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'Tenet': Time-Bending Masterpiece or Misfire?

Inception’s unspoken sequel

By Ben UlanseyPublished 4 months ago 4 min read
Warner Bros.

Released in theaters before the arrival of coronavirus vaccines, many had hoped in September of 2020 that Tenet would be the movie that proved why theaters were still necessary. But in a world reeling from the first pandemic in a century, it never managed to achieve the acclaim it strived for. When compared with so many of Christopher Nolan’s previous films, its reception was fairly tepid.

Maybe it’s simply that the pandemic stifled the film’s ability to attain the phenomenon status that films like Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar were able to reach. For me, though, it falls short of achieving the punch I’ve grown to expect from some of Nolan’s other films.

It’s certainly an excellent film, and all the hallmarks of Nolan’s other projects here are alive and well — from the spectacular writing to the temporal distortions to the spellbinding cinema and dynamic music score, composed by Ludwig Göransson.

Nolan’s unique flare for the directing of his films has been on display since before the turn of the millennium, but by the release of his 2010 blockbuster, Inception, it had fully congealed. The introspective, time-bending and multi-layered thriller was dense enough for most that it practically demanded a rewatch. Many left the theater after their first viewing unsure what they’d even seen. And many were thrilled all the same.

By comparison, Interstellar and Dunkirk both feature more approachable narratives. While 2014’s Interstellar is by no means simplistic, its narrative is coherent enough that the film can be digested in a single viewing. It’s so clearly pointed toward a specific end that it excuses some of the films more lofty and nebulous moments. 2017’s Dunkirk seems to be another attempt by Nolan to make his films a little more comprehensible, featuring this time an un-layered exploration of one of World War II’s most heroic rescues.

The 2020 release of Tenet, in many regards, seems to be a return to form for Nolan. It has far more in common with Inception than the two films that preceded it. In nearly every way, it feels like Inception. If Inception were an anthology TV show, Tenet would be only another episode. The actors have changed — some of them, anyway — and there’s no continuation in plot, but the energy is one and the same.

From the gravity defying fight scenes to the distortion of time to the purposeful obfuscation of narrative, there’s no ignoring that these two films are both the work of Christopher Nolan. Even the tortured romances on display seem to share a beat. For those who enjoyed Inception, I have little doubt that they’ll love Tenet, too. For those who, like me, had to watch Inception six times before they felt that they could follow it, it’s hard to imagine Tenet going down much more easily.

From John David Washington as the film’s lead and Robert Pattinson as his sidekick of sorts, Tenet has an all-star cast of characters that manage to carry the film through some of its more cumbersome moments. Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki, too, breathe life and personality into their roles. Branagh displays a spectacular range of emotion in his portrayal of Sator, swinging erratically between stoicism and apoplexy within single scenes.

One of the areas in which Tenet shines most brightly is its stunning visuals and action sequences. From beginning to end, Nolan expertly stretches the bounds of what’s possible in film. Like with much of his other work, the film was captured almost completely on 70MM IMAX cameras, a truly herculean feat in the world of cinema. These restrictive, unwieldy cameras have been pivotal for Nolan in his ability to immerse audiences in the projects he creates.

Christopher Nolan is a master at crafting narratives so colossal that they require a bit of disentangling. Watching Tenet, I’m aware that each scene fits into a carefully-crafted mosaic. To figure out where each of the jigsaw pieces go, though, is more work than some want to put into the movies they watch.

It’s no crime to be fast-paced and multi-faceted, but not everyone wants film-interpretation to feel like homework. Tenet is a gargantuan and unwieldy rollercoaster of a movie. It’s a half hour shorter than its successor, Oppenheimer, but still feels longer and infinitely harder to follow. Through all of its twists and turns, though, Nolan’s signature style pokes through. There’s no denying the thought put into this film, and the nuance buried within every scene, but whether most viewers will sift through the confounding rubble of the film’s conclusion to truly decipher it is unlikely.

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About the Creator

Ben Ulansey

Ben is a word enthusiast who writes about everything from politics, religion, film, AI and videogames to dreams, drones, drugs, dogs, memoirs, and terrorizing Floridians with dinosaur costumes.

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