So, after a long wait, we finally have our latest Christopher Nolan film. To say many of us were excited to get back to the theater and experience a brand-new film would be an understatement. It has been a tough summer for movie fans, and Tenet would seem to be the perfect reintroduction to the cinematic experience. And Tenet is certainly an ambitious notion. The inversion of time, where moments essentially fold into themselves, is probably the most mind-bending concept the acclaimed director has put to film yet, and that is saying something.
To many avid film goers, Christopher Nolan is Michelangelo. His films teeter on the brink of Renaissance-era art. Many of them are considered too sophisticated for single viewings. If you were to go and observe the Sistine Chapel, you would never be able to take it all in in under two hours. It would take time to observe and ponder the sheer magnitude of what your eyes were being blessed with. For some, seeing a Nolan film is that big of a deal; you are being blessed, so do not fight it, and certainly do not argue with it, for Nolan knows best. What we criticize some director’s for, Nolan gets recognition as a true independent and savant. He plays by his own rules and we are supposedly all the better for it.
The complexity with which Nolan tries to navigate the trenches of Tenet is never done with the subtle care of someone who really wants you to “get” the film. If Nolan gets it, that is really all that matters here. In musical terms, Tenet is death metal rock, but what it desperately needed was some smooth jazz. Both are valid and interesting genres, but they do not work in all situations all the time, and it seems that Nolan went full throttle when he should have eased into it a bit.
So, what is Tenet? At its most basic, it is a time looping doomsday film. The idea is that World War 3 is on the cusp, and utilizing the concept of inversion, the main character, simply named The Protagonist, is fitted to dive deep into the underground world of inverted weapon manufacturing and distribution—basically, who stands to gain the most from this and who has the power? The Protagonist must figure out who is at the helm of this operation and stop them before everything is destroyed.
The idea is fantastic and very Nolan-like. But the execution is so very sloppy, and disappointing to see coming from someone so admired as Nolan. First, let us talk about the absolute biggest flaw in the film, the sound. It is not an exaggeration to say that this may be the worst sounding film I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. I had heard the rumors beforehand that it was atrocious but knowing that does not prepare you at all. It is obnoxious and blistering. Any action scene is muffled by total distortion. Every sound is blasted into your ears at a rapid and unrelenting pace. It is unbearable.
Once you get past the barrage of sound effects, there’s little chance of being able to understand anything the characters are saying. Sentences run together like a trash compactor jumbling everything around in a big, hot pile. Moments meant to be subdued are spent trying to comprehend what you think you have just heard. Plot-points through exposition come and go in the blink of an eye, and anything good that comes from being able to understand the characters is always drowned out by the most ear-piercing round of explosions you’ve ever heard at the theater.
Nolan seems determined to frustrate the viewer, and his penchant for narrative frustration is compounded even more by his erratic and unintelligible dialogue. The man cannot seem to get out of his own way to make a film that is accessible. I do not want to say Nolan thinks he is better than his audience but let us just say he seems to relish the opportunity to confuse the viewer. And if you do not get it, that’s a you problem, not a Nolan problem.
The viewer is forced to watch our characters meander through flat conversations with B-side characters about rare artifacts, distributors, and…plutonium? It is all a bit disheveled.
Dialogue is muffled and just plain indistinguishable. This is clearly a complex film. And to simply not be able to hear what is being said is really an unforgiveable film sin. Sound be balanced. The director’s intent here seems to be complete disruption and chaos. This is an awful mix created with deliberate intent. It is nothing to praise Nolan for, and everything to blame him for. His choice to have Tenet be mixed so poorly is one of the most head-scratching decisions I can remember in a film. If Nolan is so keen to bring us inside of these complex worlds, it might be advantageous for us to simply hear the story. Any other director would be rebuked for this atrocity.
But how is the acting? Well, it is admirable and watchable. I like the cast and what they offer. There is a dire grasp of the enormity of the story here that those involved seem to want to convey on screen. But while the acting is a pleasure to watch, the characters are totally forgettable and unworthy of the magnitude of the moment. I simply do not care about their plight. They are cookie-cutter, lacking depth and meaning.
The inversion effects are very good and give the viewer a real treat to watch, enough to throw your brain for a loop as you try to comprehend what is happening. Our brains are not accustomed to processing inverted footage in this way. It is disorienting, but in a way that somehow enhances the experience.
Nolan’s Tenet is ambitious and there is a high-quality film in here somewhere. But Nolan overcomplicates everything to the point of pure exhaustion. I just wanted this movie to end. Nolan is obviously a great mind. He wants to do things that many would scoff at and say is unfilmable. It is admirable. And if this were a singular experience for only Nolan himself to consume, none of the problems with this film would matter. But when your job offers the opportunity for an audience to come in and experience the world you’ve created, you have an obligation to the audience to get us to the end where we say, “Aha! I get this!” Instead, Tenet begins with chaos and ends with exasperation and when it is all said and done, the idea of Tenet remains the best thing about it. I think it is time for Nolan to get out of his own way and remember that it is not to anyone’s benefit if he tries to play us for fools
1.5 out of 4