Bound by Abstraction – Tenet (2020)

Time-travel concepts are right up my alley so Tenet was always high on the to-do list but now that it finally became easily available, sadly, it was disappointing. It’s so caught up in trying to create its own overly intricate time-travel mythology, it didn’t effectively establish why we should care. 

A former government agent engages in an off the books, global goose chase for an elusive technology from the future that has the power to make time move backward.

Christopher Nolan and John David Washington going over the film’s opening scene.

I generally like Christopher Nolan’s work but, for all its style, the film felt hollow. The movie is visually arresting and the shot-making required incredible ingenuity, which I’m happy to give him credit for, but there came a point where it bordered on gimmicky. Over the course of two and a half hours, it was hard not to view it as self-serving…almost narcissistic. It’s cool in small doses and I appreciate the foresight and planning it took to execute some of these very complex scenes, but I felt like I was just being strung along from one of those sequences to the next. 

In hindsight, I can see why Nolan was so protective of the “theater experience” in this instance. The story is so ridiculously convoluted, hiding it behind Hoyte Van Hoytema’s exceptional cinematography and Ludwig Göransson’s powerful original score may have helped the overall experience. My opinion may not have changed had I seen it in theaters, but watching at-home certainly begged for more. When dabbling in the James Bond-esque territory of international espionage, you had better bring some compelling characters and storytelling to the table. 

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington

John David Washington wasn’t exactly bad in the lead, but Nolan’s script didn’t give him much of a foundation. So, when he needs to breathe personality into his character, there’s just nothing to pull from. There are some especially bad moments of dialogue and one of those lines is a quip about hot sauce to a bunch of Russian bodyguards that’s laughably bad. Talk about low hanging fruit. As a result, the moments where he’s supposed to be charming felt empty. He only served as a vehicle for exposition. Each new character introduction came with some piece of exposition to help guide things along and each of them with a different accent (which made it very tough to follow when all the locations and concepts are unfamiliar). Maybe it was the audio mix, but if I didn’t have the benefit of subtitles at home, I would have been even more lost. 

Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh

Robert Pattinson was good and he’s supposed to provide some insight into what’s going on, but he seems just as confused as everyone else. In a moment of ironic defeatism, his character suggests that Washington take a nap as the film heads into the third act. Elizabeth Debicki was good too but the connection with Washington is flimsy. Their partnership, if you will, toys with the idea of some romantic involvement but it never actually gets there. It serves the purpose of introducing Kenneth Branagh’s character to the plot and he’s great, but it feels very much taken straight out of a Bond film. 

While trying to be a cerebral, 007, sci-fi, action movie, Tenet bit off a little more than it could chew. It definitely has its strengths, but they don’t add up into the kind of film that it was clearly aiming to be.

Recommendation: It’s easy to appreciate the filmmaking skill that went into the project, but I wouldn’t consider this one of Nolan’s better works. 

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