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Tenet, Nolan's latest, is a great example of how gimmicks can't really save an uninteresting story. This film's particular gimmick is the "inversion" of an object along the timeline. So inverted cars drive backwards, inverted people walk and talk in reverse, and so on. Considering audiences are now used to movies with living planets and talking sea monsters, Nolan playing footage backwards isn't all that impressive.
Our hero, known only as "The Protagonist" (John David Washington), is enlisted by the mysterious organization "Tenet" to prevent Russian crime boss Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from using the time-inversion device for nefarious purposes. Aiding the Protagonist are his fellow agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Sator's abused wife Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki). They go jet-hopping around the world trying to unravel the mystery of what Sator is up to, bouncing from one exotic locale to the other in a sort of sci-fi James Bond spy adventure.
The problem is that even the average James Bond film has more complex and layered characters than Tenet does. The Protagonist is an emotionless cipher, Neil is a generic "best friend" character, and Sator is an absurd cartoon villain. Only Kat, with her tragic quest to get out from under Sator's thumb, is at all compelling. Not helping things is the acting. Branagh's overacting aside, the whole cast sleepwalks through the film, and I can't say I blame them.
The action scenes are disappointing. As I mentioned before, the time inversion isn't that interesting of a gimmick, so you can only see so many inverted bullets flying back into the guns that fired them before you get bored. The inverted fistfight is kinda cool, but the car chase midway through the film is hard to follow, with cars doing things that don't make much sense even if time has been inverted. Special mention has to go to the final action sequence, in which time-inverted good guys and normal good guys team up to battle villains that we barely catch a glimpse of on screen. I honestly couldn't tell you what Sator's goons were wearing in the final battle, because we only ever see the good guys shooting back at them.
The sound is also poor. Characters mumble their dialogue, and time-inverted characters must wear special gas masks to help them breathe in reverse, so it becomes even harder to understand what they're saying. Good luck following the convoluted time-travel plot when characters mumble through an explosive action sequence.
Tenet is a mess, with dull characters, lousy action sequences, and a host of other problems. And since the time-inversion plot point is so unimpressive, I'm not sure I can even call Tenet an ambitious mess. Skip it and go rewatch Nolan's Batman movies instead.
Overall 8/10, Recommend Seeing, Make sure you aren't distracted.
Tenet tells the story of a CIA agent, presumed dead after an operation gone bad, who is brought into a higher stakes mission. He learns about technology, invented in the future, that makes some objects travel back in time instead of forward, technology used by someone in the future to attack the present. Our CIA agent must, of course, find out what is going on, stop whoever the bad guys are, all while coming to understand and use reversed time. the movie plays as described, as a spy story with a lot of time reversal mixed in.
The story of the movie works quite well, though you want to pay full attention. My first time, I missed some details at the beginning of how our main character met people and figured out what was going on, though fully paying attention it made sense when watching again. The time reversal stuff I generally followed fine, though specifics are fun to figure out, as many youtube videos attest. Overall the structure feels a lot like inception, where the main gimmick plays a major, major role in the story. Also like inception, the first half (roughly) takes place mainly in the normal world, while the second half makes much greater use of the gimmick, in the dreams in inception and using inversion for tenet, plus reveals the full stakes of the movie.
Unlike Inception, the main character doesn't have his own thing going on, he is instead focused on the mission. Despite what many people say, the characters work quite well, their actions and characterizations make sense, and nothing took me out of the movie.
The set pieces are a lot of fun. Traveling backwards in time adds a lot of interactions that normal time travel would not, and the movie takes full advantage. Even regular time travel stuff seems amped up, quite a lot that happens large and small is some form of Stable Time Loop, whether major parts of the story, single scenes, or little actions within a scene. Normal and reversed people fighting, objects traveling backwards—I know tropes kind of spoil the movie anyway, but I won't reveal too much. Watching these cenes is great fun, figuring out how they work is great fun. I've done a lot of edits on this wiki for this movie, and am also writing an analysis of how the physics could actually work (The movie doesn't follow exact physics, but that is very much excusable for the fun, exact physics would make some scenes more difficult for little payoff.) and have watched lots of youtube videos on scenes, as well as watching the scenes myself, so this is probably the most fun element of the movie.
Of course, there are niggles. Not a perfect movie after all.
Issue 0: The sound mix. I watched it on youtube and could hear everything well, so can't comment.
Issue 1 is a big battle at the end. It uses inversion quite heavily, with inverted things nteracting with non inverted things, and...such a missed opportunity. Often a chaotic mess, you can't really see what the bad guys are doing, or much strategy beyond some specific major plot events. The first time, I could follow the major plot events well, but the major battle as a whole was confusing until I watched some youtube videos to understand it. This wastes a good chunk of the second half of the movie, where we really should be having as much fun with inversion as possible, especially what that means for a big battle.
Issue 2: The movie at the end gets pretty depressing. It's hard to say exactly why, probably a mix of things. The characters being disconnected from the outside world, the sad music at the end, the movie's time model where everything is fixed probably contribute. Being inside all the time while watching during COVID doesn't help, but won't apply in the future (hopefully).
Issue 3: Since I'm comparing to inception, the movie just doesn't feel as big as inception. Hard to say exactly why, might be the set pieces, might be that dreams allow lots of creativity but the spy world is more closed and isolated, but the result just feels like it is missing something.
So overall: Watch this while in a good mood, and enjoy the time shennanigans, make sure the sound mix is good. Recommended.
I've been hearing a lot about how Tenet, the sci-fi espionage thriller from Christopher Nolan, was hard to follow and understand. Now I understand why, and it has nothing to do with the weighty, mind and time bending conceit. There's an episode of Red Dwarf in which the heroes visit a happy world where time travels backwards. The dead return to life, people get younger, and the only downside is that every Christmas a fat guy comes down the chimney and steals children's presents. If you can get your head around that, you won't really have a problem with Tenet's plot, which involves a bunch of heists and the selective rewinding of time.
No, what makes the movie incomprehensible is the sound. The sound is utterly atrocious. I'm not exaggerating when I say I could only make out about a quarter of the movie's dialogue, and I was this close the entire time to getting up and asking the staff if there was some sort of problem with the screening. A cursory check online afterwards has confirmed that, no, this is all a deliberate decision on Nolan's part, and most audiences have had the same problem. What's wrong is that the mixing is terrible, with music so loud that you can feel it vibrating the fillings out of your mouth, often playing inappropriately over dialogue scenes where the actors are muttering or wearing gas masks (Oh look, yet another Nolan film with incomprehensible gasmask wearers. The man has a fetish, and one very well served in these days of COVID).
It's a shame because I was enjoying some of the ways the movie plays with its novel ideas. At first we are introduced to bullets that shoot backwards, returning themselves to the gun. Then we discover people, cars, and practically everything else can operate on this basis. There's some incredible choreography involved to pull off some of the movie's more complex action scenes, and I'm dying to see the making of. It's all very classic Nolan action, tied into a classic Nolan story of serious, cold blooded bachelors going on heists. This time the bachelors are trying to stop some future doomsday event, that is going to somehow involve a Russian guy; a man played by Kenneth Branaugh who looks distractingly like Charlie Brooker. And of course, there are some extravagant set pieces involved, the most impressive involving a real Jumbo Jet driving straight through a building.
Do I recommend Tenet? No. The movie is far too aggravating to enjoy in its current state. You should not be expected to pay good ticket money on it, and you might want to wait to see if Nolan caves in to complaints and offers to fix the issue. Or wait until a DVD is released, and you can slap on some vital subtitles.
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