Grant Paulsen’s review published on Letterboxd:
Tenet does feel like a film that was meant to be a theatrical experience. I can say it at least succeeded at being a magnificent spectacle and a welcome return to theatres. So I would recommend going to the theatre to see it.
Before I get into my true feelings on this film I want to start of positively. The visual effects, camerawork, music, cinematography, and action sequences in this movie are pretty stellar. Every frame in the action sequences has something that is really cool and unique. They play around with time in this movie, and while that brings up some problems in terms of writing, it does make for some really cool and interesting fight scenes. And I’m actually pretty happy to say that the fight choreography is a pretty huge improvement from Nolan’s previous films. There’s a hand to hand combat, time warping sequence in this film that was pretty mind blowing. And there’s a lot of moments in here that will have film lover’s jaws on the floor in awe, wondering how Nolan managed to pull off these absolutely insane, breathtaking imagery. Ludwig Göransson is a really nice replacement for Nolan’s regular composer Hans Zimmer in this film. The music is really weird and unique that really fits with this other worldly story that’s taking place. And the music is so good that it was probably the only thing that actually kept me interested in what was going on. And it was the only thing that made me feel any sense of tension in this movie. Unfortunately that is where my praise for this movie ends and now we’re on to the negatives.
Christopher Nolan is one of my personal favorite directors, his films have inspired me since I was 8 years old and he continues to be an inspiration of mine to this day. Unfortunately, Tenet continues to solidify the idea that the glory days for Nolan are over. In my opinion he reached his peak all the way back in 2008, and he has passed his prime. Because, unfortunately Tenet follows suit with films of his like The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar.
It’s a boring schlock that is incredibly messy, filled so much poorly written exposition that is not conveyed in an interesting way at all. And while the story is ambitious, the script is fundamentally broken at its core. And even then I don’t think this fascinating unique concept was explored as much or as well as it could’ve been. With a film like Inception, you have this incredible world and ambitious story Nolan wanted to tell, and while it wasn’t perfect there was enough intelligence put into the script so that this crazy concept wasn’t broken or even poorly written for that matter.
Whereas with Tenet, it doesn’t feel like much thought was put into the script. I don’t feel like there was much heart or soul in this movie. A lot of the story and dialogue feels very cheesy and cliched, especially the stuff surrounding the villain. There’s literally a line in this movie that is essentially “If I can’t have you, no one can.” And on top of that there isn’t any really interesting or interpretable themes that are explored here that could’ve possibly made up for a weak script. The film really isn’t as smart and clever as it thinks it is. In fact, Nolan kind of shoots himself in the foot with this one because it almost feels like the reason why the script fell apart is due to him trying so hard to prove how smart the script is. I’m probably going to do a spoiler review later this week in order to properly dissect the story so I can explain why I don’t think it makes any sense. It’s not that the film was hard to follow or hard to understand in any way, it’s just that the writing didn’t make sense, and the bad dialogue made it all very uninteresting.
The sound mixing was very heavy handed, it completely drowns out the dialogue with a mesmerizing score. This is something about Nolan that I will never understand. Ever since The Dark Knight Rises, he seems to have the mindset of “you know, I kind of like it when no one can hear or understand what the characters are saying” and I really don’t understand why that is.
The pacing in this movie is really bad. The first hour especially is nothing but a huge drag. The editing was very clunky at times as well, especially in the first hour. If you’re going to spend a ridiculous amount of time doing nothing but spewing exposition then you have to write it in a way that makes us interested in what the characters are saying. Good actors and a well written script can get an audience invested just listening to what characters are saying. Kind of like how Tarantino writes his scripts, in films like his that are very dialogue heavy he gets you invested by hooking you with interesting characters and making you want to listen to them talk. This same style can be applied while writing exposition. Exposition can be done well and delivered in an intriguing way but that is not what happened here. The dialogue is so forgettable and there’s so much of it, and all of it goes by so fast that by the end you will likely not remember any of it. You may not even remember why they’re on the mission to begin with. The dialogue is just that forgettable. And you can’t have the movie be a slow burn for the first hour and then midstream just turn into a fast paced action blockbuster without any logical buildup to that fast paced action. It goes from being slow and disjointed to feeling kind of rushed almost.
And as a nail in the coffin, none of the characters are interesting or fleshed out whatsoever, they’re all dry as a bone. None of the acting stood out as amazing. There is no depth given to us for The Protagonist, in fact there are some twists in this movie surrounding his character that doesn’t really make any sense. In fact these characters are so bland that they are honestly replaceable. You could’ve taken any of the three main characters and switched them around and nothing would’ve changed at all. All three of them are literally the same character, secret spy agent determined to prevent the end of the world no matter the cost. We never get to know any of these characters on a deeper level, why they are here, why they’re doing this, what their motivation is, we get absolutely nothing or any of them in terms of depth. The villain in this movie has the dumbest and most cartoonish motivation for a villain in any of Nolan’s films. Its laughable honestly. Kenneth Branagh’s performance is honestly pretty bad, his over the top nature is so out of place in this story and it feels like he belongs in a different movie. And what’s even weirder is that they play up his motivation as some sort of deep crazy reveal, but this “revelation” doesn’t make him any deeper or more interesting than any other by the books antagonist. He’s still a bland and boring villain.
And no matter how breathtaking and amazing these visuals and action sequences are, I don’t feel invested and I don’t care about what’s happening because there was no time spent to make me care about the characters or what’s going on. Sadly, this is one of the only Christopher Nolan films in which I would say his directing was poor to say the least. Quite honestly this doesn’t even feel like Nolan, it feels like a lesser director trying to imitate Nolan. The structure of the film needed a lot more work in order to really bring home this unique concept. The film just suffers from having too many ideas that are being executed all at once, so as a result a lot of it feels underdeveloped, and nothing was given proper time to be fleshed out. Time was not effectively used to develop the core of what could’ve made this an interesting story.
I have so much respect for Nolan as a director, I admire him for tackling these insane concepts. And sometimes I think he executes those ideas very well, like with Inception. But there are also films of his where I don’t think he accomplishes that feat, and unfortunately Tenet is one of those films.
Tenet was a huge let down for me. I expect way more out of Nolan than this. It was a very ambitious technical achievement that unfortunately just didn’t come together both writing and storytelling-wise. He has these amazing ideas for stories, but he really needs to work on his skills at writing characters and exposition. He also needs to work on his world building and refurbishing his scripts so that everything makes sense. I want Nolan to take on these grandiose, high concept ideas but I want him to bring back his heart and soul that was put in to films like Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. The film just seems to lack the emotional core and interesting characters that I felt were needed. And in the end this film just really bores me, and it’s upsetting because of how much wasted potential this film had.
While I was not a fan of Nolan’s writing and directing vision for this film, I still admire him and I cannot wait to see what else he does in the future.