Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Movie Review: Tenet - teneT :weiveR eivoM

Christopher Nolan's latest opus, Tenet, may just be his most confounding film yet.  Part spy thriller, part Nolan sci-fi-infused puzzle, Tenet works best if you go in cold.  To that end, I'll keep this review as spoiler-free as I can.  But be warned....

Tenet stars John David Washington as an unnamed CIA agent who, after proving himself in the field, is let in on a top-secret mission involving a conspiracy to "invert" objects, or send them backwards through time.  You see, somewhere in the future, someone came up with a plan to undo decades of environmental damage, and its unintended side effect was that a weapon of mass destruction has now been inverted in time, threatening to wreak havoc so widespread it would unmake the world.  Washington's character now has to find and destroy this weapon to save all life on Earth.

This is a pretty out-there concept, even for Nolan, but as usual he makes it work for the most part, employing state of the art special effects, taut screenwriting, novel sci-fi gimmickry, and strong performances (Washington makes an excellent, relatable protagonist, his sidekick Robert Pattinson a slyly charismatic partner, Kenneth Branagh a palpably menacing Russian oligarch, and standout Elizabeth Debicki a sympathetic, damaged woman as Branagh's kept wife) to create a smartly-devised summer blockbuster.

Where Tenet falls short for me is largely dialogue-related; even when you can understand what the characters are saying (which is rather inexcusably seldom - who the hell mixed this movie?), the film hurtles along so quickly it's often a strain to keep up with the rules being established and what they mean for the characters.  Nolan has never been one for audience hand-holding, and usually that faith in his viewers' intelligence is welcome, but here I felt like he assumed a little too much.  A key action sequence is outlined by a character at such a frenetic pace I finally had to throw my hands up and just let it unfold, and when it was over I asked myself, "Wait, why did they need to fight this battle in both temporal directions?"  After watching the film I looked up the synopsis on Wikipedia and was stunned to find out how many expository details I'd missed.  Nolan films almost always benefit from repeated viewings, but this was the first one where I was literally unclear on multiple story points after the first watch.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy and admire Tenet, though I think I felt more of the latter than the former.  Nolan has once again devised a fascinating puzzle box for his audience to deconstruct and ponder.  The performances are all first-rate as I mentioned, the idea of people and objects traveling backward in time and their effects on the regular timeline is fun to think about, and the film features the most creatively staged fight sequence since Inception's zero-gravity scene with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  There's a lot to like about Tenet, and I'm sure a second viewing will make the film more enjoyable for me.  I just wish the dialogue had been better mixed and allowed to breathe so we could fully absorb the information before being thrust into an extended action sequence.  When you aren't entirely sure why characters are doing what they're doing it's much more difficult to become invested.

But overall Tenet is a pretty easy recommendation.  Just be prepared to watch it again to catch up on what you missed the first time.  Hey, maybe it makes more sense in reverse?

I give the film *** out of ****.

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