top of page

Tenet is visually stunning but disappoints its big-budget hopes

Photo Credit: IMDb

For better or worse, Tenet is the most distilled combination of Christopher Nolan’s interests since Inception. The blockbuster contains all of the director’s trademarks: mind-bending set pieces, head-scratching time mechanics, and frustratingly thinly-written characters. Boasting a massive $205 million budget—a figure unheard of for an original story in the modern Hollywood ecosystem—Tenet is a globe-trotting espionage thriller with enough wonky time mechanics to please even his hardcore fans. While your precise feelings on the film will likely depend on your relationship with the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre, there’s no denying Tenet is a thrilling spectacle. The high points of this film are among the best Nolan has committed to film. With the film’s concepts of entropical inversion, many of the action sequences have half its actors fighting, driving, and moving in reverse, something that truly has to be seen to believe. Given the director’s insistence on using practical effects, actors and stuntmen choreographed and performed all these actions in real time, meaning even star John David Washington had to learn how to run forwards as though he was running backwards.

It’s a good thing the set pieces are so entertaining given that they compose much of the film’s 150 minute runtime. Much like in Nolan’s most recent film Dunkirk, Tenet eschews much character development and backstory. Even John David Washington’s character is known simply as “Protagonist.” The film starts in media res with a loud action sequence and never looks back. Much of the plot comes across as chases for various McGuffins, whose significance isn’t revealed until the film’s final act. Nolan prioritizes action spectacle, spending as little time on character and exposition as possible. While this aspect of the film leaves much to be desired, it may be for the best—Nolan’s writing has been lazy and clunky since early career highlights Memento and The Prestige. Part of Dunkirk’s appeal was its minimal story, allowing Nolan to showcase his incredible skills of creating tension and cinematic images. Tenet soars when it follows in Dunkirk’s footsteps—it falters in its more intimate moments.

The film’s emotional heart revolves around Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, the estranged wife of Sator, the film’s primary antagonist. Kat stays with her abusive and arms-dealing husband out of necessity—her leaving comes at the cost of never seeing her son again. That Kat represents an ever slight step forward in Nolan’s creation of female characters is a tragedy. His films have often suffered from what critics have dubbed his “dead wife” problem—in lieu of writing fleshed out female characters, they are often killed off or are dead before the film starts, reducing them to being a mere character trait of the leading man in question (Cobb in Inception, Cooper in Interstellar, Leonard in Memento, multiple characters in The Prestige, and an unfortunate number of other examples).

Kat’s relationship with her son is not only her only motivation, but also her only defining characteristic. She expresses little agency—one of her more defiant acts towards the end of the film is a rash, emotional choice that defies the instructions given to her, a stereotypically feminine choice. While the character’s resolution is moving, this emotional response is entirely due to Nolan’s use of images, not his writing. Debicki delivers a fine performance given how little she has to work with. Kat’s husband Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh in a cartoonish performance, is little more than an impersonation of a ridiculous James Bond villain. While the film combines the spy and sci-fi genres, it normally does so in a self-serious manner, making the film’s antagonist a serious letdown. Branagh tries noticeably hard to be menacing but falls short when at one point he literally grunts, “If I can’t have you, no one else can,” in a Russian accent.

Branagh’s performance stands out in part due to his co-stars’ stellar work. John David Washingon cements his status as a Hollywood leading man with his charisma and athleticism on full display throughout the film. Despite his character’s lack of backstory, Washington carries the movie wonderfully. It is obvious watching the film that he did many of his own stunts, especially impressive given they include fight scenes that were choreographed and performed to appear as they were happening in reverse. Just as impressive is Robert Pattinson’s performance in his glorious return to Hollywood film. He has infectious chemistry with John David Washington, the two of them carrying many of Tenet’s more exposition-heavy scenes. Pattinson provides much needed humor and wit to the film and proves he’s still a blockbuster-worthy movie star ahead of his upcoming turn as Batman. Most other performances, although enjoyable, feel more like cameos. Nevertheless, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson make the most out of their respective roles.

Tenet marks a break in Nolan’s collaboration with famed composer Hanz Zimmer. For this latest picture, Nolan tapped Ludwig Göransson to compose the music. Göransson, perhaps most famously known as Childish Gambino’s preferred producer, has recently revealed himself as a film composing force with his work on Black Panther, Creed, and the television series The Mandalorian. Göransson employs synths, base, drums, guitars, and more to create a refreshingly unique soundtrack worthy of its own listen. His score perfectly matches Nolan’s action scenes, allowing the director to achieve a new level of tension, even by Nolan’s high standards. Göransson’s more synth-heavy tracks help merge the film’s sci-fi elements with the espionage-driven plot.

Unfortunately, one cannot mention Tenet’s score without also mentioning the film’s sound mixing. Much of the dialogue is nearly inaudible throughout the film. Some of this may be due to much of Tenet being shot on IMAX cameras, which make an incredible amount of sound while filming. To possibly combat this, or to flex the film’s massive budget, many scenes containing integral bits of dialogue take place on boats, next to airplanes, and during combat, masking the camera’s noise. Unfortunately, this also results in many details being drowned out by environmental noise, gunshots, or the film’s score. When combined with the film’s disorienting plot and physics, the sound mixing can make understanding the film a frustrating challenge rather than a satisfying puzzle.

Tenet is unfairly expected to reopen cinemas and, in some cases, keep theaters from permanently closing. After disappointing box office returns, more and more studios are pushing their blockbuster titles to 2021. Warner Bros. already planned to keep Tenet in theaters for a months-long run and it’s now possible it will remain as the only big-budget film in theaters for the rest of 2020. Despite its flaws, Tenet is a thrilling cinematic experience. While the Internet may nitpick the movie to death, a line from the film perfectly sums up the best way to experience it: “Don’t think about it. Feel it.” If Tenet is the last blockbuster to grace the silver screen for the foreseeable future, cinemas could do a lot worse.


Rush is a senior in the MSB studying Marketing and English.


bottom of page