Tenet: A Review of 2020’s Return to Cinema

Jonathan Moore ’22 / Emertainment Monthly Co-President

Tenet. The movie that was a highly anticipated 2020 release from a director considered a modern master, Christopher Nolan, with a strong cast became much more with its triumphant pioneering of the return to theaters. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Tenet became seen as a symbol of relaunching Hollywood. It was scheduled to be the first major blockbuster released in theaters in months. Based off of the release schedules, it did not quite hit that lofty goal. Tenet as a film does not always hit its high marks either. When it does hit, it is a bold film with excellent set pieces, thrilling direction, terrific performances and a bombastic and effective score.

It is hard to describe the plot of Tenet at first even with multiple viewings. For non-spoiler purposes, Tenet revolves around an agent (John David Washington) and his mission against an evil Russian oligarch, Andre (Kenneth Branagh), with the help of ally Neil (Robert Pattinson), and others played by Micheal Caine, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poséy and some not fully revealed in the marketing with Andre’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) as both friend and pawn.

Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki in Tenet. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Tenet opens with a bang with a fantastic and tense set piece and keeps that propulsion guided by the hand of Christopher Nolan. His direction is top notch as usual with stunning sequences including the much-hyped plane crash which comes close to the midpoint of the film and a beach siege that had the IMAX speakers physically shaking. There is a cool car chase as well seen from multiple perspectives. After months of drought of theatrical releases, Tenet has a visceral feel and the action is grand and stunning. From the practical effects to the unique inversions, it is highly enjoyable. The plot is complex and full of twists and even when it seems to be getting out of hand, Nolan directs with a steady hand and it is a lot of fun to watch.

The screenplay is where Tenet starts to miss its marks however. Unfortunately, the plot and writing had significant flaws. Tenet starts to get ahead of itself several times and the plot thread can easily get lost as it moves fast. In addition, the screenplay often drops viewers in the middle of important scenes that do not become clear until repeat viewings or reveals later, including a critical one that carries over all the way until the final scene. Some of the emotional connections are also obscured at first and therefore, Tenet can be cold at times and the emotional connection is not as compelling as Nolan’s other complex works including Inception and Interstellar. Like past Nolan films, the sound mixing is also quite loud and blaring leading to slightly obscured dialogue at times as the score is pumping through the theater.

John David Washington in Tenet. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

That score is not by Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s usual composer, but by up and coming award winner Ludwig Göransson. It is a percussive and electronic score that is also one of my favorites of the year. It is perfectly used in certain set pieces and is incredible to listen to in an IMAX/Dolby theater especially. There is a more emotional kick to some of the tracks that help provide the vital emotional resonance. In particular, the score hits these emotional beats on repeat viewings and aligns with the characters and their trajectories.

The emotional beats in the score are aided by Nolan’s ensemble cast. John David Washington is suave and cool and easily holds his own in a fight. Robert Pattinson continues his fantastic streak as a great ally to Washington, playing a character whose emotional resonance grows as he is revealed. Branagh is a chilling and intimidating antagonist and his scenes with Debicki carry an unsettling tone of fear and paranoia. Debicki is fantastic as well and her arc is a highlight of the film’s writing as she finds her value.

Tenet is a loud, bold and sometimes messy return to both cinemas and the work of Christopher Nolan. When it works, it is a thrilling reminder of the power of cinema and of the blockbuster.

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