“Tenet” is unquestionably one of the most convoluted films ever made, such that its hard to imagine any studio green-lighting the project for anyone but Director Christopher Nolan. His past films like “Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar,” (and to a lesser extent films like “The Prestige” or “Dunkirk“) establish that Nolan is obsessed with ideas of space, time, physics, and the supernatural, and he generally makes absolutely superb films exploring these concepts. His masterful cinematography and writing is the core foundation to his works, and they are epic cinematics best experienced in theater, full of gorgeous visuals and piercing soundtracks to perfectly compliment. So it was a true pity that movie fans were mostly robbed of this experience by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s best said about “Tenet” is that it’s wildly ambitious in the way that Nolan constantly pushes his films. “Interstellar” is a great example of a recent film that goes deep into exploring outer space and time. It’s a great film, but its dense abstract ideas don’t fully connect, but if you don’t think too hard, it works well.
“Tenet” is the natural result of Nolan pushing the boundaries of abstract ideas. The critical difference is that films like “Inception” and “Interstellar” do the job of building to help the audience understand what is happening, while “Tenet” does the opposite: it is mind-bending to the point that the most critical plot elements of the story are left essentially unintelligible throughout the 2.5 hour runtime. In classic Nolan fashion, the small bits of important dialogue are often muffled by ambient soundtrack, and the story is pure chaos of whipping from one person in an exotic location to another. Things are seemingly happening with little context, if any. As one character notes while trying to provide some exposition for time traveling elements of the film, “Don’t think it, feel it.” Thinking too hard about “Tenet” leads to unsolvable problems and paradoxes which it fully knows its treading, and that only remotely make sense in its final moments. And that’s the point.
There are truly fascinating ideas going on within “Tenet.” But the only way one can ascertain those ideas isn’t to just watch the movie multiple times, but also to enlist the collective puzzle solvers of the internet working to piece together this insane mosaic (I recommend Vox, GQ, and Vulture for starters). There is a certain beauty to a film being so complicated that it requires intense background reading and absolute acceptance of fuzzy dimensional concepts. There are undoubtedly many who appreciate this madness, and there is inherent value to such ambitious convolution. And such is a level of dedication that puts this film completely out of reach for the vast majority of viewers.
“Tenet” is impossibly ambitious, creative, and beautiful in a way that only Christopher Nolan can manage. It boasts fascinating action and existentialist ideas. It is too god damn convoluted for its own good, and while one must admire Nolan’s efforts, it marks the limits of off the wall abstraction in film. It begs the question, if a director produces a magnificent film that is borderline incoherent within a single viewing, is it really all that good?