One Liner Review:
A movie with a cool initial concept that just gets overly complicated to the point of trying the audience’s patience and not really caring whether or not the audience can understand.
What a mess this movie is. From its poor sound quality (character speak in muffled voices through masks, while the background music blares over what they are saying,) to the ridiculously complicated plot. This might be the most confusing movie ever made. And the worst part is, it doesn’t even try to help the audience out. It doesn’t seem to care. The movie is about moving backwards through time at the same time that another you is also moving forwards. The story is about a device that can end the world and a criminal who wants to use it. In other words, they took the most basic James Bond idea for a villain and combined it with a super complex technology idea. Oh, and they gave us a protagonist (literally called The Protagonist,) with no personality at all. On a positive note, some of the things happening on screen here look pretty cool. And Nolan has a way of making his stories sound that make you want to try and follow them. They sound smart, even when they’re not. But actually understanding this movie is an impossible task, and is more frustrating than it is fun.
Tenet is a pretty bad movie. In fact, it’s Christopher Nolan’s first and only bad movie (although The Dark Knight Rises certainly came close.) But this one is in a league all of its own. This is the first Christopher Nolan movie that isn’t just hard to follow, it’s nearly impossible to follow. And worst of all, it doesn’t seem to care. This one is so complicated and ridiculous that audiences check out of the story by about the half-way point, if not earlier. It’s one thing to be twisty enough that audiences want to watch the movie again and figure things out more, like a puzzle. Jordan Peele’s two movies, Get Out and Us, were like that. But the audience never got lost in those movies. Tenet, on the other hand, doesn’t just lose the audience. It frustrates the audience, and then continues to frustrate the audience more. And it doesn’t even try to help the audience along. To give a simple example, there are a bunch of scenes where characters wear gas masks while talking, which muffles their words, and in those same moments, the music is incredibly loud, making it even more difficult to hear what is being said. And maybe the point there is that we don’t need to hear what is being said, but considering how complicated this plot is, the audience feels like they want to hear everything they possible can to figure this one out. And Nolan doesn’t really make that possible.
It’s really sad, because what this movie basically does is it punishes the audience members who care the most. The ones who actually want to put in as much effort as they can to understand this one. It tells audiences, “don’t try too hard, because we’re not going to make it possible for you to understand.” And it actually has characters say things to that effect. More than once, one character says to another while attempting to explain things, “don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.” And this is clearly Nolan’s way of telling the audience not to try too hard to understand the movie. He’s basically saying just try to enjoy it for the artistic elements and beauty, even if you have trouble following the plot. And normally getting that kind fo permission would be a good thing, but here, it’s more like the filmmaker saying he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if you understand or not, so you shouldn’t either. And the worst part is, this tells us that Nolan was well aware of how complicated his movie was, and didn’t do a thing to make it any easier for the audience to follow. In fact, in the case of things like the volume and music issue, he actually made it harder.
This movie is most definitely a blemish on Nolan’s record. For the most part, his movies have been very smart, creative, and interesting. Nolan got his break with Memento, a movie about a man with memory loss, where his story was told to the audience in reverse. The gimmick was used to make the audiences feel like the character, not able to keep track of things, or follow events in a chronological order.. Nolan also made Inception, where time worked at different paces in different stories. And the laws of physics in one story affected the laws of physics in another. Those were the two good Nolan time-manipulation movies. But Nolan got worse. His next time movie was Interstellar, a movie about outer space, where an astronaut up there with the stars experienced time at a different pace than the rest of us did down here. The movie and the concept there were just okay. Like The Dark Knight Rises, it was the worst of his unofficial time-trilogy, but it still wasn’t bad. Tenet is the movie where things really get bad.
This is basically Nolan’s version of a Bond movie. In other words, it’s about secret agents and heists (I suppose that’ more like Mission Impossible than Bond,) and some pretty neat gadgets. Only it’s also about time travel, in a sense. The gadgets don’t just do cool things that are new and innovative for the world we’re living in, they do things that are in a world of their own. And that’s actually not a good thing. They turn back time. They reverse the motion of things. When it’s just objects moving backwards, that’s fine. When it’s characters moving backwards, suddenly everything becomes way more complex. Because at the same time that characters are moving backwards, they are also moving forwards. How, you ask? Because in those situations there are two versions of the character. So at the same time that we are watching one version move forwards, we are watching the other version moving backwards. Are you starting to see why this gets complicated yet?
It starts out with objects, before the backwards motion moves onto people. And it’s not called backwards, it’s called “inverted.” If you’ve ever rewound a tape and watched everything move in reverse, that’s exactly what things look like here. And as cool as it sounds, it really doesn’t look all that great. And so what they do here, to try to make it look a little better from time to time, is they put this backwards action it into slow motion. It doesn’t help The action looks silly. It literally looks like someone rewinding a movie, and for all we know, that’s exactly how they did it. So the look of the movie and action aren’t that great, and the story is pretty terrible. The only thing kind of cool here is the original concept, about objects that movie in reverse.
There are a number of sequences that happen here before we even learn about the inverted object. Those scenes happen back when the laws of physics and reality both seem to still apply to this movie, and therefore they end up being the best sequences in the movie. This is not a coincidence. It’s simply that those are the only ideas which kind of make sense, and are somewhat possible to follow. We’re talking about the Opera House scene that kick starts the movie, followed by the train yard scene that comes next, and then the ship scene that transitions us from a movie that exists in the real world, to a movie that deals with objects and people that move in reverse. After that, the movie begins to fall apart.
But those first three scenes are quite good. Everything starts with the Opera House. It’s a big exciting set piece that is done very much like how Nolan opened his Dark Knight movie with Heath Ledgers Joker pulling off a massive bank heist. That means lots of cuts to different characters on the outside of the Opera House planning and preparing to go in. It means loud vibrating humming music that plays over the sequence giving everything a sense of urgency even though we have no idea what we should be feeling urgent about. And it means once they get inside, lots of characters running around with precision, executing procedures methodically to let us know that they know exactly what they’re doing, even if we, the audience, do not.
From there, we move to the train yard, where characters are being tortured to give up information. Our main character, called The Protagonist in this movie, (played by John David Washington,) decides to take what he thinks is a cyanid pill, rather than to give up information. It turns out this is just a test. And now the organization called Tenet wants to recruit him to come and work for them, since he passed, and showed them that he would rather die than give up top secret information. So The Protagonist goes to meet a scientist who attempts to show him the ways that bullets and other inverted objects work. She’s the one who tells him not to try to understand it. And it’s a good thing, because even this early explanation of inversion is confusing. She tells him, for example, just to hold his hand over an object and it will come back to him, but he has to have dropped it first. Only he doesn’t drop it. So, yeah, it’s already confusing.
From here, the movie goes into a series of conversations that are all exposition. That means one character explains something or tells the protagonist about another character he needs to go and see, and it just goes on and on like that for a while. Michael Caine is one of these characters who meets The Protagonist in a restaurant and is there just to tell him about another character. Eventually The Protagonist has an action scene where he and his partner, played by Robert Pattinson scale a wall by reverse bungee jumping. The trailers for this movie make it look like the action is using the inverted technology we keep hearing about, only it doesn’t. Even still, it’s probably the best action moment in the movie. Only it leads to them just finding another character who tells them about somebody else they need to go and see.
Eventually they find the right target, or the wife of the right target, only she has her own overly complicated situation to tell them about, and to get their help with, before she will do anything to help them further their own mission. Her problem involves a painting that was a forgery which she sold to her husband, knowing it was a fake, and which he now keeps in order to hold over her head so that he can control her. She wants the Tenet team to steal the painting for her. And all of this just leads to the characters finally getting a sit down face to face with the villain. In other words, there is about an hour of filler here that could have easily been cut out, just to get to the point where we actually meet the villain and start learning about what is really happening. Not that what is really happening is any better. To put it bluntly, there is a machine called an algorithm, which can end the world, and which was sent back in time from the future. Our characters have to make sure that machine isn’t set off. And the villain is trying desperately to be the one who sets it off. So, in the end, we have a very basic maniacal story about a villain who is trying to end the world. But boy do they take a long time and wrap this idea up in as many complications they can think of, in order to get to that. This is most certainly not a good movie. It tries to be confusing and to lose the audience every step of the way. Are there cool things about it? Kind of. From time to time. But for the most part, this is just an incredibly frustrating experience that tires you out until you just don’t care anymore to even try.