concerning time inversion is a feat within itself, but to tell it with careful attention to detail in large-scale set pieces, that are represented in different ways in different scenes, makes for immensely successful audience engagement (and enjoyment). Such fantastically executed scenes then, unintentionally, highlight how boring and/or pretentious the scenes comprised majoritively of dialogue are. Characters, who all possess serious, steely demeanors, speak in hushed tones and philosophical objectives, leading to cyclical, redundant conversations that do not enhance the given story in any way. Whether or not these were intended to subtly emphasize the themes of human nature struggling against chronological progression, one would most likely not be able to determine after only one viewing. Nolan truly desires to stimulate his audience; specifically, to stimulate their sense of curiosity and comprehension of the universe, as well as how they fit into it as creatures of free will. When all is said and done, his efforts come across as retaining focus on seeming “deep” and “skeptical” without actually recognizing the necessity of natural character interactions. Without those, one has displayed nothing more than a cast of robots systematically walking along a track to the finish line.
Unsurprisingly, the direction and writing of said characters limits the performances by almost everyone in the cast, even with how fun the less serious, Bond-esque exchanges are. Fight choreography and scenes of meticulous, militarized planning are both well-thought out and successfully promote the larger set-pieces to come, but all of the characters feel flat when not working toward immediate goals. John-David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki have such little charisma on-screen despite their previous track records, and Kenneth Branagh, a Shakespearean actor, phones in his character so much that the cheese almost literally spews from the theater screen. The best performance by far is Robert Pattinson–in his official return to Hollywood–as the independent agent, Neil, for he presents a wily charm that blends well with his mysterious origins. When the performances lack, at least the crisp visuals and elaborate, chic production design make up for it by immersing the audience into the film’s world of stylized, elegant spy games.
Among the many flaws of Tenet, there stands an undeniable quality of production and exciting energy across the plot–mostly in the second half–that only studio productions can achieve (and streaming services may closely imitate). The character-driven scenes may bore those who stay awake for their full duration, and the sound-mixing may be overbearing at times, but when the action set pieces and time inversion premise excel, they excel. With or without flaws, Tenet is a fun outing to the movies, though one will have to decide for themselves whether or not they will work backwards to a time when they felt safe sitting in a theater.