“Tenet” was easily one of the most highly anticipated movie releases of 2020.
It had been three years since Christopher Nolan directed a feature film, with “Dunkirk” coming out in 2017 to critical acclaim. Before that, his films “Memento,” the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception,” to name a few, were colossally successful. With a production budget of $205 million, “Tenet” was set to be his biggest film yet.
Its release was delayed not once, not twice, but three times because of the pandemic, with each successive delay only making fans of Nolan’s work more feverish for its premiere.
Big-name acting talents in the form of John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branaghan only served to make its release a powder keg of hype. Penning Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson for the score was the icing on the cake.
My, how lovely that cake looks. And the taste? Well… that isn’t nearly as lovely.
“Tenet” tells the story of a CIA agent (John David Washington), who remains nameless, who is recruited by a secret organization to look into technology that can “invert” the entropy of matter, making it move backwards in time.
Joining the protagonist on his quest is Neil (Robert Pattinson), a CIA contact who helps him trace the origin of “inverted” bullets to a Russian oligarch by the name of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). After meeting Sator and his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the protagonist is almost killed by Sator, but is spared after they agree to team up to retrieve a case of plutonium.
The operation is botched, and the protagonist and Neil later learn that Sator is attempting to construct an “algorithm” that is capable of inverting the entropy of the whole planet, thus ending the world.
If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is — trying to simplify the proceedings only makes them more confusing. The plot of “Tenet” is aggressively convoluted, as though its goal is to confuse its audience so that they are unable to determine its true quality.
The viewer is force-fed massive quantities of exposition in a manner that is sloppy, overwhelming and robotic, leaving very little room for the characters to relay anything about their personalities or their backstories. Everyone and everything in this movie is a plot device, deterministically dragging the lifeless corpse of its plot to its cliched climax — a secret agent stopping a Russian bad guy from destroying the world.
Every single acting performance in this movie was as pale as its color palette, which is especially disappointing considering the talent that can be found on the cast list.
The movie’s pathetic pacing doesn’t do it any favors either. The protracted lulls between its action sequences, which everyone knows are the main attraction, make the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime feel like two-and-a-half days.
This film also presented the first instance in which I thought the sound mixing was noticeably bad. Watching this movie without subtitles is almost impossible — that is, if you actually want to understand what’s being said. Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the film’s climax, where dialogue describing the characters’ actions (because that’s the only thing the dialogue in this movie does) is drowned out by the booming bass lines of Göransson’s score or wayward explosions in the background.
“Tenet” shined when it wasn’t trying to explain theoretical physics or bore you with the woefully underdeveloped love story between the protagonist and Kat.
Its action sequences were genuinely gripping, thanks in no small part to good directing from Nolan. The film’s cinematography was also above average, making sure that the viewer’s eyes were always glued to the screen, even during the film's most boring sequences.
The visual effects were truly spectacular, and were easily the film’s best component. The smoothness with which inverted objects whisked past those traveling forward in time was a showstopper, as were the pyrotechnic displays of the film’s climax.
Göransson’s score is a revelation. Not only does it perfectly complement the edgy, futuristic nature of the film’s story, but it also manages to raise the stakes and create tension where the screenplay couldn’t on its own. His musical talent was one of the few reasons this movie was watchable in the first place, which is why I was deeply saddened when it was snubbed for Best Original Score by the Academy.
“Tenet” tried to be a prototypical summer blockbuster, prioritizing big-budget action sequences and astonishing visual effects over the development of its characters and its narrative.
The movie may be a mess, but it still netted two Oscar nominations. Though a nod for Best Production Design is unlikely to bear fruit, it’s my front-runner for the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
It had the potential for so much more. But in that regard, like in most others, “Tenet” disappoints. (6.5/10)
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