Someone said that time is to Christopher Nolan what feet are to Quentin Tarantino and now I can’t get that out of my head. The guy really loves using time to mess with your mind, and Tenet might be the time-iest Nolan film of all time, though it emphasises that people aren’t time travelling per se – that is, they’re not disappearing in one moment and reappearing in another. The gimmick here is instead that there exist machines from the future that can ‘invert the entropy’ of an object or person, causing them to move backwards through time, so all their actions become reversed or ‘inverted’. This sets up the main plot of the unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington) attempting to prevent a temporal apocalypse because some people in the future want an evil Russian (Kenneth Branagh) in the present to use a doomsday device that will somehow wipe out all life. Got that? Good. Because that’s about the uppermost level of understanding you will have of the plot when you watch the film. At least the first time.
Unfortunately, this isn’t because it’s a really clever film that requires hard thinking and repeat viewings to understand. It’s because the film is so. Damn. LOUD. The sound mixing in this film might be one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. The sound effects and the score are constantly drowning out dialogue at volumes that made my ears hurt. At first, I assumed this must have been an error on the cinema’s behalf, I didn’t think it could have been an intentional directorial choice. I was wrong. A quick search through any internet thread about Tenet shows that it’s a universal experience.
This issue is compounded since 90% of the film’s dialogue is exposition. Characters are constantly explaining things, discussing things that come next, or coming to revelations about things from earlier. You, however, will have no clue what most of those things are because you can’t hear a word they’re saying.
Even if you could, the writing isn’t very enjoyable anyway. It’s not particularly fun to always be trying to keep up with the barrage of information being thrown your way which just makes the plot more and more overly convoluted. The pacing is far too fast; you’re moving from one grand action set piece to a bunch of exposition to another grand action set-piece and repeat a few more times until the film finishes. The pacing would stand to be improved by having any kind of character development or even some emotion in the film, but these are nowhere to be seen.
All the characters are two-dimensional stereotypes. You have the badass, stoic, focused-on-the-mission, American Protagonist; the angry, Russian, billionaire villain; the charming, intelligent, British sidekick (played charmingly by Robert Pattinson); and the abused wife (Elizabeth Debicki) who will do anything for her son and needs rescuing by the Protagonist. They all lack real depth and so the film lacks an emotional heart – something that is key to making some of Nolan’s other films great. None of the cast are bad actors (except maybe Kenneth Branagh), but you probably wouldn’t know that if you only watched this film because the script gives them so little to work with.
Tenet also does little to stave off previous criticism of how Nolan handles his female characters. They both lack any nuance (though to be fair, like I said, this is true of all characters here): the full extent of Debicki’s depth is she hates her husband and loves her son; and Dimple Kapadia’s minor role seems included for the sole purpose of an “aha! Surprise! Women can do stuff too!” – her introduction is literally the main character being surprised to find out that she’s the business leader, not her husband. Oh, and obviously it fails the Bechdel test. But hey, at least the wife is only abused and not dead in this one, right?
The film isn’t all bad, though. In fact, I don’t know if I really think it’s a bad film at all. It’s definitely not great, but it was still enjoyable (even more so on the second viewing) and there are elements that shine. Those grand set pieces of action I mentioned are truly grand. They really are fun and intense and original, even before the introduction of inverting, and notably are periods where the story is shown, not told. The visual effects throughout are phenomenal, especially with the seamless mix of those moving forward regularly through time and those moving backwards.
The centrepiece of inversion is the undisputed star. It is used cleverly from start to finish, especially in action sequences (including one brilliant car chase), but also in key points in the plot, leading to some moments of realisation – “oh! He’s that guy from earlier!” and “oh! That’s how they did that!” – that are incredibly satisfying. And it was surprisingly fun to go back and watch a second time and pick up on even more moments you couldn’t notice without the benefit of hindsight.
Tenet isn’t the masterpiece we all hoped would herald the long-awaited return to cinema. It’s sabotaged by Nolan seemingly attempting to one-up himself – more convoluted, more action, bigger action, more expensive locations, and more decibels – and ending up going too far. But viewed as a simple action film with some mind-bending elements it can be fun.
I’d recommend either waiting until it’s on some streaming service when you can turn the volume down and the subtitles on or seeing it in the Odeon (out of it and the Curzon, Odeon’s volume was somewhat less offensive and I was able to pick up on more dialogue which did make the film more interesting). And if you’re going to see it, see it twice.
I’d give my first viewing a two-star rating, but my second viewing a three-star, so I’ll average it out at two and a half stars.