Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ should save theaters, but might lose audiences in the process


Tenet – Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Matt Geiger and Matt Geiger

Christopher Nolan, the mastermind behind “The Dark Knight trilogy, “Inception” and “Interstellar, has always held true to his support for the cinematic experience. With movie theaters taking a major hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact his spy-fi thriller, “Tenet” has opened in theaters at all feels like an achievement in and of itself. Even after being delayed three times, “Tenet”has been widely touted as the film that is going to keep theaters from going under. While it does justify many of the reasons why Nolan’s films deserve to be viewed on the biggest screen possible, the answer as to whether or not it’s the movie you should be risking your safety for isn’t entirely clear.

The film follows the nameless Protagonist — a CIA operative played by “BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington — as he is recruited by a top secret organization to help prevent a renegade Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) from causing global destruction with “inverted” nuclear technology. What this means as far as the story is concerned is that, in this particular universe, certain objects have the ability to travel backwards in time while others move forward simultaneously. What this means as far as the viewer is concerned is two-and-a-half hours of visually spectacular and dizzying action setpieces. The action is a cut above the average as the film mainly resorts to practical effects with little CGI in order to make bullets fly back into guns, send debris and explosions back to where they originated and provide a whole new understanding of hand-to-hand combat as men square off while on separate planes of existence. With every film he makes, Christopher Nolan’s creative vision expands alongside his ambitions as a storyteller, and through his collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and stunt coordinator George Cottle, “Tenet” features some of his most innovative and precise choreography.

For all of its visual splendor, however, the inverted action of Tenet cannot be fully appreciated for what it is because it’s impossible to simply turn your brain off and embrace it. All of this, of course, is because the story itself is needlessly confusing. Like previous Nolan films, the central concept provides the foundation for a story that requires the audience to pay attention from start to finish. Typically this is a good thing, but only when the basics of the concept are clearly defined in a way audiences can understand. From the opening scene, Tenet is all style and very little substance as the Protagonist and his partner, Robert Pattinson’s Neil, travel from location to location and meet all manner of characters along the way, most of whom have little effect on the plot. Unlike Nolan’s tour-de-force “Inception,” which spends the first hour of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime fully explaining the titular concept while still taking the time to develop Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. By the end of Tenet, it is unlikely that you will be any closer to comprehending how inversion works as you are to understanding who the Protagonist is. Even before the time-bending elements start to weigh heavily on the outcome of the plot, Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t even attempt to win over the viewer by fleshing out both the concept and the characters. He spends so long trying to, as a fan might say, “out-Nolan” himself that he fails to consider how much of the plot the average person will be able to absorb, all the while distancing the viewer emotionally from the characters.

The lack of proper exposition is a severe flaw all on its own, but it is further aggravated by the film’s harsh sound design. Far too often throughout Tenet, but especially during its pivotal early stages, it is difficult to hear what the characters are saying. Whether it’s because they are wearing masks, which we can all relate to at this point, or because the pulsating score by Ludwig Göransson, best known for his Oscar-winning work on “Black Panther,” plays way too loudly while they are speaking, much of the dialogue is lost. Because it is hard to both follow the plot and understand the characters, it unsurprisingly makes for a baffling viewing experience. This becomes especially apparent as the film wears on and becomes heavily reliant on inversion, throwing all kinds of new information at the viewer.

Sometimes, this confusion equals intrigue. Sometimes, there’s so much about a film that rests beneath the surface that it couldn’t possibly be all unpacked in one viewing. Christopher Nolan’s films have played out this way before, as their sophisticated themes have given them an alluring rewatchability. He can and should be commended for his ambition, but without the clarity of a fully coherent plot and a three-dimensional protagonist to guide us through it — and maybe even some subtitles, too —  it might not be worth your time to potentially dance with the corona-devil in order to see Tenet now. Unlike the Protagonist and Co., you’ve got all the time in the world.