There are puzzling, mystery movies that are fun to try to solve, and then there is Tenet. Christopher Nolan‘s latest mind-bending sci fi flick uses explosions, expository dialogue and quick scene changes to give the illusion of a deep, meaningful, story based in complicated scientific hypotheses, but fails so completely on delivery that it is almost impressive how bad it is.
John David Washington stars as an unnamed character who, for no reason whatsoever, waits until the end of the movie to identify himself as The Protagonist. His identity isn’t a big mystery to solve, and the last-minute revelation that he is The Protagonist doesn’t make any pieces fit together. It is, however, symbolic of all the things that make Tenet a messy failure of storytelling and an unfortunate misstep in Nolan’s filmography.
We first meet the Protagonist in the middle of a CIA operation that involves a terror attack in a Russian performing arts center. The op goes wrong, The Protag bites into his standard-issue cyanide capsule and wakes up days later to learn it wasn’t a real suicide pill, but he lost his team and has now been recruited into something called Tenet. The company? organization? group? is one of many pieces that is introduced but never actually explained.
What is explained is that someone from the future invented (or will invent) an algorithm they intend to use in the past, which is really the present, to destroy humanity before we can destroy the planet for our future selves. His search for answers leads him first to a scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy) who has discovered inverted weapons that fire backward through time. This leads him to India where he teams up with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a local contact with a lot of knowledge and connections. The Protagonist meets Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia) who sends him into the path of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), whose abusive, Russian oligarch husband, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) might know something about backward-shooting guns.
It would be easy to dismiss the plot as confusing, but that would be generous. Nolan’s script is a convoluted hodge podge of incomplete concepts and misused words (like ‘tenet,’ for example). On more than one occasion, he writes his characters into a tricky spot and takes the easy way to get them out of it by cutting to a later scene and explaining in as little detail as possible their unlikely escape. He repeats buzzwords like “The Grandfather Paradox!” and a bunch of science-y terms to make it sound smart, as if not understanding is a flaw on the part of the audience, and not the result of an ill-conceived idea.
Nolan as writer falls on all the standard cliches of a spy movie. The fate of the entire world is at stake because one man has a grudge that may or may not be explained. It’s hard to know for certain since the sound is so poorly mixed that at least 50% of the dialogue is impossible to hear. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat is a battered wife who, while the entire world is on the brink of obliteration, is willing to help as long as she is guaranteed she gets to reunite with her son. There are multiple plot twists that are, themselves, such cliches anyone should be able to spot them before you even know there’s something to watch out for.
In addition to grating sound design, the picture quality is not representative of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s best work, with images that are sometimes too dark or too blurry to follow. Some of the action is interesting, but most of it feels like things we’ve seen before. One heist scene involves driving a plane into a building, but probably looked much more creative in storyboards. In reality, it is an unfortunate misstep.
Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s worst film. And yes, this is coming from someone who has seen Following. It may be his most ambitious, but it is ultimately the poor execution of an incomplete thought.
Tenet is now playing wherever theaters have reopened.