Tenet

Tenet ★★★½

Finally saw Tenet and my first thought was, how funny I ever worried about spoilers. There's really nothing anyone could spoil about this movie. My second thought was, wow the internet got hyperbolic about Christopher Nolan movies. I seem to be seeing only five star love letters or reactionary half-star angry tweets, scarcely anything in between. (Update: after going through my followed friends I've seen some very insightful reviews!) I guess it's been weird in recent years to be someone who both enjoys Nolan's films and also doesn't even remotely think he's a genius or the savoir of cinema or anything like that. He just happens to make big heist movies in a way that I tend to enjoy, and he usually does them really well. Inception? Dream heist. Interstellar? Space heist. Dunkirk? War heist! I'm down to clown.

Like other big Nolan movies, Tenet comes across seeming far more complex than it really is, with a very simple to grasp - but complex to show - idea at its core. The first two thirds, like all the big Nolan movies, are packed with exposition. Exposition as character development, exposition as heist setup, exposition as just direct explanation of the world from one character to another. It's a LOT. But I feel like it isn't woven as organically into the story as it should have been, or made as fun as it was in Inception for example. I also feel like a lot of crucial plot information is overly obscured - maybe an attempt to create as much confusion in the audience as in the protagonist, but that backfires. Confusion is great when it's driving you to figure out the same mystery as the characters, but not so great when it's got you feeling overwhelmed like those characters.

One reason that it feels so confusing is that Nolan's typical sound design, where bold effects and music take precedence over dialogue, seemed to have finally been cranked too far this time. The dialogue is most certainly quieter in the mix than in the average movie, which is probably ok on a good surround setup (it sounded mostly fine on my very decent soundbar but I still strained to hear some lines, which virtually never happens), or especially a movie theater. But given the nearly universal complaints I've heard and the fact that even I was considering turning on subtitles, here's an idea: they should have included an alternative "regular people audio" mix designed to sound fine on the average tv/speakers/soundbar because most people don't have a great setup. It's sort of the inverse problem of when music is mastered for playback on phones and not stereos with wider dynamic range - which is at least thematically appropriate for this movie! Still, why make your film's only audio option sound acceptable only on equipment the average person doesn't have? You're leaving a lot of people feeling deaf and out of the loop.

I think I get Nolan's aim, that he wants dialogue like in a Malick movie, where it colors the mood and helps conjure the big picture but isn't important on a line-to-line basis. That's an admirable aim, but this isn't The Tree of Life. It's a plot-heavy heist movie with tons of exposition; the audience is right to expect clarity when the details are being spelled out. They have to at least hear the pieces of the puzzle if they're meant to put them together as things finally click into place.

Now for the good stuff: when Tenet does click into place, well over an hour into its running time, it flips into a relentless freight train of well-executed time heist shenanigans. While Inception made it clear that Nolan is in love with the Bond franchise despite his disinterest in making something so straightforward, here he finally goes full throttle on the influences. From the suits to the guns to the car chases to the climactic battle full of henchmen, to the bad guy's girl to the.. well, not exactly compelling bad guy himself, it's got Bond all over it. If this were a more direct story with simpler ambitions, it'd be the most thrilling Bond movie since Casino Royale reinvigorated the franchise.

But those pleasures are kept behind a tsunami of confusion and misdirection that we're maybe not even meant to sort out - but crucially this genre has taught us to expect it all to make at least mechanical sense. It's just so difficult to visualize what's happening (I won't spoil it, however simple it is) in a coherent way that we need to be walked through a half dozen explanations before we can reach those gut-level thrills. This, more than the lack of character development or emotional drive (both typical of Nolan movies), is what takes it down a notch from the heights of those three prior magic acts.

Speaking of magic, I've always thought of The Prestige as Nolan's primer on his own filmography, an explanation of how he approaches moviemaking. He's not aiming for emotional or spiritual ascendance like Malick; he's not aiming for franchise-ready storytelling with memorable characters and sustainable worlds. He's here to set us up to be mesmerized when all the elements converge, aiming to achieve a sort of Stendhal syndrome of popcorn entertainment. With Tenet, we see the limits of that approach crashing against its own momentum, inadvertently highlighting the other shortcomings that normally get overshadowed by the sheer spectacle of it all. It's a fun movie, especially once that aha moment occurs and the gravity of the plot kicks in, but it loses its grip on what made its predecessors - through all manner of dizzying sleight of hand - so instinctually engaging.

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