A Christopher Nolan Fan's Mixed Thoughts on 'Tenet'

John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson in Tenet. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Last weekend, I performed my patriotic duty to return to a movie theater to see Tenet, director Christopher Nolan’s latest. Delayed several times, Tenet did eventually get its promised theatrical release, as Nolan is a strong supporter of the moviegoing experience. (There was no accompanying immediate digital release for Tenet, much to the chagrin of some “reviewers.”)

I knew very little about Tenet going in. Not that I needed to: “Christopher Nolan” and “time travel thriller” were enough for me. I wouldn’t quite call myself a Christopher Nolan fanboy, but I’ll settle for fan. I have seen most of his movies, and I generally like them; they tend to be engaging, well-made, and not insulting of viewers’ intelligence. And I have long been fascinated with time travel. So I was looking forward to seeing what Nolan would do with it.

Technically, it isn’t time travel that features in Tenet, but “inversion,” though it’s certainly a kind of time travel. Inversion is hard to explain, and I won’t attempt to here. But it is a credit to Tenet that inversion more or less makes sense, and creates some action scenes unlike just about anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. 

Instead, it’s the rest of Tenet that has trouble making sense. Characters’ motivations are uncertain, the dialogue is unclear (sometimes literally hard to hear, at least in my showing), and the plot seems to be something of an afterthought. Unlike in other Nolan movies, such as Inception, the “trick” of the movie doesn’t really line up with its ostensible emotional core. Indeed, my overall impression of Tenet is that Nolan spent a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out a way to have time travel — sorry, “inversion” — make sense, and then, once he did that, hastily constructed a movie on top of it.

The result is still basically an entertaining movie, but one that, outside of inversion, sees Nolan resorting to many of the items already in his bag of tricks. A wide-angle shot of people quickly scaling a building. A striking, almost braggadocious display of contempt for CGI with a practical effects setpiece (another destroyed plane). A dramatic monologue of one character explaining the movie’s theme playing over the final scenes. Michael Caine. To be sure, these are all fine things. And maybe there’s something wrong with me that I didn’t enjoy Tenet as much as I thought I would. But unlike with other Nolan movies, I have barely thought about it since I left the theater until writing this mini-review. I expected to be wowed; I was “merely” entertained (though sometimes confused and underwhelmed).

At any rate, if you can, you should see it yourself to decide what you think. At the very least, it is an enjoyable theatrical experience. 

Remember those? 

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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