Tenet (2020) movie review
Tenet is the latest sci-fi-action film from writer/director Christopher Nolan, who had us lost in a dream in 2010, pondering the secrets of the universe in 2014, and wondering why we were confused in 2017. In his new mindbender Tenet, John David Washington stars as a man who is given the chance to stop a coming war that could end the world… And while I have you in the opening, let me set your expectations right: Inception was a heist film, Interstellar was a science fiction film, Dunkirk was a war film, and Tenet is a spy-thriller. Nolan trailers don’t typically deceive the audience, they more just give a glimpse at what we are getting into. Tenet however is marketed as something super vague dealing with time and the concept of Inversion, however while time does play a role in the film, it is about a man recruited by an agency to help stop Kenneth Branagh from ending the world.
As much as I would love to make a few noisrevnI jokes here, I’ve done very little except think about this movie and what I want to say about it without giving anything away. I think my Tenet review could be very simple though, depending on you the reader. Are you a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work? Yes? Well go see Tenet. No? Well did you at least like Inception for its ability to challenge you while entertaining you? Well go see Tenet. What’s that? You don’t want to go into a film to think? Well maybe don’t go see Tenet. No I think if you are reading this, you want to hear just how Tenet holds up to the rest of Mr. Nolan’s work, and yeah I will absolutely get to answering that question. Unless I already did…? (No that- that doesn’t make sense let’s just get on with the review.)
Okay this might be a strange comparison here, but I liked Tenet about as much as Us (2018), for a few very specific reasons. The first being that the high bar set by Inception (2012) and Get Out (2017) was just too much to hold these films to. Similarly, I think both films hold back early on, starting interesting but not altogether engulfing, only to bring out the big guns an hour in. Both films shift gears and take the audience on a wild ride, and both land on their feet and leave you wanting just a few more minutes. But in both films, I couldn’t help but feel a little unimpressed with the setup, and to be honest, Us probably does a better job in its first act than Tenet does. So let’s get into this a bit and talk as vaguely as possible about what I did and did not love in yet another altogether impressive blockbuster epic.
So since I just talked about the first act, let’s start negative. At first I found the story interesting but pretentious. Nolan has been known to start his well-dressed protagonists unrelatable at first, and somewhere between the typical inciting incident, not knowing much about the protagonist, and the consistent use of the word ‘protagonist,’ it felt a little bit like somebody gave a film student 80 million dollars. The action early on was- well it was fine but unremarkable, the pacing was somehow too fast to keep up with but too slow to introduce truly captivating elements, and the science fiction aspect of this film seemed almost trivial. By the midpoint of the film, I felt like an idiot.
Christopher Nolan takes the training wheels off and sends us kids careening down a mountain after just learning that we are even riding a bike. And I loved almost every minute of this gorgeous nonsense after that! The plot thickens, the characters are finally given more to do, and the stakes become not only clear, but comprehensible. For me the more confusing Tenet got, the more it made sense. (By that I mean when Nolan’s incredibly complex mind begins to express his imagination, the core aspects of the film grow stronger.)
Not everything was perfect, and my complaints about the protagonist remained until the end of the film. John David Washington does a great job, and he manages to balance the complex nature of the film with relative ease by missing in a touch of charm and a dash of suave action. His character on the other hand, while interesting, doesn’t have a very clear character arc. Sure there is a learning curve, but his development is either buried deep enough to warrant a second viewing, or Elizabeth Dibicki is the protagonist since she shows the most change. Protagonist or not, she was fantastic! As were the performances from Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh.
Instead of talking more about the story and twists and turns and all manner of plot-related discussions that, while would help share my positive feelings about the film, would spoil it as well, I will touch on quality, which deserves just as much attention. Good gosh I have no idea how Christopher Nolan makes things happen. There is a rather simple fight between two characters in a hallway that makes most choreography look easy in comparison. Or stunt work, or visual effects work, or editing work. Tenet is a very intricate film with complicated moving parts in many of its finest sequences, and for the life of me I don’t know how to begin talking about them, just like what seems like most of Nolan’s films. It is no wonder how this man has redefined what a blockbuster can be.
Now take in mind that I’ve seen this film once, so I haven’t even decided yet if the writing is complete nonsense or utter brilliance. I do however know that I loved plenty of the aspects in this film, despite a slow start and an overabundance of the word ‘protagonist’ for a film without a clear arc. But between Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sharp and stunning cinematography, Ludwig Goransson’s captivating score, the strong performances, and of course the imagination of the film’s writer and director, Tenet was an experience that I want to sit through again. I was on the edge of my seat more than a few times, and that’s often just how invested and entertained I was when this movie got going! I know that a Nolan film deserves much more than a simple review, but I will just have to watch it again and write a deep-dive where I can talk spoilers. Overall though, I thought Tenet was a great time that is worth seeing for its complexity and quality alone, let along the fact that it’s exhilarating! 8/10.
Tenet? Have you seen it yet? What did you think? And where would you rank it with CHristpher Nolan’s other films? I myself would put it above Dunkirk (2017), but I don’t think it has the heart of Insterstellar (2014) or the perfect complexity of Inception (2010). But be sure to leave your own thoughts in the comments below and let us know! And if you liked this review and you want to read more, be sure to let us know in the comments what movie you would like us to review next!
-review by Ryan Prince