“Tenet,” the failed saviour of cinema, is a convoluted mess

Christopher Nolan’s latest feature sees him engaging in his worst storytelling tendencies

The movie may have an A-list cast, but Tenet still falls short. Image courtesy of The Hollywood Tribune

By: Lester Leong, SFU Student

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced movie studios to delay their upcoming releasesTenet was one of the most highly anticipated films of 2020. With the renowned success of Christopher Nolan’s filmography, many people were looking forward to finding out what Nolan had to offer with his latest picture. After suffering multiple delays, there was an extra degree of anticipation, as Tenet was heralded as the film that would save cinema. However, due to its underperformance at the box office and a divisive critical reception, it may have just led cinema to an early grave.

If you ask any cinephile about the impact that certain directors have on their burgeoning interests in cinema, Christopher Nolan would be an oft-mentioned name. It was the same in my case. Early on in my film appreciation journey, The Dark Knight and Interstellar had profound influences on my ability to appreciate filmmakers and analyze their distinct styles. 

Tenet continues Nolan’s obsession with manipulating time. Inception explores how fast time travels in different layers of dreams; Interstellar explores the relationship between time and space, and Dunkirk uses three different perspectives of time to tell the story of an urgent period in World War II. In Tenet, time is inverted, leading to lots of impressive visuals of people and objects moving backwards. However, what makes Christopher Nolan’s latest film significantly worse than his previous projects is that he doubles down on his storytelling flaws. 

Two of my main problems with Nolan’s storytelling are their cold, detached nature and the lack of any emotional depth. Some of Nolan’s more recent films, excluding The Dark Knight trilogy, are more concerned with exploring and explaining every little minutiae of their intriguing original concepts. But doing so leaves little room for enthralling characters or any emotional heft. Tenet is a prime example of this storytelling tendency.

Since the inception of his career, Nolan has always used genre conventions to explore an original sci-fi concept. Tenet is no different, but this time, the lack of any emotion or excitement is detrimental to the experience. However heavy-handed the dramatic aspects of Interstellar may be, that film at least gave audiences a resonating father-daughter relationship. Tenet has nothing that comes close to that. All we are left with are scenes of exposition that do nothing but make the internal logic of its world even more confusing. Time travel is an inherently convoluted premise and if you think too much about it, paradoxes and logic gaps are inevitable. Nolan attempts to address this by over-explaining every little detail about how time inversion works. Since time inversion is a novel concept in film, it allows the director greater leeway in establishing its rules and mechanics. However, the more the film tried to explain its logic, the more haphazard and baffling it became. 

What makes the exposition scenes even worse in Tenet is the atrocious sound mixing. The score and the sound effects take precedence over the dialogue, leading to barely audible scenes that are crucial in understanding the mechanics of time inversion. These scenes are juxtaposed with high-stakes action sequences that are impressive on a technical scale, but cold and hollow in terms of character development or emotional connection. 

Tenet isn’t without its merits. Nolan’s preference for practical effects lends an air of realism to the action. Ludwig Göransson’s score is eerily similar to the feel of a Hans Zimmer score, which fits right in with the style of a Nolan film. It is also ambitious, but ambition alone does not make a good film. Tenet is not good; it’s just disappointingly mediocre. It might be great for Nolan purists, but for general audiences, it is an unnecessarily convoluted mess. Nolan wanted to save theatres with Tenet, but instead it sped up the potential demise of the theatrical experience, alienating more of his fans in the process.