This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Cinema Sims’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Tenet is ultimately a disappointment from Nolan, because it failed to engage me with the story it is trying to tell and it is not really about anything at the end of the day other than a generic ‘save the world’ plot with some cool looking time travel mechanics thrown in for flavour. There is an attempt at some deeper message late in the films final act about the impending climate catastrophe this planet faces as the reason for the future wanting to wipe out their own past but its given a few lines and that’s it. It is a potentially interesting and timely debate that could elevated the film with an interesting grey moral conflict. Instead it just gets a couple of lines as motivation for another generic villain. ‘The protagonist’ (possibly the laziest name ever and emblematic as a whole of Nolan's approach to characters) is just such an empty blank slate of a character, despite John David Washington’s attempts to bring some life into his performance. And this goes for the rest of the films characters too really, just dull blank slates to fit into the typical thriller archetypes of ‘cool sidekick’, ‘woman who needs to be rescued’ and ‘Evil Russian villain’. The performances aren’t bad, but I never really cared about any of them and don’t think Nolan does either, they’re simply vehicles to deliver plot exposition, much of which you can’t hear due to the god awful sound mixing. I genuinely could barely hear what was going on for the first 20 minutes of the film. Making your film hard to understand because the audience cannot literally hear what is being discussed does not make it complex or satisfying in any way whatsoever.
And this leads to my main problem with Tenet – its poorly executed main idea of people moving through time in reverse. The film goes to great lengths to ensure you don’t ever clearly quite understand how it works until at least halfway through but even then it still wasn’t entirely clear how it works in terms of characters interacting and moving through environments to me. The action scenes involving ‘inverted’ characters fighting honestly looked ridiculous and I could never quite wrap my head around how it was supposed to be working. I’m not advocating for the film to sit me down and explain it over a lengthy exposition scene, but there needed to be a middle ground here. Compare Tenet to Inception which clearly explains the central concept of the film in the first 10 minutes and then expands and details it throughout the rest of the film, all while being grounded in a setting that anyone on the planet can relate to. Tenets ultimate plot revelation is that the events of the film are essentially the final (or first?) chapter of a larger story that is entirely set up by ‘The protagonist’ in the future at some point. Can that be an interesting story? Absolutely, but Doctor Who did it better already over 10 years ago, with far better characters. There’s so much pointless exposition in Tenet to ultimately explain nothing, that the film forgets to have a soul. This approach from Nolan was fine in Dunkirk but seems now to be a worrying trend emerging in his writing, especially when his previous films have stronger emotional cores in addition to their spectacle.
While this review may seem largely negative there is still a lot I enjoyed about Tenet. The score is excellent and the practical action never disappointed as always in Nolan films. Despite its long runtime I never felt that the film dragged, and the initial plot intrigue was engaging until the films final act. However, I feel Tenet is overall style over substance. It is not that complex when you boil it down and if you want a film about time travel that challenges you and is intelligent with a point to make, watch Primer instead. That film introduces a complex time travel mechanic and then smartly complicates it while still providing all the answers within the film itself. It demands re-watches to improve your understanding of its puzzle like nature, not because the audio was mixed so poorly you literally could not hear the plot. Regardless I found it to be an enjoyable ride on the big screen again after so long, but it wasn’t quite the triumphant return I was hoping for.