Tenet Review (2020)

2020 has been a crazy year. Little did I know in March when I went to see the Invisible Man in theatres, that this would be the last movie I would watch in the cinemas for a good 6 months. Thanks, COVID.

In fact, I had no real idea when movie theatres would open again, or if they even would until we found a cure for the virus. But the Hollywood machine can’t be stopped, and slowly movies started announcing dates for their theatrical release. And of the movies coming out, none piqued my interest and curiosity as much as Tenet.

The brainchild of writer-director Christopher Nolan, the buzz around the movie was that it was Inception on steroids and that it was impossible to watch the film in one sitting and understand everything that was going on. Now I have heard people say similar sorts of things of Nolan’s past works and I didn’t find those all that convoluted, so I put a lot of this as a bit of hyperbole or marketing and went in to Tenet fully expecting to be able to make sense of the story.

Let’s just say the tales of confusion are as exaggerated as I believed.

I can’t talk much about the story of Tenet as a large part of it is working out what’s happening as it unfolds. But the main thrust revolves around John David-Washington‘s character, known only as The Protagonist. A CIA operative, Washington finds himself embroiled in a world of international espionage. Tangling with Russian arms-dealers who are more then what they seem, shadowy intelligence organisations and enemies who can predict what is going to happen before they happen, Washington can only rely on a handful of associates including Robert Pattinson‘s Neil and Elizabeth Debicki‘s Kat as they race against time to stop the onset of World War III.

Like most of Nolan’s films, I did enjoy quite a bit about Tenet. Washington is charismatic and fills out a three-piece suit quite nicely. His role as The Protagonist is pretty much a take on James Bond, a suave spy grappling with covert forces while jumping from one international locale to another. He plays the character with ease, fully believable as a trained operative who is as comfortable in rough housing with barrel-chested henchmen as he is seducing the femme du jour. He is supported admirably by Robert Pattinson as Neil, a fellow agent in the field of espionage, whose motivations are murky and slightly suspect, but whose demeanour makes him someone you find yourself rooting for. Of the primary cast, I found Debicki the weakest, maybe it was because her portrayal of Kat came across as selfish and slightly self-entitled.

The cast aside, the movie looks amazing. There are numerous breath-taking set-pieces, a lot of which are done practically. Quite a few of the action beats make most of the film’s McGuffin which result in scenes that are a bit mind-bending in their execution while at the same time quite spectacular. If you thought the scenes in Inception were surreal, you haven’t seen anything yet.

All the scenes are punctuated by Ludwig Göransson’s score, which easily stands toe to toe with previous Nolan movies scores, but also cleverly accentuates the film’s central conceit. To say more would be spoilers, but when you watch the movie, you’ll understand what I mean, especially in the final set-piece.

But with the good comes the bad. You may have heard by now that Tenet does suffer from a few issues in its sound mix. There were numerous times in the film where I struggled to hear what was being said. And I wasn’t the only one. My girlfriend was constantly leaning in, trying to make out the dialogue. The issue stemmed from what seemed to a combination of too many ambient elements competing with the dialogue, and in some cases the actors semi-mumbling their lines. Washington’s delivery sometimes went into a lower register that made me want to tell “Enunciate dammit!!!” at the screen. Never have I missed subtitles so much. The quality of the dialogue compounded the complexity of the film as you felt like you missed crucial parts that would help make sense of the story.

The movie aslo has a pacing issue. It is a bite uneven, with the fast action broken up by slow expository sequences that just kill the momentum. There is a subplot concerning a work of art that could have been trimmed or maybe even excised that would have helped move the movie along tremendously. Especially since Tenet has a 2h 30min run time.

But as confusing as Tenet is, you will slowly get the gist of it at the end. It won’t be fully tied up with a bow and you’ll probably need multiple viewings or a trip down many reddit threads to fully decipher everything that is going on (especially since plot points are hidden in muffled dialogue). The science in Tenet is not as solid as it was in Interstellar and there a few moments that get brushed aside with figurative hand-waving.

Tenet isn’t a bad movie, but I don’t think it lives up to something like Inception. If you do live in an area where it’s safe to do so, I would totally recommend the theatre experience because when Tenet gets to the good bits, it’s really good.

I give Tenet a 7.5 out of 10 and there are no end credit scenes.

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