Because we live in an era where fandom has such a toxic relationship with film criticism, I would like to preface this review with a note on my feelings towards the director. I do genuinely like Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. He has made some of the most iconic, thought provoking, thoroughly entertaining films of the last two decades and has had a consistent dedication to practical effects and stunt work that I can’t help but admire. Moreover, Inception (2010 is one of my favorite films of all time. Given that Tenet was billed as not only a thematic and stylistic follow up to Inception but also as the film to save the faltering movie theater industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, I came into it with high, albeit understandable, expectations.
To my genuine shock and disappointment, Tenet came up short by a fairly wide margin. Nearly every aspect of the film finds itself hampered (rather than enhanced) by the usual suspects of Nolan’s approach to writing and directing. The film dedicates a significant amount of its dialogue to very blunt and bald-faced discussions of fairly serious topics including (but not limited to) global war, fate, environmentalism, and abuse in romantic relationships. What is so frustrating is that these are topics I know Nolan is capable of treating with nuance and tact. But in Tenet, there is a lifelessness that keeps the dialogue firmly planted in the realm of cringe and eye rolling.
The film feels like what happens when Nolan doesn’t have anyone to tell him “no”, which allows him to indulge his worst tendencies as a filmmaker. A common criticism of Nolan’s writing is that he throws buckets of technical exposition at the audience at the expense of naturalistic dialogue. I personally haven’t always agreed with this criticism. Returning to Inception again for a moment, I am of the belief that that film makes excellent use of Elliot Page’s character Ariadne as an audience proxy. By having someone in the story who would logically ask questions regarding the nuts and bolts of the film’s sci-fi conceits, the scenes dedicated to the explanation of how dream sharing works justify themselves. Tenet tries to use John Davis Washington’s protagonist to the same effect, but it just comes off as forced. Because he is the main character, we spend a significant amount of the runtime watching characters talk at him, rather than converse with him, and the movie suffers for it.
The action scenes are comparatively tame for Nolan and don’t really offer much in the way of spectacle when compared to other films in the genre, like Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018). Given that these scenes also work to bend time itself over a cold steep pipe, you would think there would be lots of raw material for creative visual storytelling akin to Inception and its dream within a dream mechanism. While there are moments that make good use of the time reversal mechanism either as action scene fodder or for narrative setup and payoff, they are few and far between. Sadly, this brings us to the single worst part of the film: its finale.
The final action sequence is shockingly bad and absolutely unacceptable for a director who has been doing big budget action films for this long. The modern military aesthetics, bland cinematography, and the lack of any real “wow” moments are sadly in character with the rest of the film. What is truly shocking is the editing; it is so convoluted that it defuses any kind of tension or emotional weight that might have existed in the scene. I made a very sincere attempt to follow the simultaneous streams of forward and backwards motion playing out on screen. Despite that effort (or perhaps because of it) I could not muster any emotional investment into what I was watching. I genuinely hoped that this sequence would justify all the visual and narrative complexity that came with a film about time manipulation. To be blunt, it did not.
I think the film’s biggest sin is that it attempts to be heady and intelligent and clever, all while completely lacking any kind of real personal philosophy or meaning. This has been a criticism of his past work that again, I haven’t always been on board with. I have felt that in the past, when you cut through all the action set pieces and famous actors and time/space bending tomfoolery, there is always an emotional center to connect to in Christopher Nolan’s films. Inception was a story about love and loss; Dunkirk told a tale of survival and perseverance during war; The Dark Knight dealt with the tragedy of turning good men into villains. There was always a beating heart, and Tenet honestly feels like it is missing one. For the first time, Nolan truly prioritized style over substance.
Most of my remaining criticisms of the film are expressions of apathy rather than antipathy towards Nolan’s trademark style. The use of exotic locales for nothing more than window dressing has been more than worn out at this point in his career. The mise en scène lacks the sense of individual character that has been present in the rest of his filmography. The basic elements of a Christopher Nolan film are all there, but they have been deprived of all life and joy. Watching Tenet, I realized something: this is what all Christopher Nolan movies must feel like to people who hate Christopher Nolan.
Still, I would not be an honest or effective critic if I did not highlight the aspects of the film that are deserving of genuine praise. Robert Pattinson and John David Washington make a charming action duo and it is out of their chemistry that we get some of the few funny and heartfelt moments found in the movies. Elizabeth Debicki turns in a gripping, emotional performance while Kenneth Branagh makes for a fun (if not especially convincing) Russian bad guy.
The single best part of the film is easily the Ludwig Göransson score. The music was consistently energetic and dynamic, and it found some novel ways to communicate the time reversal mechanism sonically rather than visually. I only wish the movie deserved a score of this quality.
I want to end this review with a parallel to another filmmaker I admire: Guillermo del Toro. After del Toro had two high profile flops with Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015), he sorely needed a back-to-basics moment in his career: a film that could recapture the magic of his earlier works like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Cronos (1993) without breaking the bank, lest he lose the chance to make films in Hollywood altogether. To my eternal delight, del Toro delivered exactly this with The Shape of Water (2017). I only hope now that Nolan follows a similar path. He does not necessarily need to return to his scrappy independent film roots, but I do worry that Tenet could become a new, distressing normal for a filmmaker I have genuine respect for. Only time will tell what Christopher Nolan’s next move will be.