‘Tenet’ confuses as it dazzles

When it comes to a Christopher Nolan film, those familiar with his work know what to likely expect.

An auteur known for his beautifully choreographed action sequences, convoluted narrative devices, and vast production values, Nolan has developed a singular reputation as one of the most prolific blockbuster filmmakers of the century. From his career capping superhero subversion in the Dark Knight trilogy to his analysis of consciousness and the universe in Inception and Interstellar, Nolan has a cemented space in modern science fiction.

His latest, and perhaps most challenging puzzle, comes in this year’s Tenet. A self described spy film, Tenet plays as Nolan’s version of a James Bond film. The action begins from the moment the film opens to its neatly tied up close. As if by design, the film has as many drawbacks as it does strengths. Viewing it is as paradoxical as the plot itself.

The film is centered on the unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington). A member of the CIA, the Protagonist proves his loyalty to his organization in a mission in Norway. Immediately following the pursuit, his superiors inform him of a secret organization, Tenet, with little to no explanation. At this point in the film, the viewer should simply refrain from hoping that explanation deepens throughout the rest of the film. It doesn’t.

The Protagonist learns of the tenets of Tenet (confused yet?), specifically discovering bullets with inverted entropy, essentially moving backwards through time as he moves forward.  He traces the bullets to an arms dealer, Priya Singh, who informs the Protagonist she purchased them from Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch.

Soon after, the Protagonist learns of Sator’s ability to invert objects using something called the algorithm, and further of his intent to use it to destroy the world. This epiphany, when revealed to viewers, leans into the chasm that comes with watching the film. The actual act of inversion and its depiction in the film is so endlessly complicated that the discovery that Sator, an extremely archetypal villain, has such juvenile motivations undercuts the meticulously plotted out beats of Nolan’s latest mystery thriller.

The theme of dichotomy, however frustrating, is expertly sprinkled throughout the many layers of Tenet. In the film’s first sequence, the Protagonist is detained between two train tracks, both moving in opposite directions and informing the journey the character on which the character is about to embark.

Independent of how easy to understand or how lame a villain the film ultimately has, Tenet remains a compelling watch for some of Nolan’s strongest action set pieces and an exciting final reveal. What it mainly lacks is the counter balance between dense exposition and compelling character development. Tenet’s characters are thinly written with one track motivations. This will likely turn away viewers unable to forgive such a confusing plot. For those willing to take the plunge, the film has its payoffs.

In conjunction with the ideas of dichotomy within the film, it’s perhaps Nolan’s most necessary theatrical watch. To view this film anywhere other than the theater is to take away from the experience. It requires isolated, focused viewing free of distraction. In 2020, and now 2021, that is ultimately impossible. What is possible, though, is to admit that there is enough to enjoy from Tenet as there is so scoff at.


Author: Kieran Sweeney

Writing about entertainment for the better part of a decade and consuming it twice as much, Kieran Sweeney is "the" pop culture aficionado. A connoisseur of the intersection of art and commercialism, the USC Annenberg graduate has earned his reputation as an empathetic and thoughtful writer. His resume includes USC's The Daily Trojan, USC Viterbi News, and personal assistance for publicity and marketing companies from Drill Down Media to This Fiction. His intersectional experience in the industry points to his wit and unfiltered thoughts on the latest project in entertainment

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