3 out of 5 Stars
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Genre: Action, Thriller
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language
SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — Synopsis: The Protagonist, an unnamed former CIA agent, is tasked with saving the world from a megalomaniac with a death wish.
Review: Early in his career, director/writer Christopher Nolan made a name for himself by telling a story backwards. 2000’s “Memento” was an unusual, exciting work of art that built upon the non-linear structure of Nolan’s first film “Following.” Disorientation was part of the master plan and it was well executed. 2010’s “Inception” was twice as dizzy, but even at its most ambitious and complex moments it never felt muddled.
It’s hard to talk about “Tenet,” a film that often moves backward and forward at the same time. It’s happening even when Nolan isn’t explicitly drawing attention to it. It is those moments, when the time manipulation isn’t emphasized, that the film works best. The rest, particularly the third act, feels jumbled. Not because Nolan is sloppy; because he complicates the narrative to the point where the story is incomprehensible. The general arc is mostly clear, but the details are buried beneath the physics of time travel. The pinch of science and theory thrown here and there feels like intellectual smoke and mirrors. For the first time, I don’t trust Nolan as a storyteller. I’m hesitant to go where he wants to take me.
Visually, the film is impressive. The cast, particularly Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, and John David Washington, are strong. I don’t know how I feel about Kenneth Branagh. You aren’t supposed to like his character. So, my annoyance with him might not be so much about the performances as it is the role itself.
Some are going to find the audio mix to be frustrating. Nolan is also notorious for allowing the dialogue to be buried beneath the score or ambient sounds and that’s very much the case here. It doesn’t help that numerous characters wear masks and many also have accents. “Tenet” isn’t as bombastic as “Dunkirk,” but there will be dialogue that gets lost. It is an artistic choice. You’re more than welcome to disagree with it.
Where “Tenet” disappoints me is that I was never invested in the characters or the world they inhabit. It feels nihilistic; defeated in victory. It doesn’t draw me in. If there is a puzzle to be solved, I’m not sure that I’m interested enough to want to riddle it out. Certainly not in the way that I was with “Inception.”
“Inception” encouraged dialogue. “Tenet” is so tied up in knots that it convinces the audience that they are to blame for not understanding what they’ve just witnessed. I love Nolan’s body of work, but the issue with “Tenet” isn’t that we aren’t smart enough, it is that the story hasn’t been told well enough for me to even want to understand it. Neil, Pattinson’s character, has a lengthy speech at end of the film that either sets up a sequel or negates the need for one altogether. The fact that I can’t tell isn’t as telling as my hope that there won’t be one. I’d be happy to return to the time loop of “Live Die Repeat,” but I’m not really interested in reliving “Tenet.”
My recommendation is, if you see the film, don’t spend time trying to sleuth out the clues. Watch it as empty entertainment; not an enlightened missive from the great beyond.