Tenet movie poster
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Tenet
Tenet movie poster

Tenet Movie Review

Available on Blu-ray and DVD on December 15, 2020 (Buy on Amazon)

After nearly two months on the market I finally caught up with Tenet, and I can say convincingly that the risk of catching COVID is not worth it for this convoluted, bloated, and semi-incoherent action-thriller.

Even if we weren’t in the end days and Tenet was just one of many blockbusters in theaters, I’d still question going.

And, for the record, I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan. Huge.

Which makes Tenet all the more disappointing.

Practically out of the gate something seems off with Nolan dropping us into some kind of terrorist attack at an opera house with absolutely no set up, introduction, or even logical editing. The scene is supposed to be spectacle but is pretty much just a mess, lacking the grandeur you’d expect from Nolan coupled with the fact that even several days after finishing the movie it’s still unclear to me what exactly happened during this opening. Or why it even mattered.

Tenet cost $200 million+ to make and aside from Warner Bros. understandably giving him free reign after his past successes, it’s hard to see why Tenet needed to cost nearly so much. There’s a clever, sophisticated movie in here somewhere but--and it shocks me to say this--it may have been better served in the hands of a different director, one forced to tell the story on a lean budget with lean storytelling and visual effects.

Because, if anything, Tenet is bloated as hell. Like the opening sequence, which is big only because Nolan wanted it to be, the entire 2.5-hour film is an experiment in budget gone awry. One of the other big money scenes involves a giant 747 crashing into an airport, but the spectacle really is unnecessary and not particularly impressive (it’s as if Nolan just wanted to have a reason to crash a 747 into a building). And throughout, Tenet acts as if what is happening is the next Matrix, but what we see on screen appears to be fairly straightforward footage simply shown in reverse.

That’s not to say Tenet doesn’t have ambition, but the end product, with its frantic editing, oppressive score (that seems to be used excessively to mask scenes that aren’t nearly as riveting as Nolan clearly intended them to be), and hard-to-follow story, is easily the shoddiest, sloppiest, and least enthralling film of Nolan’s storied career.

The writing and acting don’t help. John David Washington, who was so charismatic in BlacKkKlansman, is a wet blanket here, though that might be an insult to wet blankets. The writing does him no favors, forcing upon the audience a flat, uninteresting, and undeveloped protagonist who’s a badass but not much else. Robert Pattinson is largely wasted, while Kenneth Branagh hams it up as the big bad guy, a man so evil and unlikeable the word “nuanced” doesn’t exist in this temporal world Nolan has created. Branagh is just bad, but again, the screenplay gives him no room to operate.

The only glimmer of light is Elizabeth Debicki, who is granted the film’s only complex character.

Tenet isn’t without some merit. Once Nolan gets to the third act and actually explains the weird things he’s put in motion, there is some respect earned through how the plot weaves backward upon itself. But he takes way too long getting to this point, and the payoff isn’t nearly enough to make up for the confusing trainwreck that came before it. 

Tenet deserves some points for ambition, but ambition does not a good movie make. This is Nolan’s first obvious misfire, a befuddling cluster of confusion and sloppy storytelling that demonstrates whatever Nolan envisioned when he first put pen to paper did not translate to the big screen.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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