Review: "Tenet" (spoiler free)
January is the catch up time of year for me when it comes to watching movies. There arent usually any big releases, so most of what’s left in theaters is either holdovers from the holidays or Oscar hopefuls slowly releasing to more and more parts of the country. Obviously theaters aren’t much of a thing right now, and I’m skeptical of visiting any despite not seeing a film on the big screen since February of last year when I saw Little Women for a second time. So I’ve spent this January at home, making lists of the most acclaimed films of last year that I failed to see, and searching through the handful of streaming sites I’m subscribed to finding indie gems and tentpole films from their respective film databanks. One film that slipped through the cracks last year was “Tenet”, the big budget, shoulda-been blockbuster that heroically attempted to save the theatrical experience by releasing in theaters on September 3rd, and ultimately failing to bring in enough money to save itself from its massive ($200 million plus) budget. Studios took the hint, realized that people just weren't interested enough to brave the pandemic ridden world and sit in an enclosed room with dozens of people for two hours, and nearly all large releases were either pushed back months from their original release date or released in theaters and on VOD at the same time, with some of them carrying a $20 rental fee. I wasn’t too keen on venturing back to the movie theaters at that point in time, so I waited patiently for the film to be available to watch from the safety of my home, and then promptly waited some more until this past week when I finally decided that I’d had enough, I was going to take the time to watch what was one of my most anticipated films of last year.
“Tenet” is, first and foremost, ambitious. Christopher Nolan, never one to shy away from making the most intricate film possible, went all out on this film. Warner Brothers essentially said “Hey, go make your movie, we got the bill” and while it certainly wasn’t a failure of a film, given the pandemic box office and the somewhat mixed critical reaction, they may think twice before they hand him a blank check in the future. That is, if they even have the chance after Nolan ripped Warner in a public tirade over their decision to debut their 2021 releases on HBO Max at the same time as they release in theaters.
Nolan has a somewhat strange obsession with time. It’s a theme that is very evident in nearly all of his films outside of the “Dark Knight” trilogy. Films like “Memento” and “Inception” rest entirely on time and “Interstellar” literally has time built into its soundtrack, albeit geniusly by Hans Zimmer. “Tenet” is perhaps the ultimate experiment in the realm of time and how it can be manipulated. To explain the concept would unfortunately be a spoiler, but there is essentially a way for certain individuals to go backwards in time, but not like traditional time travel. A person can literally go backwards, or technically forwards into the past. It’s a lot to take in and I can’t explain it here, but if you truly don’t know anything about the film then maybe brush up on a trailer or two because it’s as convoluted as it sounds, and I think that right there might be the biggest flaw with the film.
Nolan has bit off more than he can chew, and while in his other complicated films there’s usually a scene where characters actually sit down and explain the math to you so you not only understand what’s happening and how, you almost believe that it could be a real thing that humans could achieve, “Tenet” sacrifices that exposition to focus on the action. There’s a very brief explanation of how things work and then it’s balls to the wall, learn as we go filmmaking, and honestly I respect the hell out of it. I know how Nolan works - how he brings in mathematicians and physicists to make sure that the complex ideas he’s created make literal and physical sense, and for me I was able to put my faith in him that whatever he was doing checked out and just go along for the ride. I’ll admit it can be a little hard to keep up with, especially towards the end of the film when the dial gets turned up to 11, but even my mild confusion was overwhelmed by the guts of this film. It’s not the most intricately put together film you’ll ever see, don’t let me oversell it, but it’s something new that I don’t think I’ve seen any film do before, and in a time chock full of remakes and reboots it’s oh so refreshing to see such a bold, original idea just go for it.
The cast isn’t quite as star studded as we’re accustomed to seeing in Nolan’s films, but they do their job and they do it well. John David Washington stars in the lead role, with Robert Pattinson who has had a terrific past couple years and looks to have more ahead (Batman, anyone?). Michael Caine, of course, shows up, and Kenneth Brannagh turns in a solid performance as well. The standout of the film to me is Elizabeth Debicki who really caught my eye in 2018’s “Widows” and is given a brilliant role in this film. Out of anyone she has the broadest character range to work with and I cannot wait to see her get more big roles in high profile films.
The film is not without its flaws. As said before, It can be a little difficult to follow, especially in the third act, but like most Nolan films it benefits from repeated viewings and rewards intelligent audience members. Not every film needs to make perfect sense when viewed for the first time, and there’s a big difference between a film that is confusing because the filmmakers are telling a layered, complex story and a film that is confusing due to lazy writing or lack of logic. Another slight issue I had that the general public seemed to have a much bigger problem with than I did was the sound mixing. The dialogue is a bit difficult to discern above all the other noises happening throughout and several characters wear masks for a decent portion of the film which doesn’t help in the slightest. Overcompensating by turning up your TV volume will reward you with near deafened eardrums when the score kicks in. Speaking of, the score created by Ludwig Göransson, the Oscar winning composer of “Black Panther” as well as “Creed”, “Venom” and more recently “The Mandalorian”, while maybe not as memorable as scores from other Nolan films does do a great job of bringing a frantic energy to the film. It’s the first score for a Nolan film not composed by Hans Zimmer since “The Prestige” in 2006. Zimmer was busy working on “Dune” at the time which makes me very excited to see that film and to hear what he’s come up with. If you turn down Christopher Nolan you must have something truly special in the works.
Overall I had a blast with "Tenet". Part of my reaction was most definitely my starvation for fresh, exciting filmmaking, but it's a thrilling 2 ½ hours that was just what I needed at the time. I look forward to being able to sit down and watch it over again and see the puzzle pieces come together even more.