After surviving a near-death experience when a mission in the Ukraine goes south, a former CIA agent known only as the “Protagonist” (John David Washington) is recruited into a new war by an unknown group called Tenet. He’s immediately tasked with hunting a dangerous oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). However, it’s not conventional or nuclear weapons he’s dealing in, but weapons capable of unfolding time itself. Thrown into this unknown world of espionage and inverted time, the Protagonist will have to adapt to its new rules if he’s to have any hope of not only stopping Sator, but the end of the world itself. The film also stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and was written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker, Christopher Nolan.
If you’re familiar with the name Christopher Nolan, you’re probably familiar with his work such as “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Inception,” I even reviewed his Oscar-winning film “Dunkirk” when it arrived in theaters. I love his movies and personally believe he’s one of the best modern directors in Hollywood. Which is why I’m disappointed to say that “Tenet” is his most flawed creation.
The overall movie is like a James Bond meets Time Travel type story. Our main hero and his team work to track down “Inverted Technology” being used by a criminal with wicked intentions, with plenty of hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, and all kinds of action scenarios. On paper, it sounds like an awesome movie. So what went wrong?
Well, when it comes to Science Fiction there are two sets of rules, but you can only follow one. There’s the “Star Wars” Rule where you make up the science. You can do whatever you want, make up gadgets and things that are impossible to exist without giving much of an explanation, so long as the story is entertaining enough where the viewer doesn’t need to question anything. Or there’s the “Star Trek” Rule. You meld the fictional science with factual science to try and tell an implausible story with enough real science that viewers can suspend their disbelief and accept what they’re being told without crossing the line into utter nonsense.
Whichever rule you choose to follow, you have to stick with it. Either you follow the science and try to connect it with the fictitious story your making, or drop the fiction and just make up the science for the world and narrative you’re crafting. However, while “Tenet” tries to follow the “Star Trek” Rule, it devolves so far into nonsense that it ends up trying to follow both rules. “Tenet” uses real science from the Entropy Concept, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and even the idea of the One-Electron Universe, and then it just explains away in a scene of exposition that happens almost every twenty minutes in this two-and-a-half-hour long film. Maybe I’m just stupid and don’t understand the science as much as I thought, but you shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in order to properly comprehend the rules of a movie. But don’t take my word for it, even Christopher Nolan himself stated in the press notes of the movie that “we’re not going to make any case for this being scientifically accurate.”
In truth, I’m not a fan of time travel stories to begin with. Each one is always different and creates its own convoluted rules that usually raise more questions than they answer. Some are decent, like “Back to the Future” or “Terminator,” but those were time travel stories that were simple to follow and easy to understand—you go back in time, you alter the past, it changes the future. In “Tenet,” however, I’m trying to follow what’s happening based on the rules it spent so long setting up, then halfway through, I’m fumbling to figure what’s happening that by the end I’m completely lost during the final battle, and the last thing you want your audience asking in the climax of your movie is “What is going on?”
The film has good ideas, I won’t take that away from the creators. If they had toned down the exposition and focused on one part of the time travel mythos they were creating, then maybe I would have had a better time. The action in the beginning and middle are well handled, and even the acting is great. However, and I never thought I’d be complaining about this, whoever was in charge of the sound mixing for this movie should have been fired, because there are moments in “Tenet” where I can’t hear certain characters. There will be a scene where the main character is having a discussion and I’ll hear him fine, then the woman he’s with in the same scene will start saying her lines and I can barely hear her—it sounded like Elizabeth Debicki mumbled half of her lines in this story! Should I blame the actress? The director? Or the editor? Then again, maybe the sound editor lost his/her marbles trying to piece this film together, because by the time the credits started rolling, I was left with a headache and begging for subtitles.
“Tenet” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, along with some suggestive references and brief strong language. Some reviews have stated that the film makes more sense after a second watch, but I don’t have the patience to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour movie for a second time; I lost most of it after the first. Overall, this film feels like a mess that needed another draft. I know the actors and Christopher Nolan can do better, I’ve seen them in better, but “Tenet” unfortunately is a mistake that should have been lost in time as the final score is a 5.5 out of 10.