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Tenet: Christopher Nolan in Reverse

“Tenet” is Christopher Nolan’s newest film and is the first big blockbuster to release in cinemas since last December’s “Rise of Skywalker.” For many moviegoers, that is enough to make this movie worth it, and that’s okay.  Movie theaters need business right now, and there are absolutely elements of “Tenet” that audiences will enjoy and even be astounded by.  However, the quality of the film as a whole is less than the rest of Nolan’s filmography.

Christopher Nolan has always been a trailblazer when it comes to utilizing the medium of film to its fullest extent. One of film’s greatest assets, that other art doesn’t necessarily have, is its ability to manipulate time. Paintings and sculptures are frozen in time, and a play exists only in a short vacuum, with it often in real time as there are no visual cuts and the performance cannot physically take place over a few days.

But film has the special power to transcend other art forms’ limitation of time. And that is the draw of “Tenet." The axis on which the film turns is the concept of “inversion,” or things that exist in the normal world, but are traveling backwards in time, instead of forward like normal objects and human beings. Certain guns catch bullets instead of firing them, explosions sink back into the ground, and characters move and act in reverse at certain times. This is all because they are living in an inverted world that coexists with ours, where they move normally, but time for them is moving backwards.

That may have sounded confusing, but it was also likely very captivating. The possibilities for this unique of a time-travel story are huge and allow a storyteller to experiment with so many different situations. That’s why it is a shame that Christopher Nolan relegates these high concepts to the back-burner and spends much of the film’s run time telling a spy-thriller narrative that is somehow more convoluted than any of the time-travel elements.

The plot of the film is supposedly about a few agents from a future organization called Tenet trying to prevent World War III, but absolutely none of that is the real plot of this movie. Even the title, “Tenet,” is never fully delved into. Despite the enormous amount of exposition dumps throughout the movie, there is still a huge lack of important information missing from the film.  Sometimes movies are confusing because of how high-concept they are or there is a large amount of subtext, and it takes an avid viewer to fully grasp the story and its themes.  Other times, a movie is confusing just because it has bad writing and doesn’t concern itself with the “why” behind the story. “Tenet” crosses that line.

One of the elements of the film that could have used a lot more development is the motivations of the characters. Apart from one character played by Elizabeth Debicki, none of the characters have personal motivations. There are no stakes, beyond the usual “save the world” aspect, which is very poorly defined in its own right, as the audience is told the world is going to end, but the how and why are lost in choppy, throwaway dialogue that is overshadowed by bombastic sound mixing. This heavily weakens the climax which was already flimsy from having a muddy structure and an unclear goal.  Even Debicki’s motivation, which revolves around her relationship with her son, falls flat because we barely see the two characters interact.  We are constantly told how much she loves her son, but are never actually shown it.

There is no emotional or character story going on in “Tenet.” And if there were, it would not be aided by main actor John David Washington, who gives a woefully wooden, dry, and uninterested performance. His dialogue also suffers, either coming off as incredibly snobby or cringe-worthy, highlighting a weakness of Nolan, who wrote the film without his usual writing partner.

“Tenet” is such a mixed bag because of all these flaws, and most of all, the movie is just boring. But this review would be remiss to not mention that there are many positives about “Tenet” as well. Nolan has always been a master at spectacle, and while he greatly tones that down for this movie, the action scenes within are still crafted with technical mastery. They seem grittier and feel more real than some of Nolan’s previous work, with characters getting exhausted and fighting in dirty and desperate ways.  

The effects work is totally practical as well, with minimal to no use of CGI at all. Despite the film becoming more and more trippy and outrageous as it goes along, everything in the film looks totally real which is a huge contrast to most blockbusters nowadays.

There is also something to be said about originality, another rare commodity in the filmmaking industry today. Nolan spearheads this, always telling his own story, and not being beholden to what investors or audiences may desire. He makes what he’s passionate about.  “Tenet” does feel very different to many of Nolan’s past movies, sometimes it even feels like it is not a Christopher Nolan film at all. But it cannot be called unoriginal.

“Tenet” is a fascinating film from the outside, but very convoluted and boring when actually watching it. Those who love Nolan, spy-thrillers, and a break-neck pace that isn’t concerned with delving deeper into characters or the world will possibly be satisfied.  All other viewers may want to either forgo this movie or see it at matinee price.  It’s a shame that “Tenet's" quality is in reverse from the rest of Nolan’s films, but at least it is an incredibly original story.

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