“Tenet” (2020): Christopher Nolan’s biggest movie yet brings theaters back into the spotlight

Has Christopher Nolan gone too far? Yeah, probably.

Max Vetter, Entertainment Reporter

I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Christoper Nolan’s new film “Tenet” this week. Ever since “Batman Begins” (2005), Nolan has been trying to make the biggest movies he possibly could. With each new project, he seems to be trying to prove he can make whatever he wants in as costly a way as possible. This has been to his detriment recently, with “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) and “Interstellar” (2014) being some of his weakest films to date. They rely so much on scale and spectacle that while still being good, don’t offer nearly as much as his earlier work. With a budget of over $200 million, “Tenet” continues this trend, but is saved by a couple of great performances and overwhelming technical excellence.

“Tenet” follows an unnamed character known only as “The Protagonist”, who is tasked by the government to save the world armed with only the codeword “Tenet”. I’ve tried to boil down the plot as much as possible for the sake of brevity, but the story is complicated by Nolan’s newest time-related gimmick, known as “Inversion”. The movie tries to explain what Inversion is to the audience through a long series of exposition dumps – at some point whatever’s been inverted has its time-reversed – the concept is explained more thoroughly through its incorporation into the events of the story, mainly action scenes.

This leads me to my biggest problem with the movie, being the screenplay. That’s not to say that the characters are poorly written. Other than generic rich Russian villain #46, I thought that each character was well realized, especially those of Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki. The problems in “Tenet” mostly arise from how they use these characters. Far too many dialogue scenes in the movie amount to exposition dumps – scenes which serve only to explain something – which, while understandable considering the complex time travel mechanics, is tiring after the thousandth “Tell me more.” Compounding the problem of copious exposition is the music and sound mixing, which are some of the worst of any Nolan movie. The problem isn’t necessarily the quality of the sound, the music is good and the sound design is impeccable, but it seems like the dialogue was at the very bottom layer of the mix, which makes the heavy exposition almost inaudible over the gunshots and “BBBWWWRRRRGGHGHGHGH’s”.

With these problems in mind, I think the characters and visual splendor are what hold this movie up. Robert Pattinson is excellent as usual as the sly “Neil”, and I was particularly surprised by John David Washington, who played The Protagonist with enough charisma that I believe he has the potential to be a new leading man. Playing alongside these two is the leading lady Elizabeth Debicki, “Kat”; who, while being a strong emotional core for the movie, gets less influence than I think was deserved.

But the directing and editing is what really separates “Tenet” from anything you’ll see in theaters right now. Nolan is excellent at blocking scenes in ways that let him flow from an interesting frame to another interesting frame, which is debatably what makes him able to have so much exposition without destroying the pacing. I also appreciate that even in movies with huge scopes like this one and “Inception” (2010), Nolan generally keeps the camera intimate and handheld. This helps ground the story more, along with contributing to the chaotic feel of the incredible action scenes.

The best scene in the movie is probably a fistfight between The Protagonist and a guard moving in reverse specifically because of camerawork and blocking, which was complemented by the editing. The film was edited by Jennifer Lame, who’s done excellent work in dramas like “Marriage Story” (2019), and her work here is impeccable as well. She does a great job of maintaining eye lines, keeping the pace high, and making sure to hold shots as long as necessary, even in massive action scenes, which is especially impressive considering this is her first action movie.

I’m conflicted about whether or not I would recommend you go see “Tenet” in theaters. On one hand, it seems like the perfect movie to go see in theaters, with its massive setpieces and general bombast; but on the other, I’m not quite sure if it’s good enough to take the tangible risk of going to a movie theater. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether you’re willing to take the chance to see “Tenet” because it is best enjoyed on as big a screen as possible. I would suggest trying to find a screening, whether in theaters or later this year on VOD, that has subtitles, just because it would make it easier to understand everything over the noise. If this all seems worth it to you, you can go see “Tenet” this weekend in a theater near you.