Tenet ★★½

John David Washington sounds like a nerdy kid trying to do his best Denzel impression.

At this point in his career, it almost feels like Christopher Nolan has become a meme unto himself, as the filmmaker who tries to make every audience member “really think” while throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the screen to wow them too. So to say that hype for Tenet was pretty high is an understatement, particularly once theaters closed and Tenet was one of the few blockbusters still slated for a theatrical release. Frankly, I am glad that I didn’t see Tenet in theaters, as I feel like the sheer spectacle of it all could have distracted me from its more deep-rooted issues. Things are messy.

Let me just say this: Christopher Nolan understands spectacle and he has a great eye for epic set pieces. The opening opera house sequence alone feels like something pulled straight from my childhood imagination—a scene I would have played out in my head with my action figures firmly in grip. There are a handful of such sequences in Tenet, but admittedly none of them feel like they are breaking new ground for Nolan. While the climactic action sequence is entertaining, it doesn’t feel like it justifies the rest of the film. I’m not sure if this makes any sense to anyone else, but when I was a kid I remember going to certain locations (usually parking structures or tall skyscrapers) and thinking, “this would be an awesome place for an action scene”. In that same vein, as I got older and tried making stories of my own, I found myself trying to build entire narratives around a single action sequence that popped into my head. And you know what? That never works, and Tenet is proof of that. Making a two-and-a-half-hour long film to bank on one scene is just a bad move. It feels like Nolan was so excited about the finale of this film that he just struggled to assemble the rest of the film to just prop up his precious final shootout. And even from a production standpoint, Tenet struggles in comparison to some other Nolan films. In particular, the CGI is surprisingly shoddy, and Ludwig Goransson’s score is so overpowering in some scenes that it feels like Nolan is parodying his own style at this point.

For a film that flaunted it’s “everything happens in reverse” component, there really are only a handful of scenes in Tenet that fully implement that concept. In fact, the time-warping aspect of this film gets lost during some of the longer stretches of the film that when they return it’s almost jarring— almost as though the film never uses it consistently or interestingly enough to really make an impact. Sure, there are a few scenes that manipulate time and motion in some interesting ways, but frankly I can’t think of a single scene that left me shocked or slack-jawed like Nolan films have been known to do. On that note, from the moment time reversal is introduced in the film, it’s already glaringly obvious what the film’s “final twist” will be, so when it finally presents itself it elicited little more than a resigned shoulder shrug from me. In a word, the quantum physics aspect of Tenet feels like a gimmick. It’s fun when it appears, but really doesn’t feel like an indispensable component of the film. Remove the reverse motion from Tenet and you’re left with a middling spy film at best.

Also let me put this politely: I can see why Jonathan Nolan is generally the writer for his brother’s films. Christopher does not have a good ear for dialogue and some of the lines in this movie made me laugh out loud. Nolan is often accused of being cold and emotionless, and this dry, humorless script does nothing to rectify that. Even when Christopher Nolan attempts humor, it comes across with the same comedic impact as saying, “Alexa, tell me a joke” to an Amazon Echo. But even the more straightforward aspects of this script struggle. Tenet is not nearly as substantial and cerebral as it pretends to be. In fact, so much of the writing in Tenet is what 16 year-old me would have thought was “so deep” simply because the film contains lots of jargon and “mind-bending” themes. In reality, it just doesn’t make much sense.

As if that weren’t enough, Nolan has yet again fallen into the trap of populating his flashy film with characters that might as well be cardboard cutouts placed in the theater lobby. I understand that Tenet is meant to be Nolan’s twist on the Bond films, but basically all the characters in this film feel like stock archetypes from any film within the spy genre. For starters, Kenneth Branagh’s hammy fake Russian accent is nearly unbearable. Let me just reiterate, all fake Russian accents should be banned! They never sound good! Just hire Costa Ronin next time, I implore you! On that note, Nolan is also often criticized for his flat female characters and Tenet might be his weakest expression of feminism yet. How can you cast such a commanding presence like Elizabeth Debicki and then reduce her entire character arc to a problematic and unnecessary exploitation of domestic violence? A female character can only exist in a Nolan film to be subjected to triggering scenes of abuse??? As always, I am delighted to see Robert Pattinson on screen, but this is probably one of his more forgettable roles in recent history (but damn does he look good). And again, I am not entirely convinced of John David Washington’s power as a leading man. Hot take, but I feel like he lacks much of the ease and charisma that makes his father one of the greatest actors of his generation. It always feels like Washington is trying too hard to follow in the footsteps of his father, but it never feels natural like it does with Denzel. Then again, Christopher Nolan’s terrible dialogue does this cast no favor, but given all the talent assembled here, I certainly expected more.

Sometimes for better, but generally for worse, Tenet is a Christopher Nolan film through and through—containing some of his best sensibilities and many of his worst. Yes, it has its moments, but overall there’s nothing here that will stick with me longer than a week. Christopher Nolan has spent much of his career trying to convince the average filmgoer that they are geniuses, and while I can appreciate that, it is undeniable that he has lost much of the joy of the blockbuster experience along the way. Stop trying so hard, Chris, I’m begging you!

This would make a kick-ass video game though, I won’t lie.