Tenet – A Cool, but Confusing Movie

Tenet Movie poster. Intro image for movie review

Released on: September 3, 2020

Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

I’ve recently had the pleasure of bringing my girlfriend to the movie theatre. If this were any other year, that last sentence would not hold much meaning. In 2020, on the other hand, it means that it was our first outing to the theatres since the pandemic started (having a baby to take care of also makes those outings rarer.) Before going to the movies, though, the age-old question crept up on us: what do we see? I had no preference for what we saw, so my girlfriend suggested we see Tenet. I read the synopsis and thought it looked like a fun sci-fi movie to check out. Was Tenet worth our time?

Tenet follows the story of an unnamed FBI agent (played by John David Washington) on a quest to save the human species from extinction. The powers at work in Tenet involve a mysterious form of radiation that causes time to move backward for specific objects or people. It isn’t easy to talk about the plot of the movie without spoiling too much. If I were to try to describe the entire film from memory, I think I would still miss ninety-percent of Tenet’s intricacies. Tenet is one of those movies that one needs to see at least twice to entirely understand what is going on.

One thing I cannot knock is the acting, as it was great. John David Washington’s role in Tenet fits him like a glove. This was the first movie I saw him in, and I very much hope he gets more roles like this in the future. I bet he would knock those out of the park. Another pleasant surprise was Robert Pattinson as the protagonist’s partner in salvation. I always associated him with the Twilight series of movies, but that expectation got quickly shot down from the first moment I saw him on screen. That isn’t to say the rest of the cast didn’t make things work either, as I can’t recall seeing any breaks in acting quality during the entirety of the movie.

*This next section contains spoilers to Tenet. Those who wish to remain unspoiled should skip this section*

Where I think Tenet starts to shine is around the half-way point of the movie. Until this moment, we saw the movie play out in real-time; thus, while still being remarkable, it was par for the course. At the half-way point, though, the protagonist crosses into the world that moves backward. This means that we, the audience, now get to see the events that played out until this point, in reverse. This is where I started to get won over by Tenet’s cinematography.

*End of spoiler section*

For those that skipped the spoiler section: I thought the half-way point of Tenet was where it started to shine. I won’t disclose it here (as I already did so in the spoiler section), but those that aren’t impressed with Tenet should at least make it to the middle of the movie.

The action set pieces are not only my favorite part of Tenet, but they are inarguably the reason why one should see the movie. The whole time manipulation thing was incredible to see and a marvel of movie-making magic. There is a fight scene where our protagonist is fighting a masked man, except the masked man will sometimes move backward in time. This means that the masked man would flip forward off the wall instead of backward and then fight the protagonist in reverse. What I just wrote might not make sense to those who haven’t seen the movie, but trust me when I say the action scenes tie exceptionally well with the movie’s time manipulation theme. While I was watching Tenet, it dawned on me that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, etc.) directed it. With Inception and the Dark Knight movies, I always felt he had a knack for making movies look cool. The ones that aren’t based on a previous franchise also tend to have a mind-bending story, and Tenet fits the bill on that front too.

As much I do enjoy a good brain-bender, I felt lost a lot of the time when watching Tenet. Oh sure, the protagonist’s next goal was clear enough, but when it came time to understanding how Tenet’s world worked, that was when I started scratching my head. When we, the audience, are introduced to the time reverse concept, we see that the objects come from the future but are moving backward in time. Say, for example, the protagonist goes to pick up a bullet. The bullet is instead reverse dropped into the protagonist’s hand. One could point out that “reverse dropping” is called “picking up,” except the bullet jumps from the table, into the protagonist’s hand, in reverse. If one suspends their disbelief enough, they might be able to ignore some of the glaring questions Tenet leaves behind, but in my case, I was left impressed but confused.

I’m aware that one of Christopher Nolan’s tropes is loud and bombastic horns in the soundtrack to his movies, and Tenet does not escape this trope. The music wants to invoke a sense of urgency and purpose, but it made me laugh because I hear this type of music all the time in movie trailers. While I know many people won’t notice the soundtrack or some might even like the grandeur of Tenet’s loud horns. In my case, it made me realize that the trope was true, and that made me laugh.

I enjoyed most of Tenet’s action set pieces, but I felt the movie’s climax was trying to do too much at once. The finale is where Tenet throws everything into the ring: time moving forward and time moving backward simultaneously. Some buildings are falling, and others are reverse built. People are getting shot and unshot, getting crushed and reverse crushed, all at the same time. When this colossal set-piece was happening, I didn’t know where to look. What’s worse, I felt like it was going on forever. It felt like the movie wanted to end with a bang, but all I ended up feeling was overwhelmed. At the same time, however, I did think the set-piece was neat, despite not knowing what was going on.

I ultimately ended up liking Tenet. The impressive acting, intriguing premise, and superb action scenes were a treat. Yes, some parts confused the heck out of me, and I wasn’t a big fan of the climax, but overall, Tenet was a solid movie that I would recommend to action lovers and those that don’t mind scratching their heads while watching movies.

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