Christopher Nolan is a director known for his complex, intelligent and artistic take on the action blockbuster film. Unfortunately, his latest action blockbuster creation, “Tenet,” is neither intelligent nor artistic. The film is a mess. It is by far Nolan’s worst work, and that includes the coolly received “Insomnia.”
The film’s most egregious flaw is its incredibly poor writing. Everything from dialogue and pacing to the basic plot is wonky.
About 90 percent of all dialogue is exposition. Characters rarely speak unless to advance the story, yet the story remains unclear throughout the film. Key points are left almost totally unexplained as the focus seems to linger inexplicably around unimportant details. By the end of the film, audiences will know more about the security and fire suppression systems of one of the buildings where the characters pull a heist than they will about important plot elements like why the world is ending or how time inversion actually works.
The film moves beyond the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it complexity of “Inception.” Whereas in “Inception” all the information you needed to decipher the plot was provided for you, in “Tenet” that information is actually missing. It’s like all the scenes that were meant to explain the time gimmick and the plotline were cut out, leaving audiences to assume what’s happening from snippets of conversation.
The pacing of the film only adds to the confusion. “Tenet” is so nonstop and clips along at such a fast pace, there is simply no room for pesky things like establishing shots, narrative and character development or depth. It lurches from one action set piece to the next, never giving audiences enough time to even learn the characters’ names. The film might as well be a series of rapid cuts between unrelated car chases and explosions. It’d make about the same amount of sense.
Speaking of character development, now might be a good time to mention the characters. Or rather, the lack thereof. Every single person onscreen is written as a cardboard cutout. None of them are human. None of them have any legitimate background to speak of. There is not one single human emotion in the entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Not one. The only attempt Nolan even makes at portraying emotion is when Elizabeth Debicki’s character, the wife of the villain, delivers a ham-fisted speech about freedom and hating her husband that gets crammed into the seconds-long space between one action scene and the next. It’s hard to believe the man who wrote the incredible Cobb of “Inception,” the Joker of “The Dark Knight,” Coop from “Interstellar” and Lenny from “Memento” could write characters that don’t even remotely resemble human beings in “Tenet.”
The ensemble cast of top-notch actors are given so little to work with that none of them actually get to do any acting. Kenneth Branagh, who plays the villain, does little more than yell loudly several times through a forced Russian accent. His performance hurts the film, highlighting how little substance there is behind these characters. Debicki tries her best, but the script gives her little to do aside from stand around in the background looking sexy. Oh, and at one point she gets shot so the gallant heroes can rush to save her. John David Washington winds up as nothing more than an exposition machine, while Robert Pattinson mostly just stands alongside him. They all do a lot of talking about nothing, then they blow some stuff up, then they go get in one very confusing gunfight at the end.
Many audiences have been complaining that the dialogue in “Tenet” is difficult to hear. That’s true in many places, but it isn’t the real problem. The main problem is that there’s nothing actually worth hearing. I can’t help but wonder if Nolan intentionally muffled his dialogue in the hopes that people wouldn’t notice how terrible it is.
The only praise for this trainwreck of a film is that the special effects looked cool, and the concept had some real potential. If you just want to go see some stuff explode in reverse, this film is for you. If you expect human characters and a cohesive narrative with your time-action, prepare to be severely disappointed.