Disclaimer: We are currently in the middle of an ongoing pandemic in the United States, where this writer is based. Our government was slow to act, and because of that, our numbers are still very high. A movie theater is not a safe place to be because people will be taking off their masks to eat. So any recommendation for this movie or any other movie reviewed should not be seen as an encouragement to go to the theater. That is your decision and yours alone, but please be careful if you do. I was able to see Tenet in a theater with only friends that I trusted to be as safe as possible thanks to selectively buying seats to take the entire theater. This can be done for not a lot of money and is something I would recommend looking into if absolutely must go to the theater. Stay safe, stay healthy, and wear a mask. Now onto the review…
Tenet is trying very hard to be deep and meaningful, but the archetypical characters and over-explanation of the convoluted storyline means we have a lot of homoeroticism in fantastic menswear in between awesome set pieces.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Summary: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.
Fellow Bleeding Cool writer Andy Wilson spoke about how Tenet had a ton of pressure on it to be the movie to "save" movie theaters, and that is a weight that no production, not even one by Christoper Nolan, could live up to. There is another reality where the COVID-19 pandemic didn't happen, and Tenet is able to be released as planned at the end of July in the middle of a packed summer to the kind of impact a high-concept Nolan action movie would usually have. But now it's coming into theaters with weeks of extra hype and people declaring that this movie must be the one to save us all to save movie theaters. This film couldn't possibly live up to that hype, and now here we are with a mid-tier Nolan feature that has some amazing set pieces, fantastic menswear, homoeroticism, and nothing else going for it.
There is a reason that most of Nolan's movies don't feature a lot of female characters, and that is because Nolan doesn't seem capable of writing female characters. Almost all of the notable ones lack any real depth of character, and any time Nolan tries to say that one of his male characters is attracted to or even cares about one of his female characters, it just doesn't work. Because of that, his movies are always incredibly unintentionally homoerotic. As someone who was well into the fandom that followed Inception back in the 2010s, watching The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) interact, it was like watching Arthur and Eames all over again. Nolan knows how to write male relationships, and he writes them incredibly well. This is by no means a criticism, but the male relationships in his films are often so charged and emotional that you have to stop yourself from yelling "GAY" at the top of your lungs. The fact that it always seems to be entirely unintentional [since none of these relationships are ever actually consummated on screen] is just amusing above all else.
It doesn't help that once again, Nolan's characters are incredibly archetypical. That was very much the point of the characters in Inception where they all had a designated role to fill, and they were metaphors for various roles within filmmaking. But there isn't really a "role" for each of the characters in Tenet to play aside from Washington, and he's the most obvious one because it's the only name the movie bothers to give him.
Nolan's aesthetic when it comes to menswear is also well on display as more and more comparisons must be made to Inception. Again, this is not a criticism, since Inception is his best movie*. But like Inception, his cast walks around in stylish outfits that probably require repeated viewings to properly absorb. Tenet is a movie that costume designers will likely have a field day breaking down all of these looks because the details that can go into something as simply beautiful as a suit can say a lot about the personality of the characters who wear them. The Protagonist's outfits are a bit more straightforward, while Neil throws on something like his hipster scarf while they are discussing strategically blowing up a plane. Those kinds of details were awesome to break down in Inception and it will likely be the same for Tenet. This is not even getting into the lovely outfits that Elizabeth Debicki wears and seeing her in 3" heels on top of the fact that she is 6'3", so she towers over her male co-stars, is worth the cost of admission alone. We so rarely get to see tall women be tall in movies.
All of this homoeroticism and the fantastic suits are in a movie that spends far too much time explaining how it works. The thing about time travel is that it is utterly ridiculous as a concept, and the more time you spend trying to explain it, the less it makes sense. The time "inversion" in Tenet is just as silly as the time heist from Avengers: Endgame, only Tenet is less self-aware about it being silly. The inverted action beats are fantastic to watch and are brought to screen with a level of technical skill that must be commended above all else. It would be very easy for this to all look silly on top of being silly. But instead, it's dynamic, and the most impressive parts of the movie are those where Nolan and company really push the idea of time inversion to its limits.
However, because this is a serious movie for serious people, those dynamic and fantastic shots are bookended by long scenes of characters explaining the science and talking about what is going on and how it all works. While Tenet does go out of its way to stay firmly on the show side of 'show don't tell', the science and the explanation for the time inversion is confusing for the audience as well as the characters. So anytime the movie needs to slow down to explain what is going on, the film itself grinds to a halt. Then there is the fact that anyone who is hard of hearing will inevitably miss some of the dialogue due to the sound editing. It's becoming a problem with Nolan movies and one that really needs to be addressed instead of brushed off as an intended side effect. When someone misses a line, it tends to be a distraction as the audience sits there and wonder if they missed something essential. Nolan says that he doesn't "agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue," which is fine, but it is a problem for the audience in that it keeps coming up. So much of this movie needs to be explained, and when you miss entire lines of dialogue, it makes a high concept movie even more confusing.
Tenet is not a bad movie, not by a long shot, and those action beats using time inversion are worth it on their own. However, this is also far from Nolan's best work and isn't the second coming of theatrical Jesus. It's a mid-tier action movie with some great set pieces. It's also well-acted, save for Kenneth Branagh, who is just not terrifying as a villain and is nice to see on a big screen. However, those who are hard of hearing are going to have another Nolan sound design problem. So in that case, maybe waiting for the home release will be better.