With Tenet, director Christopher Nolan delivers one of his most fascinating films to date.
The first thing you notice about Tenet is its soundscape. With the volume dialled up to 11, the opening feels like a bass-heavy rock concert. Every note and gunshot pounds your ear drums.
Nolan’s latest creation capitalizes on its tremendous budget to deliver fresh sound choreography, which sets the tone throughout the film. There are no more wooden-plank-on-watermelon sound effects that characterized action flicks from The Empire Strikes Back to Daniel Craig’s Bond films. In Tenet, the sounds of fist-against-flesh were crisp and distinct, more like a live MMA match than an action film, especially when experienced in IMAX.
It’s worth paying for the kitchen fight scene alone, where characters used various utensils to show off the sound engineering. While the audio effects were outstanding, conversations were a letdown, with most dialogue sounding muffled and unclear, as if the film were being played from behind a heavy curtain. Despite the lacklustre voice quality, Tenet offers an easy way to experience the impressive foley.
While this mind-bending, action-filled thriller quenches the quarantine-induced thirst of any movie-lover, its plot leaves you wanting. Convoluted would be an understatement when describing the time travel plot device.
Like Inception, Tenet is a science-fiction thought experiment beautifully disguised as a spy thriller. It’s a signature Nolan film — daring, thought-provoking, and backed by a budget most directors can only dream of. Despite its muffled audio, ironically, Tenet dedicates a large chunk of screen time to exposition. Sitting in the sold-out theatre, surrounded by a sea of empty seats (for social distance), listening to the hand-waving explanation of time travelling bullets by Barbara (Clémence Poésy) to the protagonist (John David Washington), I travelled back to Con Hall biophysics classes, except with particularly photogenic lecturers.
In many ways the film is an example of how not to make a movie, with its overemphasis on minute details and complex plot mechanics. Yet one leaves the theatre feeling both satisfied and filled with questions. It’s a nice break from remakes and sequels that define the Marvel and DC duopoly. If The Avengers is a sugary soda drink — raw storylines and addictive cliff-hangers that leave you wanting more, then Tenet would be kombucha — ideas aged, distilled, and refined. The “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”-style plot feels almost academic, but it’s tempered by awe-inspiring visuals and action choreography; a magnitude more realistic than Jason Bourne. The film recognizes its verbosity, with secondary protagonist Neil (Robert Pattinson) mentioning that having a physics degree would barely suffice to keep up with the plot device. In that light, my background in computational biology also felt inadequate.
All reservations aside, if you need an excuse to visit the cinema amidst a pandemic, Tenet’s cinematography is more than enough. Hoyte van Hoytema overdid himself this time with every fight scene. The visuals offer little in the form of massive Inception-style non-Euclidean geometry and multi-dimensional urban planning that’d make Harry Potter and Doctor Strange fans swoon. Instead, we’re treated to two perspectives of the same fight scenes and battlefields that have soldiers moving in either direction in time. The battle choreography has clear echoes of Dunkirk and interpreting time travel is both bold and innovative.
This treatment of science fiction is trendsetting and distinct for Hollywood and, to some extent, the entire film industry. It’s refreshing to have a break from the repetitive yawn-inducing space operas and killer robot genres that have come to define mainstream sci-fi. If you can see past the overly convoluted time travel narratives (or ignore them completely), then the film is a treat for the eyes. Tenet seems unlikely to win any awards for its plot itself, but should contend for best cinematography thanks to its tremendous and trailblazing audiovisual effects.
It’s difficult to describe actor performances without divulging spoilers. Dimple Kapadia and Kenneth Branagh each played their antagonistic role beautifully, while Elizabeth Debicki underwent some dramatic changes in her character arc. Sadly, the clunky overarching plot and, inevitably, the breathtaking visuals overshadow their performances. The muffled speech didn’t help either.
Tenet is an excellent example of modern art; it’s counterintuitive, provocative, and novel. It’d fit in perfectly at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s modern art section, or perhaps nestled among Warhol’s recyclables in New York City’s MOMA. It goes against every filmmaking convention: a confusing plot, over-the-top special effects, and a fan-made fiction storyline. Yet Tenet also belongs in a class of its own.
Verdict: 4/5. Gorgeous cinematography and fascinating plot but an absolute head-spinner given its convoluted time travel storyline.