It’s been nearly seven months since Joe and I reviewed a movie we saw in the theater for Take 2 Blog. After combing through films of various quality on streaming services, we decided to return to the cinema for “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated sci-fi spectacle. We’d been tracking the film’s shifting release date. When we found out it would be coming to Northeast Pennsylvania, we circled it as the movie that would get us to step back into theaters.
The film wasn’t my first foray back to the cinema. That would be “Inception” on Aug. 24, Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece that looked to share the same kind of high concept that “Tenet” promised. The 10th anniversary release prepared me for “Tenet” in getting used to the blasting sounds of a movie in the theater again, but this time with extra restrictions.
In the age of COVID-19, I bought my ticket for “Tenet” in advance on the Cinemark app. A week after seeing “Inception,” I was one of only two people in my showing. I wiped down my seat with a sanitary cloth provided by the theater before I sat down, and I masked up for the entirety of the 2½ hour movie. After taking these precautions and having the auditorium mostly to myself, I felt safe.
As the opening sequence in “Tenet” started and its thrilling score blared, it felt good to be back in the theater. With its groundbreaking action and visionary take on time travel, “Tenet” was made to be seen on the big screen. The dazzling mindbender is bold and awe-inducing as Nolan takes his obsession with time to a new level. But as a tightly wrapped puzzle box, its plot is largely incomprehensible, making “Tenet” Nolan’s most inaccessible film to date. Where it excels in visual splendor, the film falls short in provoking emotion.
The espionage thriller follows the Protagonist (John David Washington) as he is recruited by the secret Tenet organization. The group has discovered a way to go back in time, called “inversion.” Armed with this knowledge, the Protagonist goes on a mission to save the world from annihilation. And telling you any more about the plot veers into spoiler territory, so I’ll stop here.
One of the best filmmakers working today, Nolan has explored the boundaries of time in “Inception” and 2014’s “Interstellar.” He also played with nonlinear storytelling in his first feature, 1997’s “Following,” then his 2000 breakthrough “Memento” and through the multiple timelines in 2017’s “Dunkirk.” In “Tenet,” Nolan marries his fascination with time and alternate storytelling. Though the film doesn’t reach the heights of “Inception,” it looks gorgeous. Frequent collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema’s crisp cinematography complements Nolan’s ambition to break the boundaries of filmmaking conventions.
Using mostly practical effects, Nolan first plays with inverting the action you’d expect to see in a spy film. A mesmerizing brawl in a hallway sees Washington battle a disguised antagonist who’s moving in reverse. Later on, the Protagonist himself partakes in inversion, with a capable Washington performing his own stunts backwards. A stirring explosion involving a large Boeing 747 jet looks jarringly real because it is. Nolan also takes flashes of action that appear early in the film and lets them play out later, giving them greater context.
But the film’s best set pieces involve stunts where forwards and backwards action are occurring at the same time. A heart-pumping car chase involves vehicles moving ahead and in reverse, unlike any chase I’ve seen before. And the jaw-dropping climax features people fighting each other normally and backward, with buildings exploding and then coming back together. It’s mind-blowing to watch as your brain tries to take in the contrasting action.
While the action is stunning to behold, trying to figure out the plot of “Tenet” may give you a headache. One character even says, “Don’t try to understand it,” and this seems to sum up Nolan’s attitude toward the convoluted story. The writer-director has made complex films before that were easy to understand. “Inception,” his best movie, involves several layers of dreaming, but the film explains itself along the way. “Tenet,” however, doles out little information to moviegoers, keeping most of its plot under wraps until about half-way through.
Even though I understood the gist of “Tenet,” there are stretches where I didn’t know what was happening or why. Not understanding a film that you paid to see on a theater screen – the only way you can see it – is frustrating for moviegoers. “Tenet” is so confusing that instead of intriguing viewers, it runs the risk of alienating them.
Compounding the problem is the film’s sound design. As “Tenet” features characters who wear masks, as well as a loud score, it’s difficult to hear a lot of the dialogue. This makes a puzzling film even more puzzling. The problematic issue keeps coming up in Nolan’s films, from Bane’s stifling mask in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” to the muffled dialogue in “Interstellar.”
“Tenet” is packed with fantastic performances. But in weaving an overly complicated mystery, the film lacks an emotional core. Its thinly drawn characters mainly serve to further the plot, making it difficult for moviegoers to form attachments to them.
After a star-making turn in 2018’s “BlackKklansman,” Washington, son of acting legend Denzel, shines as the film’s leading man. A lethal fighting machine and steely superspy, the Protagonist is determined to piece together the breadcrumbs as other characters withhold information from him. But as the audience’s conduit on this strange journey, he is often held at arm’s length, even lacking a proper name. It’s hard to feel for him when he doesn’t show much feeling.
The only character the Protagonist displays any regard for is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), married to the villainous Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). As an abused wife and mother, the guarded Debicki peels back layers to reveal a fearful and powerless woman driven by the love she has for her son. Kat is the most relatable character, and the only one who I actually cared what happened to. She helps the Protagonist seem more human.
The elegant Robert Pattinson brings a sense of humor as the Protagonist’s associate, Neil, and Branagh chews the scenery as Sator. The two provide some lightness in a film that takes itself very seriously.
With its eye-popping visuals and breathtaking action, “Tenet” deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s up to you whether going to the theater is a risk you feel comfortable taking. The mind-bending thriller marks another rung in the ladder of Nolan’s evolution. But with its lack of clarity and characters to feel for, the awe-inspiring spectacle isn’t as great as “Inception.” The puzzling film will leave you scratching your head, even if you liked it overall as I did. I’ll always remember “Tenet” as an enjoyable return to the cinema.
3.5 out of 5 stars
In a year that kept me out of the movie theater for seven months, the 2020 movie season centered on one thing … when will “Tenet” hit theaters? The coronavirus pandemic postponed a number of release dates, forced films to streaming services or video on demand and gutted the summer movie season. The movie that hung around and waited for the right moment to release was “Tenet.” My favorite director Christopher Nolan wanted his latest film released in the theater. The release date was set in July, then pushed to later in July, then moved to August until it was put on hold indefinitely. For a while, the constant delays of the film coincided with the ever-present coronavirus pandemic.
Then, Cinemark opened in July, but mostly had classic films. Honestly, I contemplated seeing “Mean Girls,” but thought it would be a better idea to wait for “Tenet.” Finally, in late August new films started to come to the theater. The Russell Crowe vehicle “Unhinged” hit theaters and the long awaited “New Mutants” after that. I was waiting for “Tenet.”
As a movie buff, it has been a complete lifestyle change, going from seeing a film on the big screen at least once a week to watching all films from my living room. Finally, Cinemark had early access to the 11th Nolan film. My return to the theater was set for Sept. 2. My favorite director’s newest work came to Northeast Pennsylvania, and I would be there to see it. My friend and I sat in our seats and the first blaring sound from the first preview made me jump. That’s how long it had been since I heard the theater speakers. However, by the time the movie started, I adjusted. Nolan began “Tenet” with another one of his classic openings and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This movie, this experience is going to be amazing.’ I felt giddy.
Ultimately, I cherished the theater experience and absolutely adored the film. However, “Tenet” is not perfect.
A lot of “Tenet” is Nolan at his best. This film is visually stunning and leaves me wondering how he shot it. There are scenes where one person is fighting forward and the other is fighting backward. At one point, a building reconstructs itself and then explodes. There’s an entire sequence where one task force is completing an operation in the present while another task force is starting from the future and going in reverse. It’s one of the greatest achievements I’ve ever seen in film. It’s an absolutely incredible theater experience to just watch what’s happening on screen.
The acting is top-notch with a cast that is different from Nolan’s usual crew. John David Washington (Denzel Washington’s son) is a star in the making. I first saw him in a supporting role in HBO’s “Ballers” where he stood out in a mediocre show. He then fronted the best picture nominee and Spike Lee Joint “BlacKkKlansman.” Now he’s the lead in a film created by one of the best directors in Hollywood. He does a beautiful job playing The Protagonist (No really, that’s his name. It will make more sense when you see the film). There’s a level of restraint he has to display as he portrays a spy/super soldier, while he allows his feelings toward Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to seep through. He constantly has to battle with his emotions as he knows his job, but also wants to protect Kat.
Speaking of Debicki, she’s phenomenal and serves as the heart of the film. She’s the character the audience truly feels for, which puts a lot of weight on Debicki’s shoulders. She handled it beautifully and elevated the film, providing relatable moments that display her humanity. In a way, she’s the opposite of The Protagonist, who is meant to be a machine as he doesn’t even have a name. However, she brings the humanity out of him. Debicki’s performance is vital to the film and she delivers.
Robert Pattinson (Neil) finally returned to the mainstream after a long hiatus from his “Twilight” days. He’s established a solid career in independent films and really showed what he’s capable of in “Tenet.” Washington and Pattinson proved a great 1-2 punch that makes me even more excited for “The Batman.”
With Hans Zimmer working on “Dune,” Nolan turned to Ludwig Goransson, who won an Oscar for his “Blank Panther” score. He stepped in with a phenomenal score that rivals even the great Zimmer. From the first scene, I was sold on what Goransson was giving me.
The plot and writing are great. The problem is, they are too great. Let me explain. “Inception” is Nolan’s best movie and the idea of inception is very complex. However, it uses about 45 minutes to an hour to explain what inception is. Then, the mission begins. We know what’s happening. “Tenet” will absolutely be compared to “Inception.” While that’s a high bar, it’s absolutely fair. “Tenet” jumps into the action and never lets up. While I understand that is what the movie was trying to accomplish and part of what made the film so great, the rapid pace takes away from the audience’s understanding of what is happening.
As the film goes on, the characters explain bits and pieces of the concept of inversion. While the characters are giving the audience new information, the score is also still blaring. So on top of the rapid conversations about complex information, I couldn’t hear all of what was being said. I was playing catchup for a lot of the film until halfway through I had a decent understanding of what was going on. As I was trying to figure out what was going on, my brain was also trying to process why things were moving forward and backward simultaneously. I understood it, but visually my brain was confused. Frankly, my head hurt during the film.
I fully admit that Nolan’s brain is obviously on another level than mine, but that means it’s also his job to bring it down to my level. He doesn’t have to dumb it down, but it would have helped had he slowed down the film a bit in the beginning and taken time to explain what was happening. While I appreciate that Nolan respects his audience’s intelligence, some of this film went over my head. That’s no nitpick. That’s a flaw. But make no mistake about it, this movie rocks.
“Tenet” combines some of Nolan’s best work including “Inception,” “Memento” and “Interstellar” as he continues to explore the concept of time. While the film doesn’t rise to the level of “Inception,” “Tenet” no doubt gave us some of the best filmmaking and best scenes we will see all year. Everything in this film is nothing short of outstanding, except for its inability to properly explain the concept of inversion.
This is really hard for me to score because I adore Nolan and I’ll see this movie at least 20 more times when it comes out on Blu-Ray. I will figure out inversion and pick up something new with every rewatch that will only elevate the film’s quality. That puts it at a 4.5 for me. However, it’s tough to tell the average movie-goer to see “Tenet.” It’s impossible to fully consume in one viewing, even though the acting, directing, score and visual effects are unreal.
Nolan fans will love this film. I am a Nolan fan and I can’t push this down to a 4 when it’s better than that. At the same time, Nolan isn’t for everyone. Although my experience was incredible, I wasn’t blinded to the film’s flaws, which should bother most people who venture out to their locals theaters.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Rebecca Kivak and Joe Baress write about movies for Take 2 blog. Together, they review current flicks and offer their insights into the latest movie news. Rebecca is a copy editor and page designer at The Times-Tribune. She started her career with Times-Shamrock Newspapers in 2005 and has won several professional journalism awards for page design and headline writing. She also covers NASCAR races from Pocono Raceway. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5126; @TTRebeccaKivak