Movie Review: Is Tenet a Triumph?

Will Tenet go down as the savior of theaters or will it be better remembered as a convoluted and hard to hear mess of a movie? The answer: probably somewhere in between. The movie has received a decent amount of criticism and a lot of that is warranted. That said, the movie is still able to offer a unique cinematic experience which is much appreciated during times like the pandemic. Tenet is director and writer Christopher Nolan’s attempt at a spy genre movie to go next to the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne. In all of Nolan’s movies, he adds his own flair, and Tenet is no exception. It’s not your average spy movie because there’s an element of science fiction to it that’s specific to this movie and is unlike any other movie that bends time. As the synopsis on the website says. “Not time travel. Inversion.”

First off, this movie is without debate a visual marvel and spectacle to behold. Nolan’s cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema does an excellent job at creating a film that’s visually engaging. His use of film and specifically 70mm IMAX film is commendable as celluloid is still, even in 2020, the highest quality format available to shoot movies on. There’s also the added bonus of the taller 1.43:1 aspect ratio that IMAX film offers. Of course, if anyone could shoot on IMAX film, they’d do so, but it’s difficult for a number of reasons. It’s not just the price tag that makes shooting in this format difficult, but it’s the weight and size of the camera as well. These cameras are extremely large and heavy which makes it all the more amazing that Hoyte does many scenes holding and walking with the camera. Something great about the way Christopher Nolan makes his movies is his use of practical effects. As cast member Himesh Patel said, “I haven’t seen a green screen anywhere. We’re doing everything in camera.” This type of movie making helps bridge the gap between the audience and the screen because when something’s real, the audience can tell and it feels so much more authentic.

The score in this movie holds its own as well and gives a fresh feeling to the “Nolan genre.” Nolan’s usual composer, Hans Zimmer, was busy working on the score for Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune, so Nolan instead worked with Ludwig Göransson, who is most known for his work on The Mandalorian as well as Black Panther. The movie was all done shooting by the time the pandemic came around, but there was still work to do on the music. While movies like this usually have a full orchestra gather to record, Ludwig instead had to have each of his musicians send in recordings of their music and he had to compile them all together to create a final product. Something special about the music in this film is that just like how the name “Tenet” is a palindrome and is spelled the same forwards and backwards, a lot of the music sounds similar played forwards and backwards. This palindrome-like music goes hand in hand with the concept of inversion and is another way the film separates itself from others.

Finally, to the story itself. This movie is probably the most Nolan-esque of all Christopher Nolan’s films. Tenet takes the best of his use of practical effects and mind-bending time concepts as well as the worst of his character development and dialogue. Not only is a lot of the dialogue in the movie heavy exposition that’s necessary to hear for understanding the confusing plot, but it’s also very difficult to hear. Senior Ben Groll agreed with this sentiment, saying that “the dialogue wasn’t loud enough, resulting in the explanations they made being difficult to hear which in turn made inversion more difficult to understand.” This has been a problem with many of Nolan’s movies and he claims it’s a creative choice and prefers to be less conservative with his audio mixing. Many people, including other filmmakers, agree that he needs to listen to his criticisms and make the dialogue easier to hear. The character development is a more interesting issue. While many people have criticized the movie for having such paper-thin characters with flimsy motives, it might be exactly what’s right for the movie. This movie goes all-in on its concept, giving little room for the actors to showcase their acting abilities and for the audience to connect with and understand the characters. For a blockbuster action movie like Tenet, one could make the argument that the characters aren’t as important as the plot. Either way, this movie is an accomplishment already just for coming to theaters during a pandemic. It didn’t save the theater industry, but it certainly isn’t as bad as some people might say. It’s actually a very remarkable film, especially when you take into account the effort that goes into making this style of cinema.