The pandemic has thoroughly wrecked my usual form of movie entertainment. Before going into lockdown in March, one of my favorite things to do was call up a few friends and go see the latest movies at our local theater.
Yeah, that’s been out the window for a while now.
When Tenet was announced to be releasing in theaters, I possessed mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I was thrilled at the notion of a Christopher Nolan movie premiering at theaters. A Nolan film is typically a fantastic thing to see on the big screen, an absolute must-watch of the movie season.
On the other hand, none of my local theaters were reopening anytime soon and even if they did, my stress levels and concern for my health would prevent me from seeing Tenet in them. So the news of its release also brought about its fair share of disappointment.
However, my spirits were raised thanks to my boyfriend suggesting we rent it on Redbox when it came out there, and we’d watch it together, make it a movie-date-night kind of thing safe from home.
I love my boyfriend, I love Christopher Nolan movies, and I love watching Christopher Nolan movies with my boyfriend. Sounded like a recipe for a pleasant evening.
As I waited for the day when Tenet released, I refused to read any reviews about the movie. However, one day, I caved and read some of the comments below an ad for the movie while scrolling through Instagram. (I should know better than to read the comments section by now.) Most of these strangers who took the time to type up a response on this ad were complaining about Tenet, saying it was just too confusing.
Now, I’d seen both Inception and Interstellar, so I scoffed at these remarks, knowing I could handle any complex plot Christopher Nolan could throw at me.
Boy, was I wrong.
I can now personally attest to the messy tangle of Tenet’s plot. The movie is basically a clever concept poorly executed and explained in a terrible fashion.
Normally, whenever I review a movie, I’ll provide a brief synopsis of the film, giving you a chance to learn about the story if you haven’t seen it yet.
Tenet’s story is so complicated, I actually leaned back in my chair while writing the outline for this post, absolutely stumped on how to go about explaining it.
Essentially, a man gets hired by a group (I think) to stop a time war that is about to happen thanks to another unknown group from the future (I think) sending items that can go back in time (I think) to the present in order to start or end this war (I think).
This is kind of conjecture, and I’ve seen the movie.
Tenet goes beyond Inception when it comes to how complicated the plot and story mechanics are. In Inception, rules were laid out for moviegoers to follow, and you could visually understand certain aspects about moving through a person’s dreams thanks to the power of filmmaking.
The character of Arthur from Inception spends a lot of time explaining to Ariadne, a newcomer to the dream-thief business, how things work in the dream world. As he explains things to her, he is explaining them to us. Having a rookie character in a story can help you as a storyteller more easily explain complex notions to people. They learn as your character learn.
And the film itself visually showcases how things going on in the real world can affect things in the dream world. It does so in small bursts, such as when a character needs a kick to get out of a dream, and they get jolted awake in the real world. However, Inception also showcases these moments in stunning visual displays, such as when Arthur must fight in a hotel hallway while in the dream level above him there is zero gravity.
Tenet has a barebones moment where “time traveling” is explained, but the notion is so beyond comprehension, it’s not enough to swallow the later events of the movie.
The main character of Tenet, imaginatively named Protagonist (no, I’m not joking), is shown an “inverted” object. It’s a thing that moves backward through time. For example, an inverted bullet gets fired back into a gun and an inverted ball leaps back into your hand.
Right off the bat, I can’t wrap my head around how this works. Protagonist implies it’s half thought, half physical action that makes this happen. But showing me Protagonist as he fires a gun that sucks a bullet back up does not explain to me how it works.
And that is the simplest example of going-backwards-in-time that the film shows you. Once fistfights, car chases, and murders start happening in reverse time, it gets even harder to understand the mechanics of this time travel.
And it didn’t help that when things are explained, they’re using words like “inverted entropy.” The whole movie requires captions to be turned on (which my boyfriend considers a cardinal sin when watching a film that is meant to be viewed without words scrolling across the bottom).
Aside from the convoluted mechanics of inverted time, Tenet also suffers from one glaring issue: it has no heart.
Nolan has covered mind-bending concepts in his films before, from faulty memory in Memento to dream-incepting in Inception. But one thing you could always count on in these past films was a strong emotional connection to the main character. Leonard Shelby was driven by an urge to seek revenge for the murder of his wife. Dominick Cobb is desperate to clear his name so he can see his children again. Interstellar’s entire story is practically driven by Cooper’s love for his daughter.
Tenet is missing that emotional thread that kept us invested in the intellectual twists and turns of Nolan’s other films. Protagonist is a bad-ass, but he’s a blank slate. I relate more to John Wick for his love of his puppy than I do to Protagonist.
Sure, we know Protagonist is a good guy. He’s working to save the world and its future after all. But he is missing that emotional element that would keep me rooting for him aside from a general interest in the survival of humanity.
Side note: Jeez, I sound like an uncaring person, but I hope you guys know what I mean.
Tenet is an intriguing film to watch, definitely one that’ll keep you thinking the entire time, but it is difficult to comprehend and connect to the protagonist’s journey on several layers.
I rate Tenet an avoid-if-you-don’t-want-to-spend-hours-watching-explanation-videos-afterwards-and-if-you-don’t-like-subtitles-because-man-this-movie-requires-you-to-have-them-on.