Tenet: Christopher Nolan Delivers a Good, Not Great Film

Christopher Nolan has long been a proponent of the movie theater experience. He even penned a Washington Post op-ed arguing that movie theaters are "a vital part of American social life." It's fitting, then, that the fate of the movie theater business, at least for the near future, rides on his much-anticipated summer blockbuster, Tenet. If it succeeds in the box office, more movies will roll out in theaters. If not, expect to see more of the straight-to-streaming stunt pulled by Disney with Mulan and Artemis Fowl, dealing serious damage to theaters' finances. The jury's still out on how it will fare—all signs from the first two weeks point to horrible—but that's more a reflection on how serious Covid-19 is and less about Tenet's quality: very good, but not great.

People are excited about Tenet for a reason. You might have heard of this Christopher Nolan guy—he's a pretty big deal, having directed major hits like Dunkirk, The Dark Night, and the mind-boggling Interstellar. Hell, he even made Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People list in 2015. So it figures that both fans and occasional viewers have pegged it as this year's "can’t miss" movie. For the most part, Tenet warrants the hype. It's an entertaining, sleek espionage thriller with extra weird time-travel thrown in for good measure. People drive cars and shoot guns in reverse. Think James Bond on acid.

The filmography and special effects are consistently incredible; few movies can replicate the visual pleasure derived from watching someone traveling forwards through time fight someone traveling backwards. Even the simpler things bring visual gratification; watching cars and liquid and bullets and trees move in reverse is uniquely fascinating and, coupled with the phenomenal camerawork, stunning.

Playing an American special agent identified only as "The Protagonist," John David Washington is electric as the lead. He possesses the kind of easy cool that permeates his every action, allowing him to weave a robust capacity for humor around all the guns while still remaining distinctly suave. Without his knack, the movie would sorely miss any comedic relief. Washington's standout performance hits all the right notes. In Tenet, he proves what his earlier excellence in other films always hinted at: He's capable of carrying a blockbuster by himself. The rest of the performances are good, but short of Washington’s caliber. Robert Pattinson, playing another classy special agent/physicist/time-travel-expert named Neil, acquits himself well with a solid performance and a remarkable head of tousled hair. The same goes for Kenneth Branagh of Hamlet fame, now a terminally ill arms dealer plotting to destroy the world with help from the future. Elizabeth Debicki's turn as the frightened wife of an illegal arms dealer who holds her child hostage reveals that Nolan watched Amazon's fabulous mini-series The Night Manager. Debicki's role is virtually lifted from the series, where she plays a character in literally the same situation but under a different name; nevertheless, she remains a very good actress in Tenet.

It's not all great, though. The blockbuster's weak point lies in the plot, which suffers from overwritten stipulations about time travel and lack of clarity or eventual payoff. The movie makes half-hearted attempts to explain everything, but seems to admit that even the writers don't really understand it all when Neil offers The Protagonist, standing in for the audience, a bunch of half-baked explanations about time travel that boil down to "Look, I don't know either, let me sleep." Subsequently, the audience, bogged down by mild confusion or nagging questions about plot holes and unresolved paradoxes, struggles to settle into the story and sympathize with the characters.

That over-the-top complexity restricts Tenet from joining Nolan's pantheon of great movies. The plot-twists prevent the kind of soberingly quotidian violence and philosophical edge found in Dunkirk. The action scenes are better than The Dark Night's, but amidst all the confusion Tenet can't find the emotional keys that made the Batman movie so gripping. It's more cerebral than Interstellar, but where the latter delivers one final "Oh!" of satisfaction, the new thriller dissolves into scattered little "what?"s and "ok"s. It's just a tad too much like that one classmate who uses big words without comprehending their meaning; so intent on seeming smart it ends up looking a bit dumb. This isn't to say Tenet is a bad movie, or even a mediocre one. It's a viscerally sublime watch and one of the rare long movies that doesn't drag from bloat. As always, Nolan delivers a good film. Only this time, it's shy of great.

Verdict: 7.5/10

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