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Review: Tenet (2020)

Tenet (2020)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Premise: A soldier (John David Washington) stumbles into a secret world of new technology that manipulates time. He investigates a suspicious arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) and uncovers a plot that threatens the world.

What Works: One of the distinguishing qualities of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is his ability to experiment with cinema and explore philosophical ideas within the confines of mainstream entertainment. The Dark Knight trilogy was a superhero story that addressed heroism and lawlessness while Inception and Memento delivered action and suspense set pieces while exploring identity and memory. Tenet is another highbrow action picture, this one dealing with time, free will, and choice, and it is one of Nolan’s most ambitious projects to date. Tenet is fundamentally a heist thriller but it applies a science fiction twist that manipulates time and reality. The premise allows the filmmakers to manage the perception of time, something cinema is uniquely suited to do, and they visualize the intellectual aspects of the movie while also delivering popcorn entertainment; Tenet includes a few extraordinary sequences, namely a highway chase that incorporates action simultaneously moving forwards and backwards. Tenet also benefits from the casting of John David Washington in the lead role as a soldier who is enlisted onto a secret mission. Washington isn’t given much to work with in terms of his character but Washington’s confidence and charisma mostly compensate for that.

What Doesn’t: In addition to being one of Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious projects, Tenet is also one of his most cerebral films. The narrative is challenging to follow in part because of its complexity but also because the film isn’t very emotionally engaging. Unlike Inception, which embedded intellectual ideas within a personal story of a man grappling with grief, Tenet plays like a philosophical thought experiment. The characters are not personable and they don’t have tangible stakes in the outcome. Even when the finale escalates the consequences, Tenet is rarely affecting in a visceral way that drama demands. The movie also overextends its ambitions. The logic of time travel movies is frequently fast and loose but Tenet has some outrageous leaps even for this genre. Tenet also continues Christopher Nolan’s experiments with sound mixing. While the audio may have played effectively in a theater, Tenet sounds muddled when the film is viewed at home, especially if viewers are using a sound bar or speakers built into their television. The dialogue is often muffled, which is a problem for a movie in which the dialogue is critical to explaining what’s happening, and viewers will probably need to turn on the subtitles.

DVD extras: Featurettes and trailers.

Bottom Line: Tenet is an admirably ambitious piece of work but it is a little too ambitious for its own good. Tenet has big ideas matched by some spectacular action scenes but it’s also an emotionally remote film whose concepts are taken to absurd lengths.

Episode: #834 (January 10, 2021)