To my culture critic friend Tyler Hummel, I offer a sincere apology. I am sorry that I am so late in writing a review of Tenet for your website Cultural Revue. Event after event, all in sinister succession, worked against me: The lingering effects of a pandemic, two hurricanes, three unnaturally long work weeks, sickness, health, poverty, wealth. . . Even so, I endured, and yet I could not get you this review in time for the launch of your promising new website. For that, I am sorry, and I am lame to offer these excuses. Forgive me.
(Editor’s Note: He’s forgiven)
However, I must admit that I am glad for the time that transpired between my watching Tenet and finally writing about it. Tenet is pop art and entertainment—there is no doubt about it—but it is still a movie that requires considerable contemplation. The viewer’s conclusion may end in a negative or positive opinion, but I guarantee each person who sees Tenet will most certainly find themselves thinking new thoughts regarding it weeks after his first viewing that he simply could not have accessed in the moments after the credits began to roll. Of course, any good piece of art will do this, and Tenet‘s director, Christopher Nolan, is a great artist, but I feel especially strongly about this point for Tenet.
With that being said, on to my review.
Film critics regularly prove themselves awfully silly beings. This is not a strike at critics, for, yes, even I have dipped my toes into the waters of music and film criticism from time to time. No, this is just a truth: the act of art criticism is inherently flawed, inherently near-sighted.
Far too often, film critics misunderstand great works of cinema, just as critics have misunderstood great works of art across the ages. We may see examples of this as far back as Plato’s distaste for the master poet and musician Timotheus of Miletus, and we will discover multitudes of other examples both before and after the days of Plato and Timotheus. The muses have burdened artists with a responsibility to bring new things of beauty, splendor, and horror to the world, and the artist’s contemporaries will often find new things difficult to understand, in addition to the fact that critics necessarily bring into their criticism unique sets of biases, which regularly work against new things in art.
Many movie critics hated Stanley Kubrick’s breathtaking masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey when it premiered in 1968, calling it an incomprehensible mess, prompting Kubrick, in turn, to call them “dogmatically atheistic and materialistic and earthbound.” In 1979, many critics pronounced Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—one of the greatest war films and maybe the best movie about the Vietnam War—a bloated vanity project. The critics of 1946 scorned and ignored one of the very best American movies, a timeless classic among current critics and audiences alike, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, decrying it as simplistic and overly sentimental, though under Wonderful Life’s surface, we find neither of these.
In the same vein, many of today’s film critics misunderstand Christopher Nolan and have misunderstood Tenet.
Of course, Tenet has received mostly mixed to positive reviews, currently sitting at a 71% positive on Rotten Tomatoes with a Metascore of 69, but the positive feedback from critics primarily consists of being happy to attend the cinema again and being awed at the images Nolan creates, and the positivity often includes naming Tenet one of Nolan’s lesser films. I felt both of those feelings as well, but these reviews and their writers rarely take Nolan seriously as an artist, and that is their mistake. Few of these reviews seriously consider Tenet’s themes and symbolism.
I do not know that I can go so far as to proclaim Tenet a great work of art. I do not think it so. Yet it is a good film and worth every film lover’s time. Tenet is also one of the best new blockbusters I have watched in quite a while.
First, a summary.
Tenet opens with a terrorist attack on a Russian opera house. Our CIA agent hero, simply known as The Protagonist, goes undercover at the same time and place to recover an unknown artifact. A strange masked soldier comes to his aid, doing odd things like “un-firing” a bullet through one of the attacking terrorists. The plan goes awry when Russian mercenaries capture The Protagonist and an exposed spy, whom The Protagonist had tried to rescue, and proceed to torture them. Alas, The Protagonist is faced with either continued torture and the potential of compromising his mission or death, so the spy helps him eat a cyanide pill.
Surprisingly, The Protagonist does not die but instead wakes up on a boat in the employ of a shadowy organization which gives him the word “Tenet” and tells our hero his mission is nothing less than the survival of the human race. Nuclear holocaust? Worse. The war is not nuclear, it is temporal; not time travel, rather the inversion of objects’ entropy, like electrons moving backwards and forwards in time, at once chaotic and organized.
A character appears to tell The Protagonist, and the audience, that we may either shut off our brains and enjoy the ride or try to think about the complications and mechanizations of Tenet’s plot. We will really want to focus on globe-trotting, time inversion antics, crazy action, a mother trying desperately to protect and love her son, and the same mother’s evil husband, a Russian oligarch who, like many of our own elites, wishes suicide, not only of himself but also of the world as a whole.
Nolan is a great popular artist, even if his work is not always great. No artist’s is. Shortly after Nolan burst onto the cinema scene with 2000’s Memento—one of the most excellent examples of how those late ‘90s/early 2000s movies liked to play with time and chronology—he became a sort of Kubrick by way of Hitchcock, a director hero for the masses, a master technician with pop sensibilities and a keen ability to bring the people, and not just the artsy crowd (of which I am, admittedly, a part), entertainments at which to both marvel and think. Nolan also delivers these goods in Tenet.
Now, to quote a popular cliché, Tenet is not a perfect film. It has its flaws similar to most Nolan pictures. Plot drives the story rather than characters most of the time, and too many characters feel like cardboard cutouts by which Nolan can impart his ideas rather than naturally developing them. The score too frequently dictates feelings to the audience instead of letting visual and writing magic more complexly convey the director’s desired emotions. The sound editing, though purposeful, rubs a lot of viewers the wrong way, especially when experienced in IMAX, where the blaring music and environmental noises drown out the dialogue unless the IMAX is properly equipped with the highest quality sound system tuned correctly (this is a problem to discuss another time and not a problem I personally encountered in the non-IMAX screening my wife and I attended). The first act of the story rushes by much too quickly. The dialogue is heavy-handed and awkwardly expositional in spots. This is to mention a few issues.
However, Tenet does contain more strengths than weaknesses. The film is remarkably original, for one. Sure, we can call it a time travel picture, and thereby compare it to something like Shane Carruth’s Primer, to which it bears a few positive similarities, or to an action flick like Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise’s The Edge of Tomorrow, to which it also bears a few positive similarities. In fact, although some people have suggested Tenet is Nolan’s ode to James Bond, I think the better comparison is Nolan’s version of Edge of Tomorrow by way of Mission: Impossible. I mean this as a compliment. Rather than time travel, Tenet has “time inversion,” which creates baffling and impressive scenes, especially a car chase and a final military battle, both of which feature various people, weapons, vehicles, and more, some traveling forward in time, others backward, and all of them colliding in some fashion. Tenet has an important factor for this sort of blockbuster: it is undeniably cool.
Other strengths include Tenet’s acting, cinematography, film editing, pacing, effects, and action choreography.
Actors love working with Christopher Nolan, and we should not take that lightly. Nolan does not get enough credits as an actor’s director. He always makes his actors look good, even if he does saddle them with poor dialogue sometimes. Here, John David Washington as The Protagonist is smart and stoic and winsome; Robert Pattinson, as his handler, is charismatic; Dimple Kapadia as Priya is ominous even though she only appears in a few scenes; Aaron Taylor-Johnson is rugged as the commander of the film’s military operations; Kenneth Branagh is appropriately villainous and scenery-chewing as the Russian evil mastermind Andrei Sator; and, best of all, Elizabeth Debicki gets to portray the widest range, and she pulls it off convincingly, as Tenet’s emotional and thematic center. Every actor shines memorably, even those in bit parts.
Nolan never fails in the technical aspects of filmmaking either, and Tenet is no exception. The cinematography places us effectually in Nolan’s world and makes everything feel huge and overwhelming. The film editing and pace move us along so that even a two-and-one-half hour long runtime feels brief. The effects, almost all practical, look fantastic. The action choreography is some of Nolan’s most effective ever. The technical work complements the story well.
Even so, I have saved my favorite strength of Tenet for last: the themes.
Nolan has always been obsessed with time in a way most of us are too cowardly to accept in our unwillingness to face up to time and our own assured deaths because of time. Nolan has also been obsessed with other ideas, especially the downfall of civilization as seen through the lens of Greek myths transported to the modern day.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s best film because it exorcises everything at which he is weak and focuses on every area in which he is strong to tell a story of the necessity of courage and girding up ones loins to engage in a horrific and long-lasting but needed conflict to protect what is good in the world.
Tenet is the science-fiction version of this theme and also brings in the thoughts of technology versus humanity that Nolan explored in Inception and pairs them with the looming environmental changes of Interstellar, as well as two of Nolan’s favorite types of protagonists, the stoic manly man and the shrewd scientist. Nolan even presents both of those types here in one person, John David Washington’s The Protagonist, two sides of the same coin, a la The Dark Knight, by giving us a character both pre and post the acquiring of scientific and artistic knowledge.
Additionally, whereas Interstellar discusses the love of a father, Tenet shows us the different and similar love of a mother, the good for which our good guys fight.
Despite Tenet’s weaknesses and because of its strengths, especially its themes and its sharp impressiveness, I believe posterity will treat Tenet kindly.
Sooner or later, people will begin the rehabilitation of Tenet’s image. Whether that will be as a treasured cult classic or as a popular hit due to streaming and physical copy sales remains to be seen after Tenet gets its eventual home release. I predict the latter. Some critics may dismiss the movie as Nolan’s weakest film and little more than a fun ride, but if Tenet has the content and staying power I see in it, they will not be able to deny it better recognition in the future.
Tenet is the best kind of blockbuster, the kind that has something for everyone to enjoy, a picture that both pleases the crowds and gets them thinking.