‘Tenet’: How does a bad movie trick you into believing it’s good? By confusing the heck out of you!
September 3 2020 marked a turning point for lovers of cinema as US movie theaters began reopening from the #Covid-19 pandemic, and the Labor Day Weekend box office was kicked off by one of the most anticipated films of the year – Christopher Nolan’s time-bending spy thriller, Tenet.
The film has been met with high praise by critics and audiences alike. But the question I have to ask is – is that praise justified? Because all the accolades Tenet seems to garner don’t actually appear to be because it’s a good movie.
On the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently sits at a score of 74 percent fresh from critics. Many praise the film with buzzwords such as “bold” and “ambitious.” Also common are words such as “muddled” and “obtuse.” But what critics find good doesn't always jive with real moviegoers, which is why the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes usually holds more weight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the audience score for Tenet is actually higher than the critic’s score, clocking in at 78 percent fresh.
You can't blame audiences or critics for being fooled into liking Tenet. After months of movie theaters being shut down, finally getting to see a highly anticipated movie from a celebrated director with huge set pieces and a unique concept on the big screen is going to delight anyone. But probably the most accurate review I saw forthe filmis the one from Christian Toto of HollywoodInToTo.com, which goes:
“Christopher Nolan's latest dazzles the senses while making no sense at all.”
And that is the core issue with it, really. It is a movie that’s so muddled and unnecessarily complicated with its high-minded central concept of “time inversion” that critics and audiences alike can’t understand it. But what’s more – because it’s wrapped in such big-budget high-concept gloss, audiences feel they must simply not be SMART enough to understand it. Thus, audiences praise the film despite its obvious shortcomings, because the audience has been tricked into thinking that the fault lies with them rather than with the movie.
In all fairness, Tenet is indeed a movie that requires multiple viewings to probably judge it fairly. But a movie also has to stand strong on its first viewing, and my first viewing of it left me feeling it was a total and complete mess of pretentiousness. Tenet, at its core, is a convoluted movie that is more in love with its ideas than with telling a good story.
I'm a fan of Nolan and his body of work – have been since I first saw Memento back in the year 2000. However, Tenet is a movie where no one was around to give Nolan reality checks and reign in his worst impulses. The director has reached a level where he's considered to be “brilliant” by Hollywood standards, and thus is surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who are unable to point out flaws in his ideas and keep him grounded. This is something that always happens to the best directors, and unfortunately, Tenet marks Nolan’s inclusion into this category.
The core concept of the movie is based around the manipulation of time. It is a mind-bending notion of “time reversion,” where there are objects that experience time in reverse. And it is indeed an intriguing concept that creates incredibly impressive set pieces in the film. It's just not handled very well in this movie. That being said, it's handled about as well as it can be, and there are indeed moments where the concept pays off brilliantly. You can tell Nolan put a lot of thought into the chronology of all the events in his film. But that type of thing only gets you so far.
Focusing on the time manipulation in Tenet is to overlook its more fundamental flaws. Even Nolan acknowledges that the temporal aspect of the film shouldn’t be dwelt on, going so far as to pull a “LOOPER” and flat out have his characters tell his audience “not to think about it too much.” Which is fine, except, well... when you have an entire movie based around this concept of time inversion, it's impossible NOT to think about it. Especially if stuff is happening on screen that doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense (which, unfortunately, is most of Tenet).
When you strip away all the timey-wimey stuff in Tenet, you essentially have a James Bond film, replete with exotic locations, grandiose action scenes, and an evil supervillain on par with characters like Blofeld and Dr. No. But Tenet lacks all the humor and charm of a Bond film, with its muted color palette, banal dialogue, and emotionless performances.
The real problem with Tenet – aside from the fact that much of its reverse time sections are really confusing – is that its characters aren't all that interesting. Nolan keeps all the characters at a distance throughout the film, subservient to the set pieces he has in mind. We aren’t able to care about the characters or their relationships, because there’s always a new heist to get to and a new set piece to ogle at.
Because we never come to care about any of the characters, we never really care much about what they’re trying to accomplish. In fact, the stakes of the movie are never actually made clear up until the end of the film, which basically devolves into a James Bond-esque ‘Stop the doomsday device from destroying the world’ scenario which has actually been done much better in other movies.
Because of this, once you get past the ‘wow’ factor of Nolan's mind-bending reverse action sequences, you're left with a hollow (and in many cases, boring) movie. Though it will take multiple repeat viewings to figure out all the timey-wimey stuff, the actual story won't support such repeat viewings. The characters aren't interesting or deep. The story jumps from one set piece to another at break-neck speed without giving you time to care about what's happening. The villain's motivations are silly, and the dialogue is lame (when you can understand it. I could barely make out much of the dialogue when I was watching the movie because the score was so overwhelmingly loud).
Don't get me wrong. There are good aspects to Tenet. The actors in this movie are all awesome, particularly Robert Pattinson (though that has more to do with Pattinson’s charming performance than the way the character was written). The cinematography is awesome. The ideas are awesome. But the execution is bad. The writing is convoluted. And the editing is awful. Seriously, there are so many choppy hard cuts in this movie, I’m surprised it was edited by an accredited editor. Not only that, but the music is pretty bad too. In some places, the musical cues are almost comical – and not intentionally so.
Thus, the film is EXTREMELY uneven. Tons of good stuff mixed with tons of bad stuff. Ultimately, the film leans on its unique concept to carry it, but beyond that it's a VERY sub-par film on so many levels. I can see Nolan fans loving this film for its concepts and set pieces, but any objective critic can't possibly say this is a GOOD film. At best, it is a mediocre movie. Once the ‘new car’ sheen of this film wears off, this is going to be a film quickly forgotten by most moviegoers.
The sad thing is, Nolan is indeed capable of taking complex concepts and making great movies out of them. His film Inception is a prime example of this. That movie basically avoided all the pitfalls Tenet falls into and has just as complex themes and ideas at its core while showcasing characters you actually can care about.
Would I recommend seeing Tenet? Despite my criticisms of the film, yes, I actually would recommend checking it out at least once. If you're a Nolan fan, if you're bored, if you just desperately want to go back to the theater, then go check it out. If you love sci-fi and time travel stuff, it is going to be a film to obsess over. But if you're a casual fan, you're probably going to shrug this movie off right after you see it and not think about it ever again.
Tenet is a hollow, distant, unengaging film that's more interested in coming off as “intellectual” than it is “entertaining.” It’s a bad movie that aspires to such heights, it actually tricks you into thinking it’s good. But once you take off the rose-colored glasses and look at it for what it actually is, you realize Tenet isn't a “smart” film. It's a pretentious one. It tries to be high-brow, but in doing so fails to be a good movie.
Tenet is the cinematic equivalent of a supermodel with no personality. It looks amazing, but has no substance to it beyond that.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.