When Christopher Nolan releases a new movie, it’s an event. Few filmmakers, even our most successful and well-known ones, carry the weight, expectations, and name recognition that Nolan does these days. So, as one might expect, film fans everywhere are currently getting ready to see his latest film Oppenheimer, which opens July 21.
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Nolan’s film before Oppenheimer, though, didn’t quite fit that typical narrative. That movie was Tenet and it released on September 4, 2020. Which, we’re sure you remember, was the height of the covid-19 pandemic. Despite that, and many delays, Nolan willed it into theaters and it created more controversy than anyone involved wanted to deal with. As a result, the film only grossed $58 million domestically, easily one of the lowest of his entire career (ranking above his first widely released film, 2001’s Memento, but below his 2002 follow-up, Insomnia). Reviews didn’t help either, with a Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score of 69%, the lowest in his career.
I myself am among the 31 percent of critics who did not care for Tenet, calling it a “frustrating, convoluted mess of a motion picture.” Which, to be honest, never quite sat right with me. I saw Tenet on the big screen back in 2020, but at a drive-in, so the sound and picture were certainly not up to Nolan’s standards. Could I really give a Christopher Nolan movie a fair shake with the sound coming out of my car speakers?
Well, it took almost three years but I finally—on the occasion of Oppenheimer—put that to a test. Though it was not on the big screen, earlier this week I fired up Tenet via Prime Video, on my 75-inch TV with surround sound, and even put on the subtitles. And guess what? I liked it a little bit more!
To recap, very very briefly, Tenet is about a nameless protagonist (John David Washington) who finds himself at the center of a plot to destroy the world. The future has sent technology backwards in time that itself moves backwards in time, and it’s up to the protagonist and his friend Neil (Robert Pattinson) to defeat the man at the center of the mess (Kenneth Branagh) while also saving his wife (Elizabeth Debicki). That’s a basic recap, but the main takeaway is that it’s a movie about technology that moves backwards in time. And it’s a beyond cool concept. As a fan of time travel, it’s very exciting to find and watch a movie that handles it in a new, fresh way.
So I rewatched Tenet and my biggest problem is the same one I discussed back in my 2020 review. It’s just really hard to follow. Watching it this week, with the subtitles on, did help a lot. I picked up on story cues and narrative explanations that eluded me the first time. On both occasions you still get the general gist of what’s happening, which is certainly enough to enjoy the story and feel its stakes. But much like some of the film’s dialogue, the details and specifics are a bit muddled. Like I almost got it—but then, not really.
Part of that is because it’s very backloaded. Nolan takes his sweet time really locking in the story, so by the time we hit about two-thirds in and things really kick into high gear (and the movie, quite brilliantly, kind of reverses itself), it’s almost too late. There’s a danger he may have lost the audience because so much of the innovative, reverse action can’t happen until later. When it does though? The movie really smokes. Characters finally discuss the mind-bending implications of the scenario. They make use of it to forward the story instead of just reacting to it. And yet, there’s almost certainly an imbalance in that excitement because so much set up is needed.
I did take away two new things while revisiting Tenet though. One is that it’s a miracle this movie exists. This was true in 2020 but it’s even more true in 2023: studios do not spend huge budgets on big, confusing, original science fiction movies. It just doesn’t happen… unless your name is Christopher Nolan. So even though Tenet is a bit of a mess, that it was made at the level it was made, rules.
Second, you get the distinct feeling that it’s a movie you need to watch again and again, and in close succession. Watching it this week, three years removed from my first viewing, I remembered the big beats, but not everything. However, if I watched it again today while it’s fresh in my mind, I’m positive all the pieces will be there. The dialogue and exposition comes so fast and furious at times that if you are still struggling with the main concepts, key points surely get missed. But Nolan isn’t a dummy. They’re in there, even if they’re not instantly accessible.
After all that, have I changed my mind about Tenet? Do I still think that it “feels like the work of a filmmaker who has become almost too powerful for his own good. A filmmaker who has an idea in his head and sees and understands it from his perspective but no one else’s”? Yeah, I kind of do. Now though, I just think he did convey those ideas better than I originally thought.
Tenet is not currently streaming anywhere but can be rented or purchased digitally in all the usual places. Oppenheimer (who gets name-dropped in a fun, meta Tenet twist) opens next week.
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