Like clockwork, every year films release that are specifically designed to be digestible viewing experiences, simple popcorn fun; little effort is required to understand their plot and characters within its 2 hour runtime. Some would say these films treat the audience like fools; the plot is never ambiguous, a basic situation is explained in excruciating detail, and every loose end is tied up in a neat little bow. Well, for those of you who feel tormented by this, there is an antidote and it’s called Tenet – though I can’t guarantee there won’t be some adverse side-effects.
Tenet, as a plot, is meaningless to describe to a third party, as describing it would provide the receiver with no meaningful understanding on what to expect. You could say it stars John-David Washington as an unnamed CIA agent who is recruited by a secretive organisation named Tenet to undertake a global espionage operation to stop a Russian warlord from starting World War 3 — but saying so would again, provide little context in what to expect.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet may be the most exposition allergic blockbuster film I’ve ever seen. Like a stubborn mule, it will outright refuse to go easy on you, throwing you as deep in the deep end as you could possibly expect. So yes, the rumors are true, Tenet is a lot to handle – characters speak cryptically, chaotic sequences are abundant, and just trying to piece together what is happening on screen is challenging on its own. It is no secret that many are having trouble understanding what they just saw, how it all connects and what it all means. But what I’m more interested in is… why? Why has Nolan made such a complex and convoluted film with little to no safety net for the audience to fall back on?
“Don’t try to understand it, feel it”.
Nolan isn’t interested in whether you understand Tenet or not; the last three of his original films all have their fair share of ambiguity – they’re purpose-built to provide specific experiences; their plots aren’t all meant to be understood, their characters aren’t all meant to be known, and the loose ends aren’t all meant to be tied up. When it all comes down to it, Nolan’s primary interest is not in characters, or even in story, his primary interest is the experience itself and Tenet is no exception.
Most of us already know how Nolan will approach the technical facets of film-making. I’ll put it simply for the few who may not, if it can be done in real life then Nolan will make it happen on-camera. This film being dependent on the philosophy that the audience has an inherent sense of detecting CGI vs practical effects, results in a film that breathes life throughout every frame.
It’s hard to comprehend that this film only has 280 VFX shots in the entirety of the film or that there is no green screen being used in any sequence. The practicality of everything happening in frame provides a huge breath of fresh air as the use of CGI continues to surge in the new age of cinema. During action sequences, the stakes feel more tangible due to the incredible stunt-work that is gorgeously shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema. It’s hard to write this review and gush about how well practical effects are used in the film without spoiling certain aspects of its high-concept so I’ll leave that to you to discover. There are moments that left me in awe, moments that questioned any understanding of film-making and it results in a technical masterwork for Nolan and his talented team.
Shot in multiple locations all across the world, it helps feel the global implications of what is happening in its storytelling. Utilising the films high-concept while keeping the environments and props practical is an ambitious task and results in a remarkable achievement. To orchestrate a Boeing 747 crashing into an airport terminal further demonstrates the extent of planning and attentiveness that went into the making of this film.
Ludwig Göransson composes a score that is just as smart as the story. The upbeat tempo of the score helps capture the tone and intensity of the film while building up the hype for the major action sequences that the tempo is paired with. However the real genius of this score is that in its inverted scenes the score can be heard as playing backwards. As amazing as the sound design and score is, unfortunately the sound mixing doesn’t follow suit as there are certain scenes where the dialogue is drowned out by the background noise and score.
Tenet isn’t some unsolvable puzzle and figuring it all out won’t gain you access to a higher form of understanding; Tenet is an experience, a non-linear one, a god-damn visually engrossing one, a superbly scored one, and a shockingly simple one for a film that is supposedly so mind-blowingly complex. It’s a beautiful labyrinth that is built to be revisited for those who wish to find its center – even if the reward for the journey is not quite as impressive as the journey itself.