PG-13 for violence (weird violence) and abuse. I'm sure that there's some language, but it really takes a backseat to some of the weird brutality that happens in this movie. There's a description of a brutal death that never actually happens, but the description of this potential death is pretty horrific. I don't want to get lazy with this section, but this does seem to be in the Christopher Nolan wheelhouse. It's that level of intensity. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
There was a time in my life when I lost it when I saw Christopher Nolan's name attached to something. The man is phenomenally talented. He was this edgy director who saw the world and storytelling from a very unique perspective. I'm a little worried that he's becoming a bit of an M. Night Shyamalan though, depending on gimmicks and brain-breaky storytelling that he might be getting in his own way.
Now, I'm going to be preachy before I actually start talking about the movie itself. I almost feel like Tenet has earned a bit of a stigma based on the statements that Christopher Nolan has made lately. Now, I get that an artist wants his film to be seen by as many people as humanly possible in the most prestigious way possible. Nolan had a vision of how people should absorb this movie. He crafted it in a very specific way to maximize the amount of spectacle that this movie could have provided. I also know that he probably believes that he's on the right side of history, advocating for the unemployed. But everything I've read from him screams, "I'm an auteur! See the movie the way I want it to be seen." Nolan was possibly the most vocal director who wanted to open movie theaters. He went both ways for a while, but now he's firmly established as one of the voices who wanted people to go to movie theaters during a pandemic. I'm all about fighting for the survival of the movie theater. The movie theater is a very special place to me. I get so much joy seeing a movie opening night in a crowded theater. But everyone is making sacrifices right now. I would have loved to have seen Tenet in a 4K theater with people oohing-and-ahhing. But that's such a dangerous message to send out right now. Nolan could have been one of the leading voices for people staying home. Instead, he played down the pandemic all because he wanted people see his movie his way. This definitely tainted my viewing of Tenet...from the comfort of my home.
I really wanted to like Tenet. I know that maybe this film might be getting lukewarm reviews from people, while some people are defending it as a work of genius. I will concede: this movie is 100% a work of genius. It takes a very impressive mind to visualize something that should be impossible to comprehend. There were so many times where I had to explain to my brain what I was watching because it was that visually complex. But there's one thing that happens in both writing and in art that should supersede any kind of visual complexity: clarity.
Now, I don't like to be spoon-fed. I'm not saying Nolan has any responsibility to spoon feed us what is happening in the film. After all, I'm a big fan of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who. Those are shows that make you think things out. Nolan is asking the audience something pretty intense. He wants people to leave the movie theater and discuss what they have seen. Then he wants them to go back to the movies and watch the same movie again, with the newfound discussion points that they had the first time. It's ambitious. But to achieve this goal, Nolan leaves out key information to make things as obtuse as possible. He wants you to be so confused that you have to watch it again. I'm going to be talking very clearly about the final act, so please be aware THAT I AM GOING TO BE MORE SPOILERY THAN NORMAL.
The first two acts might be striking the proper balance of confusing. There is a lot of information to take in, but Nolan does his best to at least point the camera in the right direction. There's a modicum of exposition, explaining the weirdness that we are seeing. But there's nothing having to repeat or re-explain each scene. If you are paying attention, the first two acts are actually really good examples of storytelling. But the final act is an invasion on a compound done by a team that is going forward in time and a team that's going backwards in time. (Nolan, by the way, at one point insisted that this wasn't a time travel story.) There's ten minutes on both sides (Hence, Tenet being a palindrome composed of two words "ten" meeting in the middle). But what is beat-by-beat happening is a complete mess. It's a lot of information and some visual trickery that makes it nearly impossible to figure out what is going on. It is almost asking the audience to sit there with a pen and pencil and play the movie in 2-second increments so they can figure out every beat. It's fine that Nolan understands what is going on, but it's not cool that his audience doesn't know what's going on.
Similarly, there's a moment where Neil switches directions in time. He starts going backwards and then moves forwards. Now, that's fine. But you only really understand that once the scene is completely over and they reprimand him for what he has done. That's being intentionally withholding. I'm now asking for Nolan to telegraph what is happening. But do you know how that scene could have been fixed. SQUAD LEADER: "Everyone, it is imperative you stay on your time track. Neil, I'm looking at you." NEIL gives a boy scout salute. SQUAD LEADER continues with briefing. That's it. That's what you needed. Giving us a little foreshadowing that something might happen in that vein at least lets us know what direction to look in. Instead, we're so bombarded with information that there is no way to know what bit of information is going to pay off.
Which brings me down the most disappointing element of the whole experience. Christopher Nolan has always made things seem so effortless. He took these grandiose ideas and has made these stories seem like that's the only way to tell the story. Dunkirk played with chronology in a way that I've never seen told before, but I also realize that is what made the movie special. Memento took the inverted storytelling and made us all feel like we had short-term memory loss. He made Batman realistic, like he lived in our United States. But this feels...gimmicky. This feels like he's trying way too hard to be Christopher Nolan. Yeah, it's visually very cool and there's a story to be told here. But there's nothing in act three that needs to be told the way it is. It's showing off in the worst possible way.
And then I started picking the whole thing apart. Why is the movie so complicated? Yeah, it's Nolan showing off. But then I realized...the plot is kind of dumb. The conceit is rad. There are people moving forward in time and there are people moving backwards in time. But ultimately (and I realized it came down to the casting of Kenneth Branagh), that this is just another Bond knock-off supervillain plot. The main villain likes to see people sad and miserable while having grandiose ideas about the environment, so he's going to bomb the world. That's the stuff of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. There's nothing all that special about the story. So instead of actually writing a compelling story, the movie lives-and-dies on its conceit of forward and backwards movement. That's not fun to me. As much as Nolan wants me to go out and watch the movie again, the story doesn't compel me to do so. It's why I like the escape room more than the Rubik's Cube. I need the narrative to keep me going.
So it's a work of genius, but almost to the point of being a detriment. There are some amazing visuals and insane fight scenes. But in terms of something that I could relate to, this came across as so alien and distant that there wasn't much emotion besides "wow" going on.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.