Tenet: A Bright Spot for the Movie Industry in 2020? [A Spoiler-free Review]

Tenet opened in theaters on August 26th (after several delays) to become one of the highest-grossing movies of 2020.

I`d consider myself part of a pretty tight group of friends. We go to church together and we hang out on weekends or after school. Whatever we`re doing, every spare second is filled with some sort of noise. Whether it`s laughter, talking, or anything else, there’s almost never a quiet moment. Of course, there’s a first for everything. And that first occurred when we all saw the new movie Tenet in theaters just a couple weeks ago.

No one said a word to each other about Tenet leaving the theater. Of course, we made sure everyone had a ride home and such, but there wasn’t as much as a whisper about the nearly three-hour feature length film we had been put through. Note the words “put through”, a phrase usually used to connote aggression, and even discomfort. I`ll get into that in a bit.

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve seen the film, and only now have I regained enough sanity to organize my thoughts and produce a coherent synopsis and opinion on it. If that wasn`t evidence enough, I`ll restate: this movie is physically and mentally draining. I`d recommend putting a week aside to absorb this movie and take it apart. From the first minute up until the credits, Tenet, if nothing else, keeps you guessing.

I had very little knowledge of this film going into it. Usually this isn’t the case, as I like to read reviews about whether it’s worth watching, if it’s appropriate (enough) to see with my family, the works. I didn’t intend this; I was occupied with other things, and at the time, wasn’t up to date on any movies at all, as almost everything cinema-related got cancelled this year. In fact, before I actually walked into the theater to see it, my last true interaction with Tenet was watching the teaser trailer nearly a year prior. If you haven’t seen any of the trailers but are interested in this movie from the very little information I`ve told you, I’d highly recommend just going right to watching the movie. The trailers are confusing to say the least, and as aforementioned, they reveal some of the most iconic scenes of the whole thing (like seriously?). Additionally, since I am almost certain that you`ll be viewing Tenet at home, I`d make sure you do by the best means possible. If you`re familiar with any of Tenet director Christopher Nolan`s other works, you’d know that he creates films that are intended to be experiences. Hence, they are filmed with the highest quality cameras and designed to be experienced in the most visceral way possible. When I first heard about this before seeing the film, I was confused as to why this is the case, but now having lived through it, I can attest to the fact that the quality increases exponentially with the quality of device that you view it on. Christopher Nolan even originally intended for Tenet to only be available in IMAX theaters, a plan that shortly fell through years ago during production due to the huge costs it would entail.

Given that I’ve only seen Tenet once, I don’t have a complete understanding of every aspect of the story; however I did put some pieces together by the end. Here is as much simplified information that I can reveal about the movie without spoiling anything (I will mention additional small details once I provide my main thoughts). The plot of Tenet is centered around a concept called inversion, a process in which an object travels through time in a way that we perceive as backwards. The main character and his newfound partner are tasked with keeping this technology from falling into the wrong hands. If it does, it will lead to events described by one character, worse than “nuclear holocaust”. This modern concept of time-travel may not sound confusing at first glance – however, it’s how Nolan integrates it into the story that makes the film as a whole hard to follow.

Director Christopher Nolan alongside actor John David Washington, who plays the Protagonist.

One important thing to note is that this film prioritizes its story over the characters involved in it. To illustrate this, note how the main character doesn’t have a name (in most online synopses, he has been referred to as “The Protagonist”). He is thrown into the first scene without as much as a mention of his background or personal life, and the supporting characters, although they do have names, also have little information shared about them.

I have no grievances with the acting in this movie. I`d say overall, every role was played well. My favorite performance was Robert Pattinson`s Neil, who offers subtle, sharp and much-needed comic relief in-between emotionally and mentally burdensome scenes. John David Washington plays the Protagonist well, although I was honestly so distracted by the insane situations he constantly finds himself in, I hardly paid much attention to his performance. With the exception of one scene with Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh, there are no stand-out moments acting-wise. This is fine, however, due to the sheer number of other things about this movie that demand your attention. If the acting were any more than satisfactory, I would`ve had a sensory overload trying to process everything upon my first watch and eventually would`ve given up trying to understand this whole thing entirely. It is clear that Tenet spends more time on fleshing out its story than its characters. This is a good thing if you`re like me, and usually don’t get too attached to fictional characters in two hours’ time. However, if you do become interested in and engaged by a movie through it`s characters, you may soon become bogged down in the dense plot, and the character’s motivations and actions will likely come off as uninspired or dull.

What I find odd about Tenet is how “inversion” is integrated into the story. In terms of action, it is absolutely vital (and it makes for some of the most exciting scenes in cinematic history). However, I was surprised to find that in terms of the story, until the climax, it stayed somewhat in the background whereas I expected it to be the forefront of every character’s motivation. This wasn’t something that really affected me while I was watching, only something that came to mind as I was reflecting on it. I was slightly disappointed by this turnout, as the story relies less on “inversion” as it unfolds. It comes to focus more on cliché plot points that take away from the complexity and originality of the other aspects of the film.

Tenet has no shortage of action scenes, and every single one of them is absolutely unfathomably amazing, each in their own way. The opening scene to this film is suddenly and astonishingly intense, aggressive, noisy, and just surreal. It sets the bar high for this movie in terms of action, and Tenet not only clears that bar but manages to raise that bar one rung higher, and leap over it again with ease. If you have even the slightest interest in cinematic action, I would plead with you to watch this movie at least once. Every action scene is masterfully shot, completely surpassing levels of immersion other movies have never even dreamed of reaching. Nearly all of the explosions and destruction is done practically, which in my opinion, when done well, looks more real and cinematic than CGI. I`m honestly pained to realize that I will never experience the action in this movie for the first time ever again – it has just had that much of an impact on me. Every chaotic moment is breathtakingly intense. I, on many occasions, was unsure about the fate of the characters involved in each new intense situation while I was watching. I always appreciate this in cinema. With the exception of the opening scene, in which complete chaos ensues without a moment’s notice, all of the action in Tenet is preceded by considerable amounts of build-up. This is especially true for the last half-hour of the film, and it makes for quite an exciting conclusion to the story. Although the action in the climax is the weakest of the movie, it’s still extremely impressive by any means.

Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson is credited for scoring NBC sitcom Community, as well as producing “This is America” by Childish Gambino. His work has earned 2 Grammy awards and multiple nominations.

If you`ve followed the review up until this point, you may have noticed there has been one thing I haven’t talked about yet. Tenet has a phenomenal soundtrack. Ludwig Göransson composed the music for this film and has also worked on The Mandalorian (2019-present) and Black Panther (2018). He is well-known for incorporating extremely unique sounds and styles into his compositions; however, he took his skills to a frankly absurd level this year, and in my opinion it elevates Tenet to a level I didn’t even believe was possible. If you`re interested to hear what the soundtrack generally sounds like, I would highly recommend you listen to the first “song” of the soundtrack album, titled: “RAINY NIGHT IN TALLINN”. It is ridiculously intense, and in theaters, the bass literally shook the walls of the building a couple of minutes in. If “TALLINN” seems too bizarre, “The Plan” by Travis Scott is more accessible, while still maintaining a similarly awesome sound (this song was the best possible choice for Tenet’s end credits).

If that fact and most of the soundtrack album`s track titles being in all capitals are any indication, the music of Tenet is extremely loud at times. Music is playing throughout almost the entire runtime of the movie, ranging from nearly silent to deafening. The entire sound-mixing of Tenet prioritizes ambient sounds and music over dialogue, or even just silence, which has led to some justified criticism. Many people have argued that the dialogue is completely inaudible at times, which makes an already confusing narrative even harder to follow. Personally, while I can understand this sentiment, I didn’t mind the imbalance for most of the film; after all, having a background in music, I tend to be more interested in a soundtrack than dialogue. Plus, I believe the loud music helps to set a frenetic tone for many of the extremely intense events that are unfolding on screen. This all being said, I must admit the unique sound mixing crossed the threshold from “pushing the boundaries” to just being plain obnoxious in one scene, in which the main characters are going on a normal sailboat excursion, and yet the music is so unnecessarily loud that it caused me to lose focus on the conversation that was being held in the midst of it. I predict that this controversy over the sound will quickly fade once Tenet is available for streaming and viewers will be able to adjust the volume to their own liking. The sound of this movie is unlike anything I have ever experienced, and if nothing else, Nolan must still be commended for his ambitious and ground-breaking approach to it.

Overall, Tenet is a truly great film. It has a compelling story supported by passable acting, breathtaking action, and a soundtrack that lingers in your ears for hours after. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a movie that rejects the conventional Hollywood formula. Tenet is in a league of its own, but whether that translates into an increase in quality, you`ll have to decide for yourself. While there are issues (confusing storyline & problematic sound mixing), Tenet signals to audiences everywhere that true creativity in cinema isn`t dead just yet.

Tenet will be available on DVD and for streaming on December 15th.