Is Tenet The Next Big Blockbuster?

Baylor has seen the year’s most anticipated film.

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Baylor Thornton, Arts & Entertainment Editor

DISCLAIMER: Given the worldwide complications caused by COVID-19, I would think twice about seeing this in a theater. Even I didn’t see this in a theater, and instead went to a drive-in, for that is a safer venue. Please use similar discretion as you decide whether or not to return to cinemas. And if you choose to go, remember to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing.

Last week when I saw The New Mutants, I was a bit more optimistic about theaters returning. I was sure that soon enough some truly great films would finally be coming out. But now I’m not so sure, because Bill and Ted Face the Music is a very fun nostalgic comedy, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a downright brilliant existential horror film. Both of these can be watched at home, and are much better than either of the theatrical films I’ve seen.

For months, Tenet was hyped up as the film that would save theaters. Director Christopher Nolan was adamant on releasing it in cinemas as soon as possible, even though in a global pandemic, that seems downright sociopathic. Its success will also shape the rest of the year, as it’s uncertain if blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984 and No Time To Die will release as planned. Tenet is in many ways the trial run to see if theaters can adapt to 2020.

But I must say. If you’re on the fence to return to cinemas, my answer must be no. Not even because it’s potentially unsafe, I feel that much is obvious. I can’t recommend it because Tenet is frankly not good enough to warrant this debate. I know we all want the Great Hollywood Comeback. That amazing Batman trailer a few weeks ago reminded us why we all love movies. But if you were hoping Tenet would get the ball rolling, I doubt you’ll be satisfied. Honestly between the two I preferred The New Mutants. At least that was an hour shorter and more comprehensible. 

But why exactly is Tenet a disappointment? Nolan is one of the most consistently successful filmmakers on the market. If there was anyone audiences could turn to for a fresh, exciting original film, it’s him. Yet that’s largely the problem. Because Nolan films have gone on long enough to become a Marvel-esque franchise. Tenet wants to have the fascinating backwards plot of Memento, the trippy world building of Inception, the operatic stakes of The Dark Knight Rises, and the raw intensity of Dunkirk. And yet it’s never as successful as any of those films. Even Rises, which I have criticized for years, has more to offer than this. For every interesting moment Tenet has, I’ve seen it before and better. 

I would be lying if I said Tenet was a complete disaster. Because no, there’s a lot of great pieces at play here. The central reverse concept has a lot of potential. The action and production values are easy to admire. The music: Ludwig Göransson’s score and Travis Scott’s theme song, are both instantly memorable. And the cast here is game, as John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh are all incredibly charismatic. With all of that going for it, Tenet should have been something special.

But no, the part that really sinks this whole flick is the script. Written by Nolan himself, he has really outdone himself here. Because his filmography has always toyed with non-linear storytelling and time as a construct. The aforementioned Memento and Inception being the two most famous examples, as they’re both pretty challenging narratives, but very satisfying to examine and decipher. But Tenet brings this to brand new heights. Because even if you pay attention from start to finish: this thing is incomprehensible. You may think you’re stupid for “not getting it,” but trust me, there’s nothing to get. For a movie that’s largely poor exposition, it still does a terrible job establishing what’s happening and why. I saw it with two others, and none of us had any real idea what happened. If I had to guess what the point of this all was, I would say, to set up a sequel. Which is ironic considering Nolan’s alleged love for original films. Even the Wikipedia synopsis makes more sense, and that thing is unreadable.

Everything that happens in Tenet seems to be for the mere sake of the scene. There’s no real drive behind these sequences, big or small. Certain scenes later re-contextualize what we saw before, but still offer no explanation for what’s happening at large. At one point early on, Washington is told to “try not to understand it.” Which seems more like a warning for the audience than anything else. Speaking of Washington, his character doesn’t even have a name, and is instead pretentiously called “The Protagonist.” When he says it out loud, it feels like a cringe-worthy meta moment from a Shyamalan film. But perhaps it’s appropriate he has no name, as the characters here are not characters at all. Any sort of motivations or personality are indicated by the actor they’re played by, and nothing else. Everyone is clearly trying, but it’s impossible to fish something out of this frankly awful script.

Alfred Hitchcock once said movies should still make sense when played in Japan without subtitles. Tenet makes no sense in America even with subtitles. And you’re gonna need them too, as Nolan purposely drowns out the dialogue with the score and sound effects. Professional sound mixers everywhere are furious. How exactly is Nolan allowed to defy all basic expectations of storytelling and audio presentation? Because he’s Christopher Nolan. To quote Peter Griffin, he insists upon himself. Anyone else intentionally failing this hard would rightfully be laughed off. But because he’s Nolan, his fans will convince themselves it works. 

Which, alright, fine. Nolan doesn’t want to tell stories anymore, and instead wants to give us experiences. Dunkirk was the best of his recent films, because he told almost no story, and instead gave razor-sharp focus into a hellish event. And it worked; it’s one of the most intense films of the past few years. But Tenet isn’t even satisfying in that way, as there’s far too many boring, unintelligible conversations. The action takes far too long to kick in, and doesn’t have the stakes or momentum to give it any punch. Sure it looks cool, but it doesn’t register emotionally. Even the reverse effects are too conservative, since Nolan isn’t having enough fun with his ideas. Inception and The Prestige took utmost advantage of their sci-fi concepts, while Tenet only offers glimmers. If you ask me, Nolan should quit thinking he’s some genius auteur who makes Oscar-winning dramas. His most popular and best movie was The Dark Knight, literally a superhero film. He should lean into those chops, and instead deliver quality blockbuster junk food. That would be much better than the faux-prestige milquetoast trash of Tenet