Tenet Movie Review – A high concept, visual spectacle that should have been more emotionally engaging

Written by Siddhartha Krishnan . 8 Min Read

The last thing you want to do with a Christopher Nolan film, is to judge it too quickly. Given the high concept plots, sub-texts and layers in his films, they are bound to be inaccessible to some. In such a case a second or even a third viewing might help. However, I chose to let the film sink in for a week, and gradually assimilate whatever I had watched, before forming an opinion about it. But I have no qualms in admitting that I may not have understood all the nuances of Tenet (if that’s even possible). So, a second viewing is due. Also, I won’t be surprised if this film is considered a modern masterpiece in the future. However, at this point I can only tell you what I felt about it after having slept over it for a week. (Disclaimer – given the current covid scenario, I could not watch the film in a theatre and chose to watch it on Amazon prime video.)

All that we have come to expect from a Nolan film are present in Tenet — jaw dropping visuals, a spectacular opening sequence, a protagonist who has to save the world, and multiple sub-plots which bind together beautifully towards the end. However, there is another Nolan cliché that his films are notoriously famous for, and that is the complexity of the concepts that he explores. On that aspect, Tenet surely feels like Nolan’s most complex and mind-bending blockbuster till date.

The Amazon prime description of Tenet reads — “Armed with only one word – Tenet – and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time”. So, this is a globe-trotting, action adventure shot in multiple locations around the world. These locations are important to the film, because the lead character has to save the “world” from an impending danger. “Time” as everyone knows is an important element in many of Nolan’s films, and he uses it in path-breaking ways. In Tenet, he introduces the concepts of “time inversion” and “reverse entropy” to create an absurd sci-fi landscape where the past, present and future are warring with each other in one frame, glimpses of which we can see in the trailer. However, Nolan has clarified in his interviews that Tenet isn’t exactly a film on time travel. Also, beneath all of these complexities is a very human story, and that is so easy to miss in a film as fast-paced as this one.

We all know that Nolan is not a big fan of CGI. Hence, the fight scenes of Tenet, using practical effects, have left audiences wondering as to how these scenes were choreographed to such perfection. It is believed that Nolan took inspiration from dance choreography so that stunt performers could do the movements forwards and backwards without reversing the film. The fight scenes are undoubtedly the film’s big plus point. (Ref. cbr.com)

Nolan’s go to man for the background score, Hans Zimmer, wasn’t available for this film, since he was committed to “Dune”. So, in came Swedish composer, Ludwig Göransson, Grammy and Academy award winner, known for his score in the 2018 superhero movie, “Black Panther”. I for one, did not miss Hans Zimmer in Tenet, because the score sounded so much like his. If I hadn’t googled to find out who the composer was, I would have assumed it to be Zimmer! During the pandemic, Göransson had recorded the musicians at home and what we finally get is captivating.

However, as with Nolan’s earlier films, the sound-mixing of Tenet, has received some criticism. The over-bearing sound mix has at times made the dialogues incomprehensible. I have experienced this in Nolan’s earlier films as well, but in this film, it felt a tad too jarring. But Nolan seems unapologetic about it. This was his defense of the sound-mixing of Interstellar, “Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound. I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film.” (ref: Indiewire). Okay, but I guess only die-hard fans of the director will buy that explanation.

Visually, though, Tenet is breath-taking! Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema might have just shot an IMAX masterpiece. This is the third collaboration between Hoytema and Nolan after Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017), and this is Nolan’s sixth film that is shot in 70 mm IMAX. With each film the director seems to be pushing the boundaries and taking it a notch higher. The methodology used is to find innovative ways to make a 30 kg IMAX camera portable. We have seen that in the spectacular action sequences of Dunkirk and Dark Knight Rises, and given the complex concept of Tenet, we can only imagine the innovations that went behind shooting the fight scenes.

Due to the many sub-plots, there are several characters in the film. The ensemble cast comprises of John David Washington (protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Kat), Dimple Kapadia (Priya) and Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator) in the important roles. Although, all the actors have done their jobs well; due to the backstory, it’s the characters played by Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh you will be most invested in. The reason you do not relate to the journeys of the other characters is because of the screenplay, which is perhaps the film’s weakest point.

Tenet is a plot heavy film, like many of Nolan’s other films. But I think he was so enamoured with the concept of this one, that beyond a point it felt like he was resorting to exhibitionism. Therefore, the film takes too long to start making sense and to unravel all its layers. There are several scenes where the protagonist is seen discussing the science behind it all with other characters, which comes at the cost of a gripping narrative. The screenplay is also so fast-paced that within the blink of an eye you can miss out important elements.

The complexity of the plot/concept also ensured that the reactions to the film were highly polarized. Some found it fascinating while others found it inaccessible and boring. However, I felt that it wasn’t the concept, per say, that was a turn off, but the excessive investment in it. Instead, if the characters were a little more layered and humanlike, they would have been a lot more relatable. Moreover, this is a human story and not just a sci-fi fantasy, which audiences will realize towards the end.

But Christopher Nolan is one of those directors who keeps pushing the boundaries with every new film. Perhaps his greatest attribute is that he believes in the intelligence of his audience. When directors around the world are dumbing down their stories to such levels that all you need to do is to keep your eyes and ears open, here is one director, who wants his audiences to think. He is also constantly innovating to give his audiences something new each time. This is why he is widely regarded as a modern master of cinema and deservedly so.

My final word — Tenet is a high concept, plot-heavy, visual spectacle that dazzles you several times but does not keep you emotionally invested throughout. But for the imagination and the subsequent innovations that went behind the making of this unusual film, it deserves to be watched. I will give Tenet 3.5/5 stars. It is available on Amazon prime video.

Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and movie reviews.

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One thought

  1. I was giving it a miss since some time but after reading this review, I am surely going to watch this movie…

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