2020 has been such a strange year it’s probably in fitting that 2 of the strangest blockbusters of recent memory end up opening theaters back up with The New Mutants and Tenet. The New Mutants feels strange because it was delayed so long that its entire franchise feels dated and Tenet because it is from the auteur-meets-mainstream filmmaker that is Christopher Nolan. Going into the weekend I was sure I’d prefer Nolan’s film over The New Mutants but having seen them both I don’t know if that is the case? Their flaws are different, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching the simple superhero origin movie over the convoluted enterprise that was Tenet.
Without giving any spoilers away Tenet stars John David Washington as the Protagonist (literally that’s his name). He is a CIA agent who becomes involved in a secret organization that is studying inverted energy- or moving backward through time. As part of their investigations they become involved with Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who for a number of reasons is trying to star World War III and destroy the entire world with his technology. He is also manipulating his ex-wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) in a complicated case of blackmail involving their son and art.
Robert Pattinson’s Neil is the best character in the film because his job is to inform the Protagonist of what is going on through long exposition dumps. We like him because he is the only one helping us get some kind of baring into the story. Everything and everyone else is muddled and messy.
The truth is at 150 minutes of this sustained confusion I struggled to stay invested and found myself nodding off more than I should have, especially for how much action is in the film. It goes to show all the splashy action in the world does not get you anywhere, for this critic at least, if the characters aren’t engaging and the story isn’t interesting. And I didn’t go into the movie tired or weary. I was ready to be entertained but I mostly wasn’t.
Some will probably compare Tenet to Nolan’s Inception but to me there is no comparison. I was so much more invested in the characters in the former compared to the latter. I really cared about Inception’s Cobb and have always felt that his relationship with his wife Mal was the emotional core of the movie. Also Inception set up the clues for its puzzle well, piece by piece, so it earned the ambiguous ending. Part of the fun of Inception was walking out debating with my friends what the spinning top means for the characters?
Tenet, on the other hand, doesn’t develop characters we care about. Branagh’s villain, in particular, falls flat in a very one-note performance. Likewise, the clues aren’t laid out in an enticing or interesting way. It ends up feeling like 2.5 hours of characters we don’t care about experiencing cool looking stuff. This can only entertain you for so long. It’s also hard to get invested in characters and story clues when Nolan chooses to have the sound design almost incomprehensible for most of the dialogue. A friend of mine has a hearing aid and got to watch the film with closed-captions, and I’m honestly jealous. I don’t think I’m being ungenerous when saying 2/3rds of Tenet is unintelligible, to my ears at least.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does tremendous work here and the visual effects should all be praised. Hans Zimmer couldn’t do this film because of his work on the upcoming Dune (we got a trailer to a trailer for that film and even though I hate the book what I saw is intriguing) but Ludwig Göransson does a good imitation. Unfortunately the sound mixing is so off and the music so loud the score becomes distracting to the overall narrative.
I’m not going to tell you to avoid Tenet. Maybe it’s too smart for me and you’ll get what Nolan is trying to do? Maybe I will watch it 2 or 3 more times and eventually it will all make sense? It’s possible but I doubt it. Go see it and make up your mind for yourself (as would be my advice for all films). I appreciate that Nolan is pushing mainstream audiences and is not satisfied with the ordinary movie-going experience. Unfortunately sometimes he forgets that the basics of good cinema are important too- characters, story, intelligible dialogue, emotion etc. We need it all for the pretty images to mean something and make an impact. Sorry Nolan! Try again!
4 out of 10