TENET (2020) – Film Review

I don’t typically include a synopsis in my movie reviews, and this will be no exception—in part because there is no adequate way to describe the plot of Tenet without simultaneously explaining too much and failing to explain enough. Let’s just delve into the review.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: objectionable Content (C), Artistic merit (A), and my personal Preference (P). (C-A-P. Get it?)

CONTENT (C): 9 out of 10

Nolan’s films are often dark, and certain characters, actions, and plot elements of Tenet are no exception. Nevertheless, the filmmaker shows a great deal of restraint, hinting at the evil of its villains without being gratuitous or sadistic. Take, for example, Andrei Sator, the main antagonist played with calculating coldness by Kenneth Branagh. Sator oozes menace, but mostly through words, facial expressions, and body language. Abuse and violence are often hinted at, but blood and gore are virtually non-existent. Tenet is a great example of how human depravity can be communicated without being glorified.

Immorality is only talked about, never shown. One character shows a decent amount of skin in a bathing suit, but the situation is far from sexually charged. The crassest moment in the film is actually verbal, not visual: an extreme and graphic threat from Sator.

Since this is a movie about time inversion (similar, in certain respects, to time travel), there is some obligatory dialogue about predestination and free will. I don’t remember these conversations being a strong focus (other than the repetition of the phrase, “Whatever happened happened.”) Near the end, one character makes a reference to faith—but it’s an impersonal faith in how the universe works. (This should come as no surprise, as Nolan’s other films dealing with existential issues have shown a strong humanist perspective.)

With one particular plot point, revenge is arguably looked upon with a certain level of approval—although, to be fair, the situation in question is more complex than one person simply wanting their pound of flesh.

ARTISTRY (A): 9 out of 10

As a visual medium, film has both advantages and limitations. Unlike with a book (which can easily insert the reader inside a character’s head), a movie shows us externals—what’s going on outside and around a character. (This perspective is one of the drawbacks of the movie The Martian. While a fine film in its own right, it fails to showcase the strongest point of the book on which it is based—Mark Watney’s internal thought processes.) Some books are even said to be unfilmable—either for budgetary reasons, or some other artistic limitation.

Conversely, there are some stories that are best told visually. In rare cases, a story can only be told visually. We can add Tenet to that short list. (To quote my wife, “Tenet is unbookable.”) The story Nolan has chosen to tell could only be told using the medium of film. To get into the logistics would take too much time and spoil too much information, but suffice it to say, Tenet capitalizes on the visual medium of film unlike any other film to date. That doesn’t make it the best visual story ever, but one of the most unique ones.

I’ve heard some say Tenet is flashy just for the sake of being flashy, and that Christopher Nolan is just showing off. That is not my sense at all; every visually creative/stunning/head-scratching sequence exists for a purpose—to propel the story forward. I can think of few movies in which the visual effects are so indissolubly linked to the narrative. It’s a beautiful—and necessary—friendship: without one, the other falls apart. Plus, repeated exposure to—and analysis of—the visuals will undoubtedly play a part in audience enjoyment during future viewings.

The visual brilliance of Tenet is amplified by the fact that nearly all the effects are produced practically—i.e., on set, during filming (without the aid of CGI added during postproduction). The sheer acumen needed to film the scenes of inversion in particular—including two fight scenes and one battle sequence—speaks to Nolan’s artistic and proficient genius. There is a real sense in which Nolan has used the strengths of film to a degree heretofore unseen. Action films aren’t normally strong awards contenders, but Nolan’s achievement as a director is worthy of an Oscar nomination.

PREFERENCE (P): 9 out of 10

Tenet provided me with several firsts: my first 2020 film in an actual theater; my first time watching a movie with a mask on; and my first opening-weekend experience in a virtually empty theater (the only other two patrons being my lovely wife and a stranger who sat several rows away from us). It also involved my first necessary bathroom break during a Nolan film. (Amateur tip: when you’re running like Tom Cruise to and from the bathroom to miss as little exposition as possible, the discomfort of wearing a mask increases dramatically.)

Oh, and Tenet also represented the first time in over a decade where I saw a new Nolan film and actually liked it. Yes, I’m sorry to say that Interstellar and Dunkirk—both proficiently made films, to be sure—left me emotionally detached and narratively disappointed. Tenet may not be Nolan’s best film, but it’s my favorite since Inception.

After watching the trailers, I had a guess about which scene would prove to be the climax of the story. When I soon discovered that I had mistaken the climax for the introduction to the movie, I became giddy with excitement. The last time a movie made me break into a delighted grin during its opening act was Monsters University—seven years ago.

Nolan films aren’t for the faint of mind—you have to keep your brain engaged throughout the experience or you’ll be left behind scratching your head. In the case of Tenet, the story itself is incredibly convoluted—possibly to a greater degree than just about any other film (and I don’t just mean Nolan’s filmography). There is one point in the movie where my brain started to hurt. (I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before.) Shortly thereafter, I gave up trying to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. My wife made it longer, but her brain gave out before the last act. Thanks to the human interest of the climax, though, we were still entertained even without full understanding.

Yes, Tenet is mentally exhausting, but the payoff—including the conversations and ruminations that have followed our first viewing—is more than worth it. And what with the story’s structure revolving around the Sator Square, I know there are many more mysteries and secrets to discover with each successive viewing.

In a real sense, watching Tenet for the first time is more like an introduction to the movie so that you can go back and actually watch it again—for the first time. A complete understanding of the plot, especially on the first viewing, is near impossible. (Even Robert Pattinson has admitted not completely understanding what happens in the movie—and he starred in it!)

I guess it’s theoretically possible the movie is riddled with plot holes—something which will only become more apparent after multiple viewings. On this front, I’m giving Nolan the benefit of the doubt. After all, he spent over a decade developing the narrative core of the movie, which included spending nearly seven years fine tuning the script. Furthermore, he’s too detailed a director, too deep a thinker, too layered a plotter, and too meticulous a storyteller to be that sloppy.

Am I being too generous? Am I just enjoying my “ignorance is bliss” state?

Only time will tell.

CAP score: 90%