Tenet

Tenet ★★★★

Soaringly imaginative, thunderously cinematic, and elevated by near-perfect technical competency (with the notable exception of its sound design), Tenet is a intricately labyrinthine yet resoundingly entertaining philosophical blockbuster that demands its viewers to not only see it on the largest screen possible, but also, multiple times.

I had to drive over an hour from my house to a theater in Orange County, California to see Christopher Nolan's latest opus, and boy am I glad I made the trip. Since I haven't seen a movie in a proper theater in at least six months, the experience itself was incredibly rewarding, especially given the spectacle I had the pleasure of beholding onscreen. In fact the movie is still resonating within my consciousness 24 hours later. What's interesting is that after six months of watching movies at home, I've become somewhat spoiled with holding in my hands the power to pause the film, rewind, or add subtitles in case a line of dialogue is missed, or if a moment of plot development doesn't fully register. What dawned on me while watching this in the theater is how demanding of one's full attention a legit film-going experience can be, especially with Nolan at the helm.

This film is inherently complex, and therefore will likely be confusing to many viewers (including me), so missing a line of dialogue here and there feels like a near fatal blow. Oddly enough, given the tangled skein of yarn that this film is, the notion that I could generally understand both the plot and the mechanics of the "time inversion" technology that drives the story forward and is the object of the characters' desires is a huge testament to Nolan's expertise in visual filmmaking.

Others on this site and elsewhere have commented that nearly every line of dialogue in this film is exposition, and that might be true, but that exposition is still somewhat opaque, and supported, or perhaps even supplanted, in my view, by the actual exposition, which is the action itself. In other words, you don't have to entirely understand the verbal description of the time inversion mechanics because you get to witness it in action onscreen, like a visual demonstration in a classroom environment. While I can't say I 100% comprehend every aspect of its mechanics, the film's visuals nicely fill in most of the gaps in understanding. To be sure, there's an element of trust involved, at least as far as I was concerned. As the film became progressively more complex and began to literally fold upon itself, I found myself listening to an internal monologue within my mind to give up scrutiny, suspend disbelief, and just trust that Nolan is in full command of the story and its mechanics.

The film definitely has its flaws, which I'll get into in a moment, but first I want to comment on the cast. First off, John David Washington (the Protagonist) is a transcendent talent. He oozes charisma, strength, and intelligence, and carries this monumental production quite breezily on his shoulders. He has tremendous physicality and strikes a perfect balance embodied in a thinking person's leading man. I can't wait to see what he does next. Robert Pattison (Neil) renders a heartfelt, charming, and often quite funny performance, and is the perfect sidekick to the Protagonist, in that he supports his partner's efforts but also brings unique gifts and talents to the table, including an uncanny understanding of the film's "MacGuffin," a device called "the algorithm" that is the physical manifestation of the technology that allows its user to disrupt the regular flow of time itself. Kenneth Branagh absolutely crushes a manically twisted villainous turn as Sator, a cruel and unrelenting monster who can't bear anyone to have anything that he can't have. Elizabeth Debicki plays Kat (of course, a ridiculously overused moniker for women in movies) quite ably and while she doesn't get a lot to do during the first hour and a half, certainly gets her moment to shine in the film's remarkably well-constructed denouement. Finally Aaron Taylor Johnson makes an appearance in role that seems written for Tom Hardy.

While the film's biggest flaw is its sound design, I would be remiss to say that the movie doesn't serve you its plot on a silver platter. Walking out of the theater I passed by a couple small groups of people and could hear a lot of confusion and perhaps even frustration, in their voices as they were sharing their first impressions of the film. This is perhaps the most Nolan-esque of all Nolan's movies and if mind-binding speculative science fiction with a hankering for messing with the mechanics of time and a dash of James Bond-style action thrown in for good measure isn't your jam, then you're likely going to be disappointed. I think you gotta know going in that this is going to be unlike anything you've ever seen, employing philosophical/scientific theoretical concepts matched with completely novel physical production techniques involving one-on-one fight scenes, reverse-forward car chases, and full scale battle sequences featuring antagonists moving forwards and backwards through time simultaneously, aptly nicknamed a "temporal pincer movement."

Along with tremendous good, there is a severe technical flaw that has been alluded to elsewhere, and that's the film's sound design. I can't for the life of me understand why or how Nolan could be sitting there in his screening room and give a thumbs up to a sound design and a musical score that literally drowns out up to 50% of the film's dialogue. Then when you add in several scenes featuring characters talking through various masks, there is an inexplicable lack of clarity with the respect to the film's verbal onscreen discourse. That said, he does such a masterful job in arranging visually stunning set-pieces filled with practical effects that they nearly overcome the stunning lack of verbal clarity within the picture. I almost started to think that this must have somehow been done on purpose. Like the film is meant to be cryptic to demand repeat viewings and endless conversation. Maybe it's a technique to reveal that talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words. I don't know, but I'm sure as hell looking forward to watching it at home so I can throw on the subtitles.

So along with its shockingly poor sound design, the film's inherent confusing nature could certainly be deemed another strike against it by many, while still others might complain about the lack of character development within the story. This is something of a Nolan trope, though, and in my view should be forgiven as a flaw. Nolan often likes to make the film's "high concept" its main character and use his interpretation of the idea of "character" as a means to explore his crazy ruminations and theories. It seems that the man fascinates himself with certain notions like the paradoxes of object-specific time travel or the ramifications of flirting with black holes or the exploration of the landscapes of dreamworlds within dreamworlds, and then populates those sandboxes with his take on the concept of "character" to interact with and poke at the boundaries of those worlds in order to see what messes they can create and then what solutions they can discover to clean up those messes. He's not really interested in matters of the heart in the objective sense, except in how those aforementioned hyper-realities impact one's heart and one's decision making.

In this sense, I don't really care about the Protagonist's lack of backstory. He demonstrates his motivation early in the film, passing the "test" to enter into the world of Tenet and that is enough for me. I'm more curious about the world he's living in than I am in the man himself. Perhaps that's why he's called "the Protagonist" and is not given a conventional name. As we, the audience members, are the protagonists in our own life stories, we are perhaps by extension the protagonist in this story, as we live through this world during the film-going experience itself, and that world, that celluloid world, is now ours to explore.

I was contemplating the theme of this movie (and perhaps its lack thereof) and I think that the film's defies a normal assignment of theme. In some respects, the film itself is a manifestation of the time inversion technology depicted within the movie. By sitting in the theater and/or watching the film (ideally multiple times) we get the experience that some of the film's characters have of looping infinitely through time, ideally picking up new clues and breadcrumbs along the way in each successive pass through time. In this way the film is very much about film itself, which seems like an apt exercise for a cinephile like Nolan to construct a self-referencing apparatus like this. It is clear he is enamored with and dedicated to protecting not just filmic storytelling but also quite literally with the manna of film, not the digital medium that most "filmmakers" use today, but with actual film stock, with the art and history and film, and with its preservation for "posterity," for the unnamed and unknown future generations who might some day possess technology that will allow them to bend time upon itself.

And just because we have the technology that enables us to do remarkable things doesn't mean we should do those things.

And perhaps that's the film's theme right there.

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