Thursday, August 27, 2020

Movie Review - Tenet (2020)


To get my personal biasness out of the way, I am personally a fan of Christopher Nolan’s films, and after seeing the extended IMAX prologue of Tenet when watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker last year, I was hyped up to see the full film, which was supposed to be released in July. But then the pandemic happened, and the release date got pushed back several times, and many people were looking forward to this film’s eventual release as the return of cinema after many months of closure worldwide.

Christopher Nolan has said that Tenet is his homage to the spy movie genre, but he does not want to simply recreate his own James Bond movie, but rather he wants to invoke the same feeling watching those movies for the first time. So therefore, the plot of Tenet at its core is fairly standard summer popcorn fare, with its own twist in its storytelling, which we will discuss later. Our protagonist, simply referred in the film as literally The Protagonist (John David Washington), is being recruited into the titular mysterious organisation to save the world from a major world-ending event that has something to do with the inversion of time. I feel that’s all you need to really know about the main plot before watching, so I will leave it at that as a movie like this is best experienced going in cold.

*For those of you who have seen the aforementioned IMAX prologue (and I will not spoil it for those who haven’t), just know there are some key shots and scenes that were deliberately left out in that preview version, so there will still be some surprises.

I think it’s safe to say that whether you will like it or not, Tenet is one of those movies that you can’t stop thinking about even after you leave the theatre. That’s primarily because it’s plot can be insanely convoluted, even more so that Inception. I remember people saying that Inception’s story was too complicated for some, but I actually though it was quite straightforward and easy to follow, even on my very first watch. Tenet, however, will definitely throw some audience off on the first viewing, as the film moves at such a breakneck pace in the first two acts. This is one of those movies that will definitely require a second viewing to catch the details you missed the first time.

The real question is that whether the convoluted nature of Tenet makes it a bad story. This is where it will get really subjective. If you’re the kind of person who likes a character driven story, I get the feeling you may not like this one. However, Tenet is really a plot-driven story, and if you are willing to accept it as such, and you like spending the rest of the movie piecing together the puzzle of what is happening, then you might actually find yourself enjoying it.

It’s honestly really hard to express what I really feel about the movie without talking about some aspects of the story structure, but I’ll try to be as vague as possible. As I mentioned earlier the first two acts of this film can get really convoluted, it does jump back and forth in different timelines, and it can get hard to understand what our main characters are trying to do. But there is one character who says this line, and I think many other reviewers and critics have pointed out this too: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it”. So yeah, I took that advice, and the way I tried to keep my focus is to just remember that the Protagonist’s goal is trying to stop the impending apocalyptic event. I must say that by the third act, there comes a point where you kinda know exactly how the story is going to go, not because it’s predictable but because of the way the story is structured, it gives you a sense of direction and the story becomes more on how it’s going to unfold rather that what is going to happen. As a result, when everything comes together, it leaves you mostly satisfied, even if you missed out some of the minutiae earlier in the movie. So, in that sense, I didn’t feel like I didn’t get my money’s worth in my first viewing.

While the primary story is straightforward and executed well enough, the secondary plot points and characters feel a little undercooked. There is one character whose purpose is seemingly just to explain the world, and that character disappears for the rest of the movie. There is an action sequence in the middle of the film that, without giving too much away, show the antagonist getting something, but it was hard to tell in the film how exactly he got his hands on it even as it was depicted in front of me on screen. Or it could be some key shots I missed because they were cut so quickly that I didn’t catch it the first time. But that ultimately didn’t detract me from the main story because it is relatively minor details compared to the main story arc.

The complaint that I think many people will have is that this movie does not have much of an emotional core. To a certain extent, that is true. Tenet is not really an emotionally resonant story like Inception was, and as I said earlier, Tenet at its core is really a summer popcorn, save-the-world flick. Still, it’s hard to ignore that both the logical and emotional storytelling in Inception is done better.

The cast mostly deliver good performances, even if the films demands more of their action and stunt work capability than their emoting ability, more so for JD Washington. He does a crazy amount of stunts in this movie, like fighting a person who is moving backwards in time. Kenneth Branagh plays the main Russian antagonist Andrei Sator, and he delivers a surprisingly creepy performance. I guess the actor that does the most emotional lifting in the whole movie is Elizabeth Debicki, who plays as Andrei’s abused wife Kat.

Tenet definitely impresses with its production values. It has great IMAX and 70mm film cinematography, especially with its action sequences. Even more impressive is how it captures both the time-moving-forward and time-moving-backwards elements in the same frame almost entirely in-camera. Then again, you might not even pay attention to those elements, because you are so focused on piecing together the story that you’re not thinking about the craftsmanship on display here, at least on your first viewing.

The sound mix is one that is receiving a similar amount of controversy as Interstellar, in that the dialogue can be hard to understand at times because of the mixing levels. I will say that at least in the IMAX theatre that I saw, the technical quality of the dialogue seems to be OK, and apart from one boating scene, it’s more of the actual pacing of the film that made it hard to catch the dialogue, and I’ve also noticed some peaking/clipping in the sound mix for the louder segments, like the Boeing 747 crash scene.

Overall, Tenet may not be the best of Nolan’s films, but it’s still a very entertaining thinking man’s summer popcorn flick. The convoluted story may turn off some people in the first viewing, but I feel that by the end it does come together. Even those who don’t like the convoluted story will find some jaw dropping action set pieces that is at least worth seeing on the big screen (that is if you are able to watch it safely in your local theatre, as the pandemic is still ongoing at the time of this movie’s release and review), and I feel that this movie may receive more admiration later with repeat viewings than in the here and now. Just sitting here writing this review makes me want to watch it again, but considering the state of the world right now, it’s more a question of in theatres or waiting for the Blu-ray/VOD.

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