“Tenet” is thrilling if you can look past all the self-seriousness

Tenet John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet. (Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi thriller is often something to behold, but it’s nowhere near the brilliant art it thinks it is.

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Perhaps the most anticipated release of the year, Tenet is the new Christopher Nolan film that hopes to bring back the summer blockbuster in the midst of a pandemic. In the spy thriller, we follow The Protagonist (John David Washington) as he tries to save the world from a time-traveling threat, and while the result should have taken itself far less seriously, it still makes for a very fun rollercoaster.

As our lead with a very on-the-nose name, Washington does a fantastic job as the near impossibly skilled agent who’s dropped into an international operation he—and we—knows almost nothing about apart from the word “Tenet”. He gives a movie star performance through and through; he’s always engaging, exuding cool from start to finish with thanks to the carousel of sleek suits from Jeffrey Kurland. He nails every one-liner no matter how corny. (There’s something to be said for his ability to say, “I’m the protagonist” twice without missing a beat.) Washington infuses life into a blank slate you know almost nothing about.

Opposite Washington for most of Tenet is Robert Pattinson as Neil, who gives a charming performance as another mysterious agent. He gets to poke fun at things a bit more than Washington, but he always keeps warm rather than snide, giving the pair a nice back-and-forth. Again, he gets a lot of duff lines and gives a boatload of exposition, but he still manages to stay charming and fun despite the dead weight the movie gives him. Much like with The Protagonist, Tenet tells us very little about Neil, the performance carrying almost the entire character.

Some way through, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), wife of abusive Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), gets entangled in their quest to save the world. But while the marketing frames her as a co-lead, she feels like a third wheel. Her character hits trope after trope of women in film, her entire motivation and characterization centering on motherhood in a way that falls completely flat.

The way Nolan handles Sator’s abusive behavior is almost comically bad, making him a vaguely xenophobic caricature while never giving Kat a meaningful amount of agency or identity beyond plot requirements and her connection to her abuser. Debicki still gives a great performance, though, using her star power to turn a hodgepodge of tropes into an actual character and making for some effective emotional moments.

Alas, this writing is the most consistently bad part of Tenet. Every character is pretty thin and at the mercy of the fantastic performances. A lot of the dialogue is outright poor and doesn’t feel like something a person would say, and while this would be fine if Nolan let Tenet be silly, he refuses to relinquish the self-seriousness and prestige window-dressing. This is at its most frustrating when it comes to the science: There’s exposition dump after exposition dump of Nolan’s version of time travel, which often just makes these “reverse entropy” mechanics more confusing. It’s especially true with sound mixing that makes certain lines inaudible.

[W]hen you ignore what Nolan wants you to pay attention to (how smart he is) and just let the dynamism and endless cool wash over you, it’s a thrilling experience.

Often it feels like Nolan is a kid who just read some pop philosophy and an encyclopedia about theoretical physics. As a result, the movie comes off more desperate to prove how smart he is by repeating as many concepts as possible. The worst part is that none of this actually matters. Even if it did make sense (it doesn’t), you’ve likely already spaced out halfway through the semi-inaudible explanation. Understanding the physics doesn’t increase your enjoyment of the film. If anything, drawing attention to it just makes you want to pick more holes in its silliness. It’s more of a flawed model of a puzzle box made with gunmetal grey Play-Doh than an actual puzzle box.

In spite of the writing, Tenet still gets you with its constant coolness. On top of that, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography makes turns everything dynamic and thrilling, especially when paired with Ludwig Gorannson’s intense, rousing score. The stunts are consistently impressive; the time travel effects are similarly phenomenal. There are also some clever tricks with the time travel that make it fun—especially when you don’t think about the specifics of how it works. Frustratingly, this all gets a bit overwhelming in the climax and, much like the dialogue, it’s very hard to actually tell what’s going on. But somehow, it’s still exciting even then.

Despite what it thinks, Tenet isn’t going to change cinema. It’s also not the film that’s worth getting the coronavirus for (not that any film would be worth it). However, when you ignore what Nolan wants you to pay attention to (how smart he is) and just let the dynamism and endless cool wash over you, it’s a thrilling experience.

Tenet is now in select theaters.

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