Tenet – The UnPopular Opinion

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!


In the eight years that I have written this column, I have argued the faults of two Christopher Nolan movies: Dunkirk and Interstellar. I have long been a fan of Nolan's work going all the way back to Following and Memento. I am currently reading the fascinating book The Nolan Variations which dissects the filmmaker's brilliant mind and attention to detail. I am a Christopher Nolan fan. But, I am not someone who will look past the faults in a movie just because of the name emblazoned on the poster. No, I will call a movie out when it fails and Tenet is an absolute failure. Yes, it is beautifully shot and intricately assembled, but it is an absolute failure from a filmmaker who has outgrown valuing the opinion of those around him who would otherwise say "edit this" or "change that". With Tenet, Christopher Nolan has become a filmmaker like George Lucas or M. Night Shyamalan in that his full ownership of every aspect of the filmmaking experience has blinded him to the shortcomings of his finished product.

Tenet is, in many ways, the perfect Christopher Nolan movie. Featuring complex special effects that visualize something never done in a feature film and a cast of cool noir-inspired characters, Tenet is the Mission: Impossible or James Bond movie created through the mind of Nolan. But, much like every Nolan film since Inception, it thinks it is smarter than it actually is. As much as I still love Inception, it is a film that the deeper you dissect it, the less sense it makes. The suspension of disbelief needed to accept the logic of Inception is far smaller than what you need to absorb Tenet. Notice I did not say "understand" as there is no understanding when it comes to Tenet. As a film, Tenet never equals the sum of its parts. Each sequence is trademark Christopher Nolan and yet taken as a whole it makes no sense whatsoever. At least with Inception, the dream within a dream conceit was so otherworldly that you could give yourself over to it. Nolan then took the concept of time flowing differently for Dunkirk, a device that lessened what should have otherwise been a serviceable war film and turned it into something pretentious.

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While Inception was convoluted and Interstellar was pretentious and Dunkirk was overwrought, Tenet is all of those on top of a weak story. At least with the three aforementioned movies, Nolan assembled a top-notch cast who fully inhabited their characters which helped earn the stories some stakes worth investing in. Tenet is cold and distant and outwardly refuses to allow the viewer into the story. At least with James Bond or Ethan Hunt, we care about the heroes and want to be like them. Tenet doesn't even bother to name John David Washington's protagonist and therefore keeps us from relating to him. Washington, who shows he is more than capable of being a heroic leading man here, is so obtuse and stoic that it becomes impossible to care whether he lives or dies. The same goes for the even less fleshed out supporting players of Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). But, with their roles at least they were more than an avatar on screen. Washington's motivation or existence ends up serving as a placeholder in Nolan's script that he failed to go back and add necessary insight to.

Everything here feels like it was meant to be more. Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ives is a cliche military soldier whose existence is never explained. The same goes for Martin Donovan's Fay, the Protagonist's boss who we are meant to believe just because his presence dictates it. Clemence Poesy's scientist Barbara is in the film for a single scene to explain away the narrative complexities of Nolan's over-engineered plot. Every other character in the movie spouts exposition to move the non-plot forward and we just accept it because we would otherwise have no clue what was happening. Michael Caine's intelligence officer to Fiona Dourif's soldier pop in at the moment the Protagonist needs to understand what is coming next because the screenplay had no other organic manner of explaining the unexplainable. This makes Tenet feel half-cocked and poorly conceived.

The worst offense in the film is Kenneth Branagh's Russian villain Sator. While Branagh has delivered one of my all-time favorite films (Dead Again), here he plays a thinly veiled caricature of a James Bond villain. His hammy accent and impossibly full beard are accentuated by cliche and stereotypical tropes like his work in Chernobyl and consumption of vodka. Branagh does what he can with what he is given, but the issue squarely returns to the creator of Tenet. Basing his entire film on an ancient stone inscribed with five-words is an easy explanation as to why this movie is so arduous to sit through. Conceptually, I applaud what Nolan was going for with this movie, but it ends up feeling like a quick sketch when it should have been a lush and grand painting. There is so much technical care taken with making this movie that not enough was placed on emotional stakes to help the audience feel any sort of investment.

Then there is the conceit of inverse time. What should have been the coolest element of the film as teased by the intentionally vague teaser trailers ends up being a major shortcoming. The backward car chase looks innovative and badass at first, but on repeat viewings, it ends up just looking like footage being rewound and replayed. I am sure I am discounting the technical achievements used to actually create these sequences, but the one on one fight that the Protagonist has with himself looks like one person punching in slow motion while the other is a step too early in receiving it. We then get to see these same sequences play out twice in the film which doesn't do anything but pad the already too long film. This also undermines the absolutely brilliant work by composer Ludwig Goransson and the gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, two craftsmen who never disappoint. They elevate Nolan's work even if Tenet still falls short of the quality we anticipated.

action, Drama, thriller, Christopher Nolan, Christopher Nolan, John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kenneth Branagh, Clémence Poésy, Tenet, 2020, The UnPopular Opinion

Tenet proves that Christopher Nolan will never fail to surround himself with the very best at their jobs. From composers and cinematographers to editors and actors, Nolan's movies always recruit the best of the best. But, if you look at all of the best movies Nolan has made, they all share co-writers or source material from another author. When Nolan works on his own, he rarely has the benefit of a second voice who can bounce off of his creative ambitions. That voice is not a detriment but a benefit and I feel that had Nolan partnered with someone on this film, many of the issues could have been addressed and resulted in a stronger, tighter film. As it is, Tenet is a visually stunning movie that the closer you inspect the more issues you find. Compared to any other movie Nolan has directed, this is by far the weakest result coming from the strongest ambition. Here's hoping that the filmmaker is humbled by this and turns in an even stronger movie next time around.

But hey, that's just my UnPopular Opinion. Tell us your take on Tenet in the comments below.

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Source: JoBlo.com

About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.