This review is completely spoiler-free and vague.
Tenet should be a movie that works. After all, this is one of the best directors in the world operating on territory that he has perfected before, essentially combining the time-bending trickery of Memento with the espionage action sequences of Inception. Unfortunately, Tenet is a major misfire, suffocating under the weight of its ideas to such an extreme that besides some spectacular action sequences, I’m ultimately left with little desire to ever solve its elaborate puzzle.
Calling Tenet a puzzle may not be doing its complexity justice. Even though he is a director known for explaining high-level concepts to his audience, Nolan has never reached the heights of pure ‘what the heck is going on’ like he does here with Tenet. The explanations of Inception‘s dream world feel quaint in comparison, as nearly every other line of dialogue in Tenet is a character explaining a piece of information about a piece of information about another piece of information, becoming so hard to follow that the expository dialogue quickly transforms from interesting to exhausting. What’s even worse is that the first 90 minutes of the movie consist of characters explaining convoluted time concepts that we don’t truly see in action until the last hour, where we then see action sequences so bonkers and audacious that I couldn’t help but smile and surrender myself to the sheer spectacle of what I was watching. These inversion-based action sequences are when the movie is most incoherent, yet I couldn’t help but feel that was for the better, almost as if the movie gave up on trying to make sense of itself and instead focused on pure sensory overload. As for everything before that, though, it’s a pretty generic spy film that lacks in any meaningful personality or reason to care, featuring practically nonexistent characters that give the movie’s wonderful cast little room to bring any personality.
Of course, it’s hard not to marvel at the ambition of what Nolan is aiming for here, as he is delivering ideas on a massive scale that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I’m happy that somebody with his clout is using it to make movies that push boundaries, but with Tenet it almost feels like he’s bordering on self-indulgence and challenging himself to deliver the most complicated thing imaginable just for the sake of it, even though it might not amount to something all that accessible for the audience. I obviously want to view this movie on its own merit, but it’s nearly impossible not to draw comparisons to how masterfully executed the worldbuilding of Inception is, which presented a clear set of rules that the audience can grasp on a surface level while — even more importantly — being integral to the movie’s themes. Inception wasn’t just a movie about heists; it was a movie about living with regret and how our dreams reflect our identity and subconscious. I already can hear some of you saying that you don’t care about a movie’s themes and that you’re really just there for the action sequences, but to that I pose this question: why do we still endlessly rewatch Inception and debate its ambiguous ending ten years later? The ending of Inception works because it doesn’t matter whether it’s a dream and the top falls over — Cobb found catharsis as a character, which is all that matters.
But what good do the convoluted double-crossings and time technologies do in Tenet? What is going to keep us watching this movie ten years from now other than to brag on Reddit and say we’re some physics whiz for fully understanding its plot? Nolan gets so bogged down in the procedural details that he doesn’t let himself have enough fun, which is extra disappointing since when he cuts loose in the third act’s action sequences, it’s such a blast that you can’t help but wish the movie showed us how mind-blowing it is more often than it tells us how mind-blowing it is. Also, for a movie that has constantly touted the fact that it’s a globe-trotting adventure filmed on location, why do most scenes take place indoors or in some generic environment? This is just another example of how Tenet wastes potential in favor of giving you mouthfuls of information that are blared over by overbearing music. If you want to turn your brain off during Tenet, be my guest, but the movie is so adamant you constantly absorb information that only few scenes will reward you with the thrill that you’re looking for. Those few scenes, though…man, they are spectacular.
So what are we left with overall? The answer is an ambitious, soulless, and exhausting mess of Nolan tropes. Very few movies this year will aspire for greatness like Tenet does or be as impressive on a technical level, but I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see a lot of movies that add up to more than the sum of their parts in a way Tenet doesn’t. This is a loud, obnoxious rollercoaster of a movie that will more than keep you awake the entire time, but — despite the fact that it seems designed to have you come back for seconds — it will rarely give you enough moments to justify coming back to the front of line, eager for more.