Review: ‘Tenet’ is visually impressive but too clever by half.

Tenet was one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Delayed multiple times due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was finally released to theatres late in the summer in an effort to save the cinema business but need up only proving that the world still wasn’t safe enough for that to happen. Not a flop at the box office exactly, but not a moneymaker either, there isn’t a movie with a more interesting story behind it this year.

Now, finally, it has arrived on home video, and I have finally had a chance to see it. So, how is it? Well, it’s a visually stunning and completely frustrating mess of a movie.

The story follows John David Washington as the films unnamed protagonist, who after a test of loyalty, is recruited into a secret group called Tenet who are fighting a new temporal Cold War. He recruits Robert Pattinson’s Neil, another CIA agent. They follow a trail of entropy reversed bullets which travel backwards through time to a Russian arms dealer and his estranged wife played by Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki respectively.

Branagh is the present-time connection to the future bad guys in the temporal Cold War, and he is the source of the time inverted bullets. He’s a Russian oligarch and all-around terrible human being. There’s a MacGuffin that both sides need, and the greater part of the film follows Washington as he tries to infiltrate Branagh’s operation.

The problem is that Christopher Nolan is not content to make a normal spy thriller. He has been, for his entire career, obsessed with time. Sometimes it’s used to amazing effect such as Dunkirk, but where Dunkirk felt like the logical conclusion of years of toying with time as a narrative concept, Tenet feels like an act of hubris. Where films like Dunkirk, Inception, and The Prestige weave timelines together to create an emotional catharsis, Tenet weaves them together because Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a movie that doesn’t mess with time anymore.

The result is that the film is too clever by half, and instead of being interesting, it becomes frustrating to follow. Add to this the same sound mixing issues that were present in Dunkirk and especially in Interstellar –at times so bad that I could not hear what the actors were saying when they were trying to say things that I needed to hear– and you end up with a confusing, self-satisfied mess.

It gives me no pleasure to write this. Christopher Nolan is a great filmmaker and has had a great effect on the landscape of film, and on my personal journey as a filmmaker, but he has always had a problem with his films seeming cold or detached. For me, Tenet represents him stepping over the line from thoughtful to over-thought, and the result is that this movie is truly a thing for your eyeballs to behold, but also a loud, frustrating experience for your brain.

Tenet is out on demand now.


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