Tenet, 2021, directed by Christopher Nolan – 2/5 Stars
Tenet, for many reasons, is a colossal failure in screenwriting and storytelling. Christopher Nolan’s most recent mind-bending adventure is a masterclass in what not to do when writing a script for a film. Events, concepts and characters are described to the audience without them being shown on screen, dialogue is heavy on exposition and devoid of emotion and the experience as a whole is endlessly, laughably confusing. That being said, it has all the trappings of a fun, entertaining Nolan film: perfectly polished set pieces, thrilling, well-shot action sequences and a thunderous electronic score. In Nolan’s own words, Tenet is less of a film and more of an “experience,” a puzzle box of diegesis that’s meant to be watched multiple times over and explored as an abstract concept. While it can be seen what Nolan was trying to achieve, even this goal of an “experience” misses the mark, especially when the story is virtually devoid of emotional stakes. While a talented cast does their best to keep their heads above the tide of Tenet’s inexplicably bewildering script, the film will likely only hit home with the biggest fans of Nolan’s other films like Memento or Inception.
The film primarily focuses on a character known to the audience only as “the Protagonist,” played by John David Washington, as he comes to understand the events surrounding a newly discovered time-reversing technology. He and the titular organization, Tenet, attempt to stop Russian oligarch and arms dealer Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh, from activating a time-reversing device, called “the algorithm,” that will effectively end the world.
All of this is explained to the audience in detail by various characters in various locations across the globe, all of which act as puppets for spewing endless exposition. In one scene, The Protagonist meets with Sir Michael Crosby, predictably played by Michael Caine, to discuss the next steps of his mission. This scene is a perfect example of where Nolan’s writing falls short; the scene is so concerned with explaining the concepts and events outside of its limits that it ends up adding nothing to the story, and only leaves the viewer with more questions. This problem permeates Tenet’s script more than it ever has in Nolan’s writing before, and virtually every scene with dialogue ends up feeling like a list of locations and people with no relevant or remotely interesting connections.
The only emotional aspect lies with Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who is Sator’s wife and victim of his abuse. Kat only cares about the wellbeing of her son, but this mother-child connection feels forced, trite and one-dimensional. In one scene, Tenet operative Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, explains that the algorithm will end all life on earth, and Kat asks, “including my son?”
While Tenet’s script certainly suffers from a serious case of exposition-itis, Nolan’s signature style succeeds in some specific moments. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the latter half of the film’s second act, in which Neil and the Protagonist enact a heist at high speed on an Eastern European freeway. The scene is undeniably entertaining; the action is well paced and easy to follow, everything is crisply shot and color corrected and the Ludwig Göransson’s score sets a thrilling pace and tone for the entire sequence. The acting from the core cast is a strength of the film overall as well; Washington, Pattinson and Debicki are all talented performers, but the flatness of their characters limits the scope of emotion that they can deliver.
Tenet’s goal of being an “experience” falls flat on most fronts. The film’s ending, which won’t be divulged here, seems to attempt to give the viewer some sort of satisfaction, but ultimately feels empty and will likely leave audiences with even more questions, especially for those watching for the first time. A limited viewership may find fun in unraveling the tangle that is Tenet on subsequent watches, but for most, even the well-executed action sequences won’t make the film a worthwhile experience when it’s compared to Nolan’s similar, more emotionally driven films.