Tenet

Tenet is an ambitious film from the only director who is still bold enough to take chances and smart enough to be interesting
74/10031819
Starring
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson
Director
Christopher Nolan
Rating
PG-13
Genre
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Where to watch
Amazon Prime
Release date
Sep. 3, 2020
Re-Release date
Feb. 23, 2024
Overall Score
Rating Overview
Story/Plot
Visuals/Cinematography
Performance
Direction
Non-Wokeness
Rating Summary
Tenet is a visual stunner with a deceptively mundane plot structure. Its uneven pacing and frequent exposition dumps, combined with its lack of character development, rob the film of much of its possible tension, and it never successfully builds a sense of the cataclysmic stakes
Audience Woke Score (Vote)
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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1921), directed by Emmett J. Flynn, stands as one of the earliest explorations of time travel in cinema. Adapted from Mark Twain’s classic novel, the film follows a modern-day mechanic who inexplicably finds himself thrust back into the medieval realm of King Arthur. This pioneering portrayal of temporal displacement laid the groundwork for the genre’s evolution on the silver screen. Nearly a century later, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending “Tenet” (2020) would further redefine the complexities and intricacies of time manipulation in film, showcasing humanity’s enduring fascination with altering the course of history.

Tenet

A super spy, played by John David Washington, is recruited into a world of danger and intrigue on a temporal scale. Working almost entirely in the dark, he will have to fight his way to the top of a criminal organization wrapped in mystery. The price of his failure? All of existence.

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Originally released 6 months into the COVID scare in the hopes of bringing people back to the cinema, many criticisms have been laid at the feet of Tenet. Chief among them is that it doesn’t make any sense, which isn’t helped by director Christopher Nolan’s recent admission that Tenet isn’t supposed to make sense. In the interview, Nolan says that he wants viewers to “experience” his films and that they aren’t puzzles to be solved.

This is all well and good. Ambiguity can be an effective narrative tool. Just look at another of Nolan’s films, Inception. More than 13 years after its release, people are still arguing over its ending. However, for all that Tenet gets right, which is gone into some detail below, it misses a key ingredient that helped to make Inception’s spinning top thought-provoking instead of frustrating. That is a visceral connection to the characters and action. In Tenet, you root for the protagonist because you’re supposed to. In Inception, the audience roots for DiCapprio’s Cobb because they want to.

So, what does Tenet get right? As per the norm, Christopher Nolan surrounds himself with the best people. His visual crew, including the cinematographer and production designer, consists of familiar names from his past films, and the actors whom he cast are always perfect for their roles.

John David Washington exudes an immediate presence and swagger as well as a sincerity as The Protagonist that helps to carry his character through some of the film’s more unfortunate and repetitive exposition dumps. One day, he will find the right role for him that will be a worthy showcase of his talent (on a side note, I’d love to see a buddy action film starring him and Henry Cavill. Both are charming and charismatic actors who do action right but have never really found their place in Hollywood – The Witcher mess not withstanding.).

The supporting cast is also strong, with Robert Pattinson showing once again that he’s more than just a sparkling vampire for whom tween girls salivate. Unfortunately, the audience is never given much of a reason to care about his character. Oh, sure, at the film’s conclusion, there’s a bit of a twist revealed that, if explored earlier, had the potential to engender empathy for the two men. However, it’s far too little, far too late.

After the debacle that was the Star Wars prequels, it was revealed that George Lucas believed that audiences “didn’t care” about the story; they only wanted mind-blowing visuals. While Nolan certainly doesn’t seem to ascribe to the same filmmaking philosophy, Tenet suffers from exactly this, nonetheless. The interpersonal relationships are sacrificed on the altar of thoughtfully intricate and thought-provoking story mechanics.

In the second act, a character is introduced whose primary purpose is to provide the audience with some human connection and a reason to care about the impending apocalypse. Regrettably, both her character and the B-plot surrounding her feel tacked on and artificial. Were the main protagonists compelling enough to cultivate that needed connection on their own, the stakes would have been sufficient to engage the audience on a deeper level, and the film would have provided a much richer experience.

Sadly, while character development might be Tenet’s greatest weakness, it’s not its only weakness. Even though Nolan claims that audiences aren’t supposed to understand the film completely, Tenet is no stranger to dialogue-heavy scenes that spend 70% of the film trying to (sometimes clunkily) explain what’s going on. Nolan is usually a master at pacing; however, Tenet is plagued by an abundance of these heavy exposition dumps that completely arrest the film’s momentum.

Tenet’s Visuals

Tenet is a quintessential Nolan visual experience that, despite its deceptively mundane plot and significant narrative deficiencies, is an underrated technical achievement. The thought and care that must have gone into coordinating the film’s effects while maintaining continuity can’t be overemphasized. The storyboarding likely sent at least one artist to the insane asylum.

For this reason, and the fact that your only other choices are the indecipherable Bob Marley: One Love and the cinematic roadkill that is Drive-Away Dolls, we’re unofficially recommending Tenet as Worth it for this weekend’s limited re-release, but only under the condition that you see it in IMAX.

 

WOKE ELEMENTS

I Don’t Need No Man
  • One of the tertiary characters is secretly in charge of her organization and uses her husband as a front. Fine, obviously, women can be capable bosses. What’s woke about this is that the filmmakers actively make her subterfuge about misogyny.
    • She dismissively tells her husband, “Sanje, make a drink for our guest, please.” It’s done in such a way that were the roles reversed, feminists would be crying foul.
    • In the very next scene, she tells Washington’s character, “A masculine front in a man’s world has its uses.”
How Dare You
  • It’s one line that is saved for the end of the film, but the entire movie exists because ***SPOILER ALERT*** Global Warming ruined the future. ***END SPOILER***

 

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James Carrick

James Carrick is a passionate film enthusiast with a degree in theater and philosophy. James approaches dramatic criticism from a philosophic foundation grounded in aesthetics and ethics, offering insight and analysis that reveals layers of cinematic narrative with a touch of irreverence and a dash of snark.

3 comments

  • Bunny With A Keyboard

    February 23, 2024 at 8:31 pm

    It’s very easy to make an ambiguous story that people can guess over.

    “He sat alone in the room and suddenly died.”

    Ooh, what killed him?

    “She opened the door and what she saw horrified her.”

    Oh, wow, what did she see?

    Talented directors were able to do this because we knew they had satisfactory answers to offer, rather than trying to figure out what was meant because they failed in that task.

    Reply

  • Bunny With A Keyboard

    February 25, 2024 at 11:25 am

    Let me also take it one step further.

    If even the director doesn’t know the answer to a question about a fictional story, then the answer does not exist.

    The world of Inception only exists in Nolan’s head, so if even he doesn’t know whether the top will keep spinning or not, then there’s no way to know.

    It’s not some great mystery that should keep people guessing for years or decades after.

    Tarantino didn’t see any point to figuring out what was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and that’s all there is to it.

    It’s not like real life where you can examine the clues and attempt to decipher an answer.

    Reply

  • Mark Jay

    March 11, 2024 at 1:04 pm

    I think I enjoyed the film more than most it was overcomplicated but I think there is a plot and narrative in there somewhere that can make sense its just very complicated there are youtube videos that help. It’s so complicated it should be marked down for that. I think Nolans explanation is because he cant be bothered to explain it or he thinks it might go down better with his audience that it can’t be explained rather than “the majority of people are not smart enough so dont bother”.
    That was one point I wanted to make but the second is that although JDW is a talented actor and also has great movie prescence I just couldnt buy him in this particular role, this is a shallow thing to point out but the main problem was that he was too short, it didnt help that the love interest was exceptionally tall for a woman as this exaggerated the problem. The fact he was not especially suave either resulted in the issue if it was just one or the other it may have been surmountable. I know they made a sort of joke about it at points but I felt like this didnt really help.

    Reply

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