We’re back, bitches.
Regardless of whether it is actually a good idea, theaters are back open, and one of the biggest films of the summer was waiting in Tenet. The latest film from director, Christopher Nolan is a time-bending action thriller which leaves the audience asking all manner of questions because no one can figure out who the heck anyone is or what the heck is going on.
Tenet is a vexing film. On one hand, it has all of the usual hallmarks of a Nolan film in that it is shot well, has a plethora of practical effects and stunts, and has a core concept that is a bit out there and thus very intriguing. Meanwhile, it is also a film which features all of the other Nolan hallmarks: it is obtuse, it has weak characterization and dialogue, and runs into strange pacing issues at times.
Any film which features time travel is automatically a touch convoluted as a baseline, so the film must have an explanation of its particular set of rules. Even films with the flimsiest connections to sci-fi need to establish the rules by which their world will obey; any film which cannot properly establish its rules will result in rampant confusion for the audience. While it mostly avoids the rampant confusion aspect of rule defining, Tenet does not do an effective job of conveying its rules clearly and concisely. The time travel in this film is not traditional time travel in which a character undergoes complete temporal displacement. Rather, their march through time is reversed in the form of their entropy switching. OK, not entirely complex, but the issue comes from the impact of this ruleset. Namely, how in the heck is one character traveling to the past from what is implied to be a distant future?
To venture into spoiler territory for the first time, there is a character who travels a fair distance into the past, which is the relative present for the film. Based on the rules of the film, when entropy is reversed, the subject remains in a one-to-one temporal rate as everything else. At no point is it shown that the rate at which something travels through time can be changed, so for one character to be in the film’s present from a fairly distant future, does that individual need to essentially relive years of their lives and beyond in order to get to that point? The answer to this question is not clearly presented by the rules of the film, and if it is, it is easy to miss thanks to a couple of other flaws to the film.
The first is the film’s oppressively steady pace. This is a little unusual, as one of the most typical complaints addressed to a film’s pace will focus on it being either way too fast or way too slow. Tenet is way too medium. The film travels a not quite brisk, but very confident pace. It is a trend consistent with most of Nolan’s films in which they all push forward at a very consistent momentum and comfortably ride that line between being too fast or too slow. However, their pacing is always very steady, and in a film like Tenet where there are more complex concepts and ideas being presented, and it would be nice to have some time for those ideas and moments to sit in the ether for a little bit. Any time there is a big reveal or a piece of dialogue critical to the plot, the pace of the film means that there is little time to soak in that information before the film strides into the next scene and provide all new info to cram into your dome.
The other issue is an odd one in that the sound mixing was trash. The venue I saw this film in is one which I have been to many times and have never had any sort of sound issues before. But considering that this was the first week of its reopening, there is always the chance of there being some bugaboos in the auditorium. With that being said, if the issues are not with the venue, then this film has shocking sound mixing for something of its profile. The dialogue was quiet and understated throughout the whole film with the score dominating the audio space and creating a ton of interference. It is to the point where I cannot recite a single line from the film. Even minutes after viewing the film, it was a struggle to come up with a single line from the film, as they simply had no chance to stick. There was so much other noise-clutter in the film that dialogue and character became secondary as it simply couldn’t be heard.
As usual with Nolan films, the characters take a substantial back seat to the action and concept, so do not expect there to be any interesting people to root for. The dialogue is there, and it moves the plot forward without accomplishing much else. Another reason it is difficult to quote this film is that there are no memorable lines. Everything is in service not just to the plot, but to the concept, and there is no room for something as simple as a fun character to throw a wrench into the works. It is one of the weakest aspects of this film, as despite making some of the most critically, commercially and publicly successful films of the past 15 years, it is almost impossible to quote them. The only one which is possible is Joker from Dark Night, but that is likely more attributed to the actor than anything else, as there are no memorable quotes from anyone else in that film. With reference-culture still in full force, the complete lack of presence his films have in popular culture outside of looking cool and having interesting concepts.
And that is where this film is admittedly at its strongest. While its execution is a bit strained and muddled, the idea itself is fun and sets up a series of very interesting and very well shot action sequences. Some of it can be a bit confusing, but it is still exciting, nonetheless. Nolan continues to be a bastion of practical effects, as there is little to no noticeable computer effects in the entire film. The nature of the action combined with out-there plot and concept give the film a feeling of a supercharged version of a 90’s James Bond film- in fact, it would be quite fun to see Nolan direct a Bond or two in the future.
Ultimately, Tenet is a very typical Nolan film: it has a core concept steeped in real world science mixed with a pinch of film fiction, and strong action driven by strong camera work and practical effects which are all undermined by weak characterization and plot as well as the obtuseness of the concept itself. It is not as interesting a concept as inception, though it is not as sloppy and ridiculous as interstellar. It winds up being a fine film, but something which is otherwise unspectacular. Not the greatest welcome back from months of isolation and struggling to finish home screenings among all the distractions, but beggars can’t be choosers, and the opportunity to view a very competent if flawed action flick with lofty concepts shouldn’t be passed up by those eager to return to the theater experience.