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With: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Martin Donovan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language
Running Time: 151
Date: 09/03/2020

Tenet (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Time Suspects

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many moviegoers crept out in the middle of a pandemic to see Christopher Nolan's Tenet in theaters, while others, myself included, never quite made it. I had heard two things from reports that trickled in. One is that it's terribly confusing, and the other is that its sound mix was extremely frustrating, favoring music and sound FX over dialogue. Seeing it on Blu-ray, the sound mix didn't seem so bothersome, but largely because I put on the English subtitles. Plus I found the score, by Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther), quite good. As for confusing, it is, yes, but I think I was mostly able to follow what was going on. No, the movie's main problem is that it's just kind of dumb.

The story has a character call the "Protagonist" (which is one of the movie's problems, but I'll get into that later), played by John David Washington. During some kind of rescue operation in an opera house, he witnesses a strange gunshot that seems to fire backwards. He eventually gets caught, swallows a cyanide pill, and wakes up to learn that the pill was a fake. Nonetheless, he's technically "dead" and now has a new mission. He's given the codeword "tenet" (a palindrome that is spelled the same forward and backward), and sent on his way.

The first thing he learns is that someone in the future is manufacturing metals that, instead of traveling forward through time like everything else, travel backward. The metals can leap up into a person's waiting hand, and bullets can jump back into a gun. They have begun appearing in whatever time the movie takes place, and, falling into the wrong hands, could destroy the world. It's an incredible idea, and it's up to the Protagonist to stop it.

From there, he has several meetings with people (frequent Nolan star Michael Caine is one), mostly either sitting at tables and talking, or walking and talking. They exchange great amounts of exposition, and afterward we pause for one of the movie's several heist/chase/infiltrate/escape sequences. Those scenes are undeniably cool, and frequently dazzling. The best scenes involve flipped timelines, with certain characters or cars moving forward in time while others move backward. In the moment it can be difficult to keep track, but it all comes out in the wash.

As many have pointed out, Nolan has been interested in time for his entire career, not just in his best film Memento, but also in his debut feature Following, and even in his use of the "midnight sun" (time blurring into itself) in Insomnia. Tenet may contain his most ambitious use of time, but also, ultimately, the least effective. In the end, it means very little, and has even less to do with the story itself. Then again, with the time stuff taken away, there isn't even really a story.

The Protagonist has been compared to James Bond, but all he does is follow a throughline that is more or less laid out for him, with no detours, and handled mostly through dialogue. At least Bond gets to seduce women, have a few drinks, and gamble while he does his spy thing. The Protagonist doesn't seem to even be a person. He never reveals any wants, needs, fears, or flaws. I suppose Nolan made him that way on purpose, but why would anyone be interested in a character like that, or in anyone he might spend time with?

I didn't hate Tenet, but it shows that Nolan is less the Great Filmmaker that his fans seem to think he is, and more a maker of decent entertainments. Of all his films, Tenet most resembles Inception, which is another movie that wears its Big Ideas on its sleeve, but underneath, it's not much more than a well-made summer blockbuster with some cool fights, chases, and visual FX. Inception is at least better blended than Tenet, as the latter seems to be, along with his other two latest movies, Interstellar and Dunkirk, merging into a kind of prestigious artiness. They want to entertain, but they also want to be important, and both things suffer.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment's 3-disc set comes with a movie-only Blu-ray with expert video and audio transfers. A second Blu-ray comes with a multi-part behind-the-scenes documentary that runs about 76 minutes, and trailers. The third disc is a DVD. The set also includes a Movies Anywhere digital copy. Some folks seem ready and prepared to keep watching the movie again and again until they understand it, and if you're in that camp, then this release is recommended.

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