Tenet is the only major theatrical movie release of the 2020 summer season. Since march, every title that was scheduled to be released has moved either to 2021 or to VOD due to the Covid19 restrictions. Yet Warner brothers and Christopher Nolan stood defiantly against this tide and made good on their word to have this movie released this year and as God (Nolan) had planned. Ok, there was a minor hick-up of 6 weeks, but still. Christopher Nolan is probably the only director today who’s name holds enough sway to put butts in seats in a theater, regardless who is starring in his movie and what that movie is about, so naturally the studio had some high expectation in terms of box office, especially since they bet over 200 million dollars on an entirely original, non IP/franchise, script and on Nolans name. In an age when even the legend Scorsese has to bite his tongue and team up with streaming services to get funding to his projects, this is no small feat. The plan was that by the time that US theaters would open back up, Tenet would be the only major welcoming title on display. Alas, things did not go as well as it was hoped, and theaters in the US are mostly closed than opened, and given the huge bill this movie has worked up, Warner had to scrap any conventional release strategy and went ahead with releasing the movie anywhere it could to start making back its investment as soon as possible. As such, Tenet is no longer the movie that saved theaters after Covid. But could it have been?
Short answer: no, not really. In an age when studios and directors are afraid to challenge their audience and are treating them as small children by explaining everything in the movie, Nolan does the complete opposite and sets the bars so high for the viewer that I am afraid most people will just quit instead of putting in the effort. And should one rise to the occasion, the payoff is somewhat subpar. This is not me saying that the movie is bad, because its not, but it definitely comes across as, shall we say, overpriced.
The story is as follows: the protagonist (thats his name, even in the credits – played by John David Washington) is a CIA agent that is tasked to a very clandestine mission after an assignment went quite wrong. He learns that he has to prevent the third world war, something that will be worse than a nuclear holocaust, but he is flying blind, as nobody that guides him knows the entire picture of what is going on, and this is by design, apparently. Eventually he is targeting a Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) through his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a distant member of the British aristocracy. Also, he gets a small team to help out, composed by Neil (Robert Pattinson), Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mahir (Himesh Patel). Michael Caine is also credited in the movie, but he only appears in one scene.
If we subtract the sci-fi elements, the basic plot is something out of a standard James Bond movie. Secret society member Russian arms dealer plans something horrid for the world, rival secret society member secret agent has to save the world and the damsel in distress wife of bad guy is caught in the crossfire. Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? Problem is, once you add back the sci-fi aspect of the story a number of things begin to happen. First, you will struggle to keep up with the movie for the initial two thirds, because its structure is everything but straight forward. You will get hit by information and questions in an alarming rate and thins will just keep piling up with no break in sight for you to be able to process everything until like the beginning of the third act. Also here, on many occasions, you will not be able to understand what the people on screen are saying. Either a sound mixing was done very poorly or it was done in such high quality that 99% of theaters just don’t have the capacity for anything else than to butcher it. The second thing that will happen is that due to the afford mentioned cascade of information to digest, you will have no capacity to register anything else you would with a normal movie, such as chemistry between characters, humor, the musical score, etc. Honestly, during my first screening of this movie, I could not help to think that I am watching a specked up Quantum of Solace, as despite the quality of the acting, action and everything else that was on screen, nothing seemed to mix with each other. It was only during my second screening that I started to notice how actually there is a vibe between the characters, that the musical score is doing certain things during certain moments, that I have discovered that there is an actual movie here and not just noise. But I had to learn the lay of the land first, so to speak. Just as certain foods needs to be reheated for a second time for the tastes to really mix, so is Tenet in need for at least 2 viewings to be somewhat understood, as the overall story is just too much for anything else to be perceived during the first viewing. Unfortunately, while the movie is good, it is not great. The baseline Bond story is nowhere near to match the sci-fi shtick it is being applied to, or the masterful execution of it. The Russian bad guy is painfully standard issue and not even Kenneth Branagh’s performance could have saved it from being a complete cliché. In a same manner, Elizabeth Debicki’s character is also a cookie cutter abused wife, with nothing original going on. Even worse, in every other movie that she is in, Debicki is playing some sort of abused wife/girlfriend, that she is on the verge of being typecast. Given her talent and the she looks like Galadriel incarnate, this is very unfortunate. The protagonist is in a marginally better situation, as he is written in a more lively manner and John David Washington’s screen presence does channel a much needed freshness. That being said, the protagonist doesn’t even have a name or backstory. All that we know about him is what he does, namely taking out bad guys and saving as many innocents as possible. I guess characterization through action does have it merits. The only figures with any “meat on their bones” are Neil, Ives and Mahir, the protagonist’s small team members, which even with a much less screen time feel more 3D than everybody else combined.
The major selling point of the movie is the action. Which is just mind boggling. It looks great, it is innovative and more importantly, it is real. Nolan did not use any green screens, the actors are actually doing what you see they are doing, the plane you see exploding in the trailer is an actual, full size plane, not a model or computer animation. The number of VFX shots in this movie is under 300, while Batman Begins has over 600, and thats a movie that hasn’t got any of the wonders you will see in Tenet. There are 4 major action set pieces and all of them are impressive, to say the least. If there is anything that will encourage a second viewing fo Tenet, it will be the action.
The cinematography was done by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and it is crisp and brilliant, as expected. This is the third Nolan movie in a row where Hoytema helms the photography, as this honor belonged to Wally Pfinster ever since Nolan did Memento back in 2000. In any ways, Hoytema’s name is a guarantee for visual excellence, even if the movies he is involved with might not turn out to be the expected success (see Ad Astra).
The score is done by Ludwig Göransson, which is another departure from Nolan’s regular crew, as usually he employs Hans Zimmer to do the music. Unfortunately, Zimmer was unavailable for the job, so it went to his protégé, Göransson. If you are unfamiliar with his name, he did the score for both Creed movies, Black Panther – for which he received the Oscar, and more recently, the score for the Mandalorian series. That being said, the score is a typical Nolan score, loud and grandiose. However, due to the nature of the movie, there are moments where Göransson has room to show creativity, which work extremely well, but again, it is unlikely that these will be discovered during the first viewing of the movie. That being said, they will be a rewarding find in later screenings.
All things considered, from a technical point of view, Tenet will age gracefully and will be able to hold its own ground even 20-30 years from now, just as Jurassic Park still can do it today.
As for Nolan as a writer/director, well… As I mentioned in the opening, he is the only one director in the business today that can will an ambitious and original project into existence with full funding and virtually zero studio interference. The only one that can deliver originality, prestige and box office at the same time. However, this is the second movie in a row, where the concept of the movie was more important to him than the story he put on the screen. With Dunkirk, this wasn’t that much of an issue, as given that stories nature, it lended itself quite well to become that conceptual experience ride that Nolan has envisioned. In Tenet however, this is not the case. The base concept is just too demanding of a story that is underdeveloped, despite the movies 2 and a half hour long runtime. Christopher Nolan the director has finally grasped beyond the reach of Christopher Nolan the writer. Now, in any given year, this would result in a box office disaster that would ruin Nolan’s stellar record. But we are in 2020, so the box office disaster is a default regardless of the quality of the movie, and maybe, given the circumstances, more people would return to see Tenet in theaters than otherwise in a packed summer season, when every week there are 2-3 new major releases to compete for peoples attention and money. So I would say that Nolan got a “get out of jail free” card this time. Hopefully, he will use it wisely. None the less, this is by far the most ambitious undertaking Nolan has ever produced, and this needs to be praised. Also here, many were theorizing that Tenet is somehow linked to Inception, as if they were in the same universe, a theory strengthen by the 10 years anniversary rerelease of Inception back in theaters. There is absolutely zero connection between the two movies besides Christopher Nolan being in the directors chair and Michael Caine briefly on the screen.
Overall, Tenet is a challenging piece of cinema, that, despite its shortcomings, must be cherished and nurtured. Although, as original as Nolan is – and he is original – it would help him to stop trying to be our days version of Kubrick.