Tenet is like if hot sauce were a movie. The film evokes a variety of emotions that you never thought you were capable of experiencing, but it also makes you feel like doubling over in discombobulation. The masterfully produced imagery throughout Tenet is some of the most impressive film-making of the 21st century, and the plot is the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of ‘creative’. But because of its ingenuity, it’s nearly impossible for the average moviegoer to keep up with everything in the first viewing. For half of the film, I felt like I was trying to catch up to a school bus that seemed to be moving away from me at the speed of light. Regardless of any qualms I or anyone else may have with Tenet, one thing is for certain: the movie pushes the limits of cinema in a way few films have accomplished in the past.
Tenet was released in 2020 and is written, directed, and produced by Christopher Nolan, one of the premier filmmakers of this generation. His past films include masterpieces like Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight Trilogy. Maintaining his reputation of embedding imaginative plots within gorgeous cinematography, Nolan outdoes himself in Tenet. However, the film also suffers from flaws found in his previous movies.
Tenet’s plot is incredibly convoluted, in both the best and worst way possible. At first glance, the premise of the film seems remarkably cliché: it follows a CIA agent who attempts to stop the onset of World War III. Even time travel is thrown into the mix. But if you walk into the movie theater expecting a rudimentary storyline, you will be subject to a rude awakening. The manipulation of time is a recurring motif in many of Nolan’s movies both adding to the masterful storytelling and leaving a confusing effect. If you have an IQ of 1,000 and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, Tenet should be a piece of cake for you to comprehend. For us mere mortals, it might take three viewings to understand the intricate plot structure Nolan presents.
The characters in Tenet can be described simply as people in the movie doing stuff. Other than that, they’re not people that you can empathize with. And Nolan probably does this intentionally. He cares more about telling an intriguing, mind-boggling story than he does about developing likeable characters, and as such, he just uses them as vessels to push the plot forward. For example, the main character, played by John David Washington, is credited only as “the protagonist”. We never even get to know his name. And what about Neil, another main character, played by Robert Pattinson? Again, it’s cool to see him do “good guy stuff”, but he never actually seems like a real person throughout the movie—you see him as a plot device. It’s unfortunate (especially for Twilight fans), but at the end of the day, the plot is interesting enough to rectify this lack of character development.
The more technical aspects of Tenet are a mixed bag. Obviously, given that it’s a Nolan movie, the visuals are stunning. Fight scenes where bullets are reversing through time are commonplace in Tenet, and they look fantastic. However, the sound mixing in Tenet was quite poor, with music often drowning out dialogue, a common issue in Nolan films. When each scene matters in contributing to the plot, and you can barely hear what the characters are saying, it becomes a major problem.
My Main Takeaway From Tenet:
There are many moments of Tenet which work really well and make you truly appreciate Nolan’s creative genius. But at the same time, there are moments when you’re completely lost, and feel like you’ve been zoning out of a math class when you’re suddenly looking at the whiteboard completely unaware of what’s going on. Nolan went all out with Tenet, giving us a movie with a fantastical plot and eye-catching visuals, but also with flaws present in his previous films even more noticeable here.
Since school has caused me to develop a vendetta against letter-grading systems, I’ll use a new system to grade Tenet. If Tenet were a food you could order at McDonald’s, it would be a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The movie is a lot to take in, but you end up digesting it anyway just because of how great it looks and how addicting it is. Please go watch Tenet to enjoy the work of a director whose priority is letting the audience experience his imagination first hand. And if you do, remember to watch with subtitles.