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When a woman in writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is told that literally everyone in the whole world is about to die, she whimperingly adds “including my son…” This unintentionally hilarious line proves, once again, Nolan understands how to write women about as well as fish understand how to write The Bicycle Thief.
Setting aside that glaring concern—and the fact that Nolan’s hubris may well have killed the very movie theaters he claims to love—Tenet is a reminder that the British narcissist can make one hell of a banging blockbuster. Does it make sense? Kinda! Is it unnecessarily convoluted and filled with exposition dumps that feel like someone reading off complicated board game rules? You bet your sweet bippy! Are the end results entertaining enough to forgive all of that? And how! No, really, how?
The very act of synopsizing Tenet is insane, not because it can’t be done, but because Nolan has been out there publicly lying about what the film is actually about. Here’s what can be safely said: The film follows some kind of spy (John David Washington) who must prevent an evil Russian (Kenneth Branagh) from getting his hands on an object that will obliterate reality. This MacGuffin is linked to radioactive shenanigans that alter the rules of time. Oh, and the evil Russian’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki) clarifies that her worth is only relative to her existence as a mother about 30 or so times.
From Tenet’s opening sequence to the final climactic battle, not knowing exactly what the hell is going on has never been so fun! That’s actually sincere. For all of Nolan’s shortcomings, his ability to stage simply meticulous action sequences and infuse boilerplate plot devices with gleefully complicated insanity is divine. Reductive rehashes and simplistic franchise films abound, but the absurdity of a Nolan spectacle is singular.
Also singular: the amount of words needed to describe the personality of each character. Tenet likely has a plot bible the size of a King James copy stacked on the Koran. The motivations of the players, however, consist of “wants to stop bad guy,” “wants to do bad things because he’s bad,” and “loves her son.” It mostly works, but only because it feels like (ahem) a time saver.
That is to say, in two and a half hours, Tenet still doesn’t have enough space to explain a whole host of weird elements. Had any of the characters been closer to real people, you’d have to block out a week to watch. That said, Washington proves that all he really needs is a kick-ass clothing budget and his unbridled charisma. Put him in everything. Put him in everything, right now.
From another lazy use of domestic violence to an ending that doesn’t click everything into place so much as suggest maybe you watch it again, Tenet has flaws. But you know what? Damned if you won’t feel compelled to actually go ahead and watch it again. Few movies so brazenly try to argue that a big-budget extravaganza can still be ambitious. If it can be safely called anything, it can be called that.
Grade = B+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Of the hundreds and hundreds of Tenet reviews, here are some excellent points:
Danielle Solzman of Solzy at the Movies says, “If you look at Inception as being [Nolan’s] Vertigo, you can look at Tenet in the same way that we look at Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.”
Rohan Naahar at the Hindustan Times says, “Enigmatic to a fault and exhaustingly dense, Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi spectacle leaves you with the unshakable feeling that you walked into the screening 15 minutes late.”
Kelley Dong at Mubi says, “The scale of its spectacle suggests innovation; but Nolan’s combination of the reverse motion with the cross cut, which he’s dressed with trivial exposition, has all been done before.”
Kaitlyn Booth at Bleeding Cool says, “Tenet is trying very hard to be deep and meaningful, but the archetypical characters and over-explanation of the convoluted storyline means we have a lot of homoeroticism in fantastic menswear in between awesome set pieces.”
Kelechi Ehenulo at Confessions From a Geek Mind says, “Seeing a film so unapologetically escapist, so demanding of your attention and so challenging, is a sensation I’ve missed. I can’t stop thinking about it.”