Tenet (2020)

If there’s one thing, among many others, that pisses me off about COVID-19, it’s how it’s fucked me out of seeing new movies on the Big Screen. Seriously, I have almost $200 sitting on a gift card for our local theatre that I can’t use since the major studios are MOSTLY and wisely opting to not tempt their audiences into potentially life-threatening situations by releasing their heftily budgeted flicks into cinemas at the moment.

Which isn’t to say that some haven’t tried.

Of those that did, Christopher Nolan’s newest high-brow thriller Tenet has got to be the most notorious.

It was a little baffling when both Nolan and Warner Bros. decided to eschew common sense and sound medical advice in a bid to fire up the Box Office with Nolan’s latest. Being that I’ve been a solid fan of a lot of Nolan’s filmography, going back to Memento (2000), I was naturally curious and excited for another of his more-complicated-than-it-needs-to-be action thrillers. However, the argument I had with myself over whether or not I should risk the trip to a potentially crowded venue during the worst global pandemic since 1918 was not a long one and I easily backed down from the notion, knowing that eventually I could always catch up with it on Home Release or Streaming someday down the road.

Well, that day has come.

Tenet was just released on Blu ray / VOD just recently and, being that I had a $100 gift card for Walmart (ugh!) included with some Xmas goodies from work, I figured ‘what the hell’…and scored a copy with the intention of seeing what all the hoopla might’ve been about. I’d heard stories from folks who had caught it on release regarding the overly complicated plot and the allegedly messy sound mix and so on. I always get intrigued when I get a healthy mix of both good and bad reviews regarding films, as it forces me to make up my own mind about the title in question, and that is what I intended to do with Nolan’s latest.

So, on a stormy Saturday afternoon, I packed a bowl, cracked a beer, and my wife and I plopped down to see what mind-bending shenanigan’s the famed writer / director would try to put us through this time.

Tenet follows an unnamed operative, played by Denzel Washington’s kid John David Washington, literally known only as ‘The Protagonist’ (he actually refers to himself as such too…go figure), as he globe-trots his way to discovering and thwarting a hidden threat to the existence of our world, aided by his equally capable partner ‘Neil’ (Robert Pattinson). What unfolds is a twisty caper involving a Russian billionaire named ‘Sator’ (Kenneth Branagh), a crafty art forger named ‘Kat’ (Elizabeth Debicki), strange objects from the future, the mercurial flow of time and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. Action and confusion ensue.

So I grabbed my pad and pencil…and hit Play.

Here lie those scribbles…and yes, *Spoilers* may appear.

Ye be warned!

-Matt Smith?! Ok, so right off the bat…I’m wrong here. Who I thought was the 11th incarnation of Doctor Who in the opening scenes…was not. How. Embarrassing.

-Cool intro. Tense. Fast. The flick opens with a violent siege of an Eastern European opera house by terrorists (allegedly taking inspiration from an actual incident – The Russian Theatre Hostage Incident of 2004) which then becomes a suspenseful and mysterious rescue by The Protagonist and his team of specialized operatives. It seemed like we’re off to a good start.

Starting to hear the sound issues already. Muted voices. Overpowering effects and music. And it begins. This was one of the primary criticisms that I repeatedly encountered leading up to my first viewing of Tenet and sadly, they were not wrong. Within the first few scenes, much needed dialogue is low and muddy in volume and clarity, frequently overshadowed by much louder music and sound effects. It was quickly irritating.

-Awesome wind farm! This is really just a quick reaction to an establishing shot of a boat making its way through a vast coastal windfarm comprised of huge wind-driven turbines. It looked very cool and had me wondering why the hell doesn’t the energy sector invest more into such a plentiful source of power.

*Personal NoteGoddamn it, people! Embrace wind! It’s such a plentiful, perpetual source of energy, if harnessed correctly. Plus, miles of these things stretching out along a coast line just looks cool! We need to use what we have, to sustain what we have. I write this as someone who lives on the East Coast of Vancouver Island and thinks this often blustery region (like right now, as I write this) would be beautifully situated to tap into that much-needed green initiative.

Don’t be fucking idiots, folks. Climate change is real, it’s fast approaching a dangerous crescendo, and it must be put in check, however we can, while we can!

(steps off soapbox)

And back to the movie we go…

-I’m not a dumb guy, but…! The complications of the narrative begin revealing themselves. Nolan likes taking complex, pseudo-highbrow concepts and marrying them into his action / thriller narratives and they’re usually pretty good, the best example coming to mind being Inception (2010) and how he carefully laid out the dream-within-a-dream structure in a way the most average movie-goer could PROBABLY comprehend and follow along with. Well, he TRIES a similar approach here but very quickly the mechanics of how and why things are the way they are get murky and confusing. Like I said, I’m not a dummy, but this was starting to tax my simple little mind.

-The Protagonist is a bit of a dick. One of the main issues I had was the fact that almost no character has a clearly defined personality, our protagonist especially. That being said, there are moments when Washington’s portrayal comes across as somewhat abrasive and dick-headed, for no apparent reason beyond his own amusement. It made him momentarily tough to root for and I actually found it somewhat jarring. This happens more than once.

-So far, feels unfocused. Meandering dialogue. This was less than an hour in, and I was already finding my attention wandering, in concert with how the plot and delivery seemed to be wandering. There are sections of dialogue that seem to exist simply as odd existential ponderings of a pretentious nature or nerdy technical verbal diarrhea, seemingly without content baring substance to the unfolding plot.  

-Good first fist fight. Washington engages in a vicious rough-n-tumble fight with terrorist goons. Denzel should be proud.

-Sound mix deeply flawed. Irritating. The sound issue was ongoing, obviously by design and not by some accident in the mix, for one or two scenes only. Why the hell would you opt to deliberately drown out your actor’s dialogue and performances with overcooked effects and an abrasive, in-your-face score?! Definitely had me thinking back to Nolan’s ambitious-but-forgettable flick Interstellar (2014), which also had its own, similar sound issues. Nolan, you’re better than this!

Cool jet crash. OK, Tenet gets points added back on for THIS scene, in which our protagonists execute a daring and bold plan to crash a 747, at ground level, into a hangar at a European airport to act as a diversion from their true goal. What’s REALLY awesome is that Nolan and Co. actually purchased a surplus airliner, cleaned it up, then crashed the motherfucker into a real, full-sized hangar, all in camera! It looks and sounds great! Just the novelty of them committing the image of one of the largest commercial jets in the world quickly rolling into and demolishing a goddamn building, amid gritty chaos and explosions, is slick and very much appreciated. I will ALWAYS prefer the ‘let’s blow shit up for real’ approach as opposed to the ‘we’ll play it safe with overpriced and soon-to-be-aged CG’ route. Always.

-Trippy reverse fight. In the course of carrying out their daring raid of a secure storage facility, The Protagonist finds himself caught up in an admittedly mind-bending fight with a mysterious assailant decked out in SWAT gear. In one respect it reminded me of the still-incredible Joseph Gordon-Levitt Shifting Gravity Fight Scene from Inception, the clever gimmick aspect of it, while on the other hand, this fight in Tenet successfully did its own thing (and was expanded up again later, which also worked), while also simultaneously succeeding in further confusing Yours Truly here.

-Branagh. No subtlety. Not a memorable bad guy. Kenneth Branagh is both a talented actor and a skilled director, which I’ve known since I first saw him in the underrated supernatural murder mystery Dead Again back in 1991, which he also directed (great movie BTW, I highly recommend). He’s proven himself to be something of a master of his craft over the years…but here, none of that matters, because his character does nothing but scream GENERIC VILLAIN, with no real depth or humanity. Not even a compelling reason for his nefarious (and needlessly complex!) doomsday plan. He’s definitely no Hans Gruber!

-Cool catamaran scene…but why? Weird place for a chat. There’s a beautifully shot sequence involving three of our main characters ripping around on the ocean in a pair of gorgeous two-hulled boats, during which time, they engage in what I think was supposed to be a clandestine conversation, sort of like those scenes in cop shows where someone knows someone else is wired, so they pump up loud tunes or something to mask their dialogue from the eavesdroppers. It felt a little silly.

-Trippy car chase. But braking? By hand? C’mon! More time inversion shenanigans turn up during a very cool and exciting car chase but the sequence culminates with a character VERY quickly stopping an out-of-control car with just a light press on the brake pedal by hand, from a highly awkward position. Now I know that modern cars can be amazingly responsive, but this just seemed far-fetched, which is hilarious considering all the other over-the-top action that breaks out over the slightly hefty 2 hour 30 minute runtime.

-Washington very much his father’s kid. I, and especially my wife, love Denzel Washington. The man’s a fantastic actor (and all-around decent fella, from what I understand) and I’ve been following him since 1989’s The Mighty Quinn. It was cool to see just how much ‘Denzel’ ended up in John David. You could close your eyes and swear it was his old man onscreen. They even have the same swagger in their stride! It was just interesting to note, and I count it as a ‘positive’ for this flick.

-I appreciate high-brow complexity, but c’mon, Chris! There it is again, when the pretentious and complex machinations of the truly ambitious story reared their heads and confusingly got in the way of my basic enjoyment of this wannabe-epic espionage / action tale.

-“Does your head hurt yet?” Hell yes, Twilight Guy!! No bullshit, Robert Pattinson’s ‘Neil’ character actually asks this after he lays out another long-winded and meandering spiel about how all this Forward / Reverse Time Flow shit works. Even the script knew it would be trying our patience!!

-Ok, cool twist. Throwback to earlier fight. Clever. A sequence that I appreciated in Act Two came full circle and paid itself off in the Third Act in a way I genuinely appreciated.

– I don’t ‘know’ these characters. As previously noted, there is very little in the way of ‘flesh’ on any of these characters, which sucked some of the stakes out of the story, which is a shame and a glaring flaw, in my opinion. It’s like there was too much attention on ‘spectacle’, and not enough attention on characterization; an element that instantly reminds me of the Behind The Scenes issues that plagued 1982’s classic Blade Runner, where Ridley Scott neglected his actors in favor of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘world-building’, and it shows in the final product. Same feeling here, with the characters having a shallow veneer of ‘character’ only, similar to the one’s in BR.

-Aaron Taylor-Johnson?! This time, my guess was right. ‘Kick-Ass’ himself pops up as a bearded military commander guy as part of the planned siege that occupies a big part of Act Three. The role actually felt much smaller than others he’s taken on in recent years, so I have to wonder if he took a not-big supporting character role (that anyone could’ve played) just to work with Christopher Nolan? I could see that.

-Score super intrusive. Yet more sound mix complaints, this time focussed on the blaring, synth-heavy score that just punched you about the head as the action and suspense ramped up. Borderline cringy at times, no lie.

-Sweet helo incursion. When the final large-scale action scene kicks off at the climax, there are some very cool shots of Chinook helicopters ferrying squads of attacking soldiers into battle, hauling shipping containers full of colour-coded troops into the desert fray, with bullets and explosions bursting back and forth through time around them. This stuff was imaginative and action-packed and helped make up for some of the other glaring flaws on display.

-Hilarious Branagh fall. *Spoiler* Kenneth Branagh’s generically evil ‘Sator’ character eventually and inevitably gets killed and when he does, his body gets rudely pushed off the side of his own yacht, resulting in a laugh-out-loud fall-bounce-splash scene that would be right at home in some Youtube Fail compilation.

-Ok then. Clunky and disjointed. Written as the credits rolled.

And yeah…I’ve now seen Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and I legitimately don’t know how I feel about it.

If I’m going to be true to the nature of my blog, I would have to say that I’m disappointed.

Let down.

Not happy.

On first viewing, as a sum of its parts, Tenet was a ‘stumble’, even if for no other reason than just the mind-boggling missteps taken with the obnoxious sound mix, though the needless complexity of the story cannot be discounted either. Truly grating stuff and overall a surprising choice from a supposed perfectionist like Nolan.

Chris, when other A-List directors AND the movie-going public say you fucked up your sound, you may want to put that sizeable ego of yours in check and listen, because it intruded on a narrative that already required the viewers full attention and patience to try and keep up with. You did it no favors.”

That being said, there’s a decent amount of cool elements too. It’s still a Christopher Nolan flick, after all.

While the characters are thin, the cast is photogenic and looks like they belong in this type of story. There are several sweet gun battles, car chases, explosions, stunts and that awesome scene where they Demolition Derby’d a fucking 747. There are also times when the sound design did something right and gave an impressive bark to the gunshots and detonations. Too bad the score quickly outstayed it’s welcome, even just through volume.

I’m open to one day falling in love with this flick, though I’m skeptical about putting in the effort for multiple viewings in order to just get a handle on the story. I will definitely watch it again someday and when I do, I’d like to be pleasantly surprised to have it all work, like a puzzle with its final pieces put in place. But then again, maybe Christopher Nolan bit off more than he could chew and this will end up being one of his ‘Meh’ titles, like Interstellar, that simply didn’t come together how it should’ve or could’ve.

I would recommend Tenet on the merit of you making up your own mind about it. If the story doesn’t grab you, which is easily forgivable, at least there are some genuinely cool action scenes that help ease the pain when your head starts to hurt from trying to navigate the twists and turns of the plot. Just be aware of the baffling sound mix…I really have no idea what they were thinking.

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