Why Is “Tenet” Such A Disappointment?

This post may contain spoilers for Tenet, although I’m still not sure I understand Tenet‘s plot well enough to spoil it. Either way, you’ve been warned.

The general consensus of many of the movie-goers who have already managed to see Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s newest film and the first new film to come to cinemas in the UK since they have reopened, is that this is his return after the slight departure of Dunkirk in 2017 to a type of film more like 2010’s Inception — an exposition heavy action film with a mind-bending sci-fi concept and convoluted plot, filled with cool visuals and set pieces. And while on the surface that may seem like a fair comparison, and on paper the concepts for both films are similar, the execution of each is drastically different; one film is far more successful than the other.

As you may have gathered from Tenet‘s somewhat mixed reviews or from my Letterboxd account, I vastly prefer Inception to Tenet. Inception just works in ways that Tenet doesn’t, and since that’s been puzzling me since I first watched Tenet a couple of weeks ago I decided to work on this piece after rewatching both films in order to investigate what has happened. How did one of the most anticipated blockbusters of 2020, the film that was hailed as saving cinemas after lockdown, become such a disappointment? And what can Inception teach us about how Tenet failed and what it could have been?

I think the reason that this Tenet/Inception comparison is so stuck in my mind is because Inception, which is, in my opinion, Nolan at his best, represents the missed potential Tenet had to be something just as good as or even better than its predecessor. The best way I can describe Tenet, paraphrased from other Letterboxd users, is that it takes everything that is commonly criticised about Nolan’s filmography and doubles down on it, while simultaneously omitting what makes his other films work.

One of the many things that gets bought up when discussing Nolan’s films is his frequent use of expository dialogue. To explain the complex concepts Nolan bases his films around exposition is, of course, necessary, so I’m not saying that the presence of exposition is inherently a mistake. What I am going to discuss is the volume of exposition, how relevant it is to understanding the film, and how it is staged and shot.

Inception‘s exposition, in my opinion, works because it explains what is necessary without overdoing it, so that enough is explained that we understand the film but not so much that it takes up the majority of the film’s dialogue; it is justified by the narrative, as concepts are clarified via an audience surrogate (Ariadne, but also Saito to a lesser extent) and characters are not explaining things to characters who would already know those things in the narrative; and it’s told to us in interesting ways. For example, imagine how boring Ariadne and Cobb’s first dream-sharing scene would have been if, instead of Ariadne playing with the dream’s mechanics and bending over Paris, they’d just stayed seated in the cafe and talked until their five real-world minutes had passed.

However Nolan has apparently learned nothing from this and Tenet‘s exposition is most of the dialogue, which takes screen time away from dialogue establishing the characters and their relationships as they spend most of the run time of the film explaining what’s about to happen. On the second viewing I realised that these scenes seemed rather pointless — instead of telling us how you’re going to crash a plane into the airport terminal and then use the chaos to steal the drawing only to then show it happening in the next scene, why not just cut out the middle man? This happens at multiple points throughout the film, and it struck me as somewhat unnecessary.

Furthermore, the exposition is delivered often by the Protagonist (yes, that’s actually the name of John David Washington’s character — I cringed every time it was seriously used in the film’s dialogue. Just give him a name!), the most logical choice for the audience surrogate, to characters who would already know what he was trying to explain within the logic of the narrative, which is one of my pet peeves to nitpick in media. Also unlike Inception, this exposition is usually delivered by two or more characters walking and talking, and on rewatch when I wasn’t completely caught up the spectacle and trying to understand what was going on in the moment it was very boring to sit through. It’s odd that, since I presume Nolan made this movie to be seen twice, he didn’t factor in how dull these scenes are second time round. Inception‘s more exposition heavy scenes are far more engaging on rewatches, even on my fifth watch, and I imagine that if I watched Tenet a third time these scenes would get even more tedious.

However, despite all of this Tenet‘s plot and sci-fi gimmick is still near-incomprehensible on a first watch. In contrast to Inception‘s plot, which was complex in order to make you think but still understandable on a first watch, Tenet appears to just be convoluted for the sake of being convoluted (especially since once you strip away everything to do with time Tenet is just a fairly generic 60s-style spy flick, complete with the cartoonish Russian bad guy and the damsel in distress). The god-awful sound mixing also contributed to my lack of understanding first time round as I couldn’t hear a lot of the important dialogue over the score or background noise in certain scenes (the fact that my ADHD means I usually need subtitles to be able to follow along with films even with normal sound mixing meant I was doubly lost).

Nolan even tells us through the Protagonist that we should “[not] try to understand it, just feel it.” You’ve all probably seen this quote shared around a lot in reviews and I think that’s apt, since this quote sums up a lot of where I felt Tenet went wrong. The film is so dedicated to its image of logic and scientific complexity that it neglects anything in the realms of character or emotion; it renders my attempts to “just feel it” as opposed to spending all my time and energy understanding it fruitless and near impossible.

If your major criticism of Nolan’s films is that they tend to favour plot over character then this film is probably one you are going to dislike immensely. The characters are all blank slates to either spout off or receive exposition, and they barely have any traits other than surface-level character tropes. The Protagonist in particular suffers from this: John David Washington is trying his best with what he has but I just wish he had a better script to work with, as it seems like in Tenet‘s script forces him to just read lines rather than play a character.

Inception, by a sharp contrast, works so much better because it has a clear emotional core underneath all of the action, via the character of Cobb. It was mentioned in the behind the scenes material for the 10th anniversary rerelease of Inception that Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Cobb, worked with Nolan to add a lot of this emotion to Cobb’s story and pushed hard for it (I don’t have a source for this but it has been rumoured that this wasn’t in the original script). In retrospect, this should have been a warning sign. Inception also had much higher personal stakes for Cobb; you know that the reason he is the main character of this story is because he needs to pull off this job for Saito in order to get back to his family. Tenet‘s Protagonist has almost no personal stakes in the story — his relationship with Kat is too limp and not well-developed enough to count — or anything to really explain why it is him, specifically, who’s the main character (well, other than it’s in his name and he was apparently designated from birth for this).

Another common criticism of Nolan’s writing is his seeming inability to write female characters, as most of his female characters are either distinctly underdeveloped or dead. The character of Kat is clearly intended as a response to these critics (since I’m a pretty cynical pessimist I believe that Kat is more of a “Fuck you guys, I can write a woman who isn’t dead” on Nolan’s part, as opposed to “I’ve heard your criticisms and I’m trying to do better”, but feel free to disagree), but in my opinion she might actually be Nolan’s worst written woman yet.

Kat is deprived of her agency for the majority of the film, and is a quintessential damsel in distress or 60s Bond girl. She only really exists — other than, of course, as Nolan’s attempt to write a type of character that seems to be way out of his comfort zone — to make the antagonist, Andrei Sator (and we’ll fucking get to him), look more evil, as he’s a domestic abuser as well as a cause of the apocalypse; to make the Protagonist seem like a better person in comparison and to half-heartedly give him more personal stakes; and to be literally carted around on a stretcher. She spends the whole of the movie being rescued by men, and her sole moment of agency at the end, killing Sator, is not enough to make up for two and a half hours of her character being a completely passive cliche to be shot by evil men and subsequently saved by good men.

Her character also highlights just one facet of how Nolan’s writing ability has gone backwards rather than forwards. You know how basically any intro-level creative writing or screenwriting class, or any advice on creating characters, will tell you to give them a motivation — what do they want? Well, Nolan has seemingly stuck on that advice to comical levels, as Kat’s main personality trait/character-defining aspect of herself is that she loves her son. This is responsible for some hilarious lines: when one character tells Kat that the world is going to end and everyone is going to die, she replies with “Including my son?”. Elizabeth Debicki says this with a straight face, which is admirable as in the cinema I could barely keep myself from laughing.

Speaking of laughter, it’s clear that Nolan is attempting to add comedic one-liners to the script, but none of them land. Remember that IndieWire review that called Tenet a “humourless disappointment” that we all had a laugh making fun of, because it isn’t supposed to be a comedy? Well, it turns out they were right. Rather than including good one-liners, or just being what it is and not bothering with them at all, Tenet tries to be funny in places but, like most of the film, the jokes just fall flat. (I’m now wondering if I found Inception funny because of the script itself or if Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy’s chemistry made it better. The amount I would give to get my hands on a first draft of that script…)

However, I did laugh a lot during Tenet, but only at unintentionally hilarious lines. By that I mean every line said by Andrei Sator, Kenneth Branagh’s character and the supposed villain. I’m not sure whether it was his questionable accent, the inherent cliche present in his entire character (the ‘evil Russian’ trope has been around since the Cold War when Russian villains were used as shorthand for communism being bad, but even though the USSR was dissolved in 1991 this cliche is still sticking around) or his laughably stupid dialogue — the line “If I can’t have you, no one can” is supposed to be intimidating, and is also SPOILER Sator’s sole motivation for helping to bring about the end of the world — but either way I couldn’t take his character at all seriously as the film’s antagonist.

The third-act battle sequence was where the film’s convoluted plot officially lost me. It wasn’t a very interesting sequence; it was very much Marvel movie-esque, if Marvel movies had time inversion. On the first watch, it was at that point that I officially lost my grip on the plot of the film, and spent the rest of it puzzling over what was happening, why it was happening, or who was even fighting who. I did understand it better on the second watch, but I shouldn’t have to watch a movie twice for it to be comprehensible. To gain a deeper understanding of a film I love? Yes — Inception has improved more on more on every rewatch. To understand the basic plot? Absolutely not.

My last major criticism of Tenet is its pacing, as it was far too fast. I was surprised when it ended on the first watch as it didn’t feel like it had been two and a half hours. Apparently the film was originally supposed to be 195 minutes, and I think it would have helped the film a lot more if it had stayed its original length, and even longer, and split into two parts like Kill Bill. That way the film could have slowed down somewhat from its breakneck pace and could have made time for some more emotional moments to establish characters and their relationships.

However, Tenet wasn’t all bad. Here’s the part of this review where I’ll mention the things I did like about Tenet. Firstly, even though he didn’t exactly do great in regards to representation of women, I appreciate that Nolan is improving his casting in regards to race, at least somewhat. It’s not perfect, but having a Black actor (John David Washington) clearly playing the lead in a $200 million blockbuster like this is definitely a step in the right direction, especially in comparison to the sidelining of Finn (John Boyega) in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, from what was clearly supposed to be the protagonist to a sadly reduced role.

Furthermore, most of the actors (with the exception of Kenneth Branagh, because I have no idea what the fuck he was doing) were really trying their best with the material they had to work with — they’re talented, not to mention nice to look at (Elizabeth Debicki if you’re reading this I’m free on Thursday). The action, set pieces and spectacle of it all were definitely the best parts of the film, along with the cinematography (it had a scene with neon lights, enough said). The time inversion concept was also fairly intriguing.

Furthermore, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson had good chemistry onscreen and their scenes were fun because of this. In fact, their characters’ relationship had a lot of potential to be the emotional core of the story, which would have made the movie a lot more interesting. This could also have worked with the Protagonist and Kat, but the Protagonist and Neil were referenced to have SPOILER a lot of history/future in their relationship, as well as Washington and Pattinson’s aforementioned chemistry. However, if this was to happen all of the characters — the Protagonist, Kat, Neil — would have had to have been majorly overhauled so they would become actual characters that the audience could care about.

In conclusion, Tenet is an ambitious concept with a lot of potential but was ruined by bad execution. The film feels like Nolan doubled down on common criticism of his films — such as heavy exposition, favouring plot over character, being deliberately obtuse, terrible sound mixing and mediocre to awful female characters — while also leaving out what makes his other films, such as Inception, work so well: emotionality at the core of the story underneath all the spectacle. A lot of the problems with the film could also be explained by no one having told Nolan “No” in a while. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, the film, simply put, is a giant disappointment. Has it “saved cinema”? It is worth risking coronavirus for? Not a chance.

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