Back when I was like twelve, “Weird Al” Yankovic released a little song called Bob, made up entirely of palindromes. This, coupled with my obsession with Red Dwarf and horror movies, led 12-year-old me to concept a slasher flick where at the third act point, the main character would reverse the flow of time in an attempt to save all of the people who were killed, only to realise that he was the killer all along, by inverse-saving them. He was pulling out knives from his point of view, but from a normal time perspective, he was doing the stabs.
Now, I’m not saying that Christopher Nolan has stolen any ideas from 12-year-old me, but ten years ago he did release a movie explicitly about stealing ideas from people's dreams, so I dunno; you tell me.
So if you are to look at the screenwriting idea of the separation of story and plot, where story is a character's internal journey and the plot is the literal things that happen for that change to take place, then Tenet (2020) has very little in the story department. I mean, you could argue that if Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is our protagonist, then there’s story by the yacht-load, but Christopher Nolan does this nifty little story technique where you won’t ever get confused about who The Protagonist is. Let’s see if you can spot it:
Pictured: too much subtlety
Plot on the other hand, is where Nolan succeeds. Anyone who’s seen any Nolan trailer knows he rarely sells his movies with the plot in mind; they’re sold with a concept. A bad ass concept, (that I thought of when listening to a “Weird Al” song). However, unlike 12-year-old me, he succeeds in making these outrageous concepts seem reasonable. Hell, not just reasonable: Awesome. “Dream thieves” sounds like a silly idea made for toddlers, but give Nolan the idea of dream thieves and boom, you’ve got Inception (2010). Just say the words “Matt Damon, but in space,” and he’ll give you a movie where that’s the twist! Hell, if you give him the idea that a billionaire dresses like a rodent to fight a clown, he makes it one of the most believable and Oscar Winning-est superhero movies of all time.
Going into the film, I’ll admit, the entire first half was kind of boring. The Greatest Character Name of All Time spends every scene talking to someone new about the mechanics of the world and then he’ll get his next clue to talk to someone else about how the world works. It’s kind of mind-numbing. All plot, no real story. We’re introduced to Kat, who is possibly a love interest? But she’s boning Russian Kenneth Branagh, who might be the key to understand what exactly is happening in the world today.
The second half hits and finally you and The Proof of Christopher Nolan’s Waning Creativity understands what the hell was happening the whole time. And all of a sudden, you can appreciate the first half because the second half is so balls-to-the-laws-of-time-and-space awesome, (like every Nolan film), that the first half will be infinitely more enjoyable on a rewatch because you can see what’s happening with the knowledge of what’s happening.
Or maybe, because it’ll be on Blu-ray and you’ll have subtitles on and you’ll actually know what people are saying.
Seriously, when the first scene started, I felt old. I felt like I was an old man sitting at the back going “turn that music down” because the sound mixing was BAD. I felt the bass of the first “BWAAGHH” ripple through every nook and cranny of my body and I felt violated.
I thought, “Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a cinema in six months?”
“Maybe this is an anti-piracy technique because it would destroy every microphone in a three block radius?”
“Maybe this is just Nolan’s revenge for everyone complaining about the incomprehensibility of Bane’s voice in Dark Knight Rises?”
All are valid options.
Pictured: You merely adopted the BWAAGH, I was born in it
As I understand, a lot of the post-sound was done during Covid, so they wouldn’t have been able to test it properly in a cinema-setting, but hot damn, I’m hoping they remix the sound and release it again once this is all over. Christopher Nolan is a cinema man. This is the movie that was meant to save cinema. It’s the way he intended! I’ve seen every Nolan film in cinemas at least twice because the cinematic experience lends to the film itself, but I was so physically shattered from this sound mixing, I can’t do it this time! I can’t go back there!
Most Nolan films are difficult to understand because they’re so intricate. Tenet (2020) is hard to understand because I literally could not understand what anyone was saying half of the time. It was an honest to God blessing whenever Kenneth Branagh spoke in Russian because subtitles would come up, and they were the only words I could have guaranteed I understood.
Everything else though; damn! The visual effects, the special effects, the cinematography, the editing. I mean, going backwards and going forwards to see the backwards go forwards must’ve been a technical nightmare to achieve, but it works so flawlessly and all comes together.
Ouch/10 for the Sound Mix
9/10 for everything else.
I don’t know, I’m still reeling from the sound.
I would argue it isn’t nearly as thematically important as something like Interstellar (2014), but there is still some stuff going on here. There’s some similar themes to another time-bending story I love, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. While in Interstellar (2014), the future of mankind is trying to save the past, it seems to be here that the future of mankind is actively trying to destroy the past… I THINK… I DON’T KNOW. I COULDN’T FREAKING HEAR IT, COULD I?
I swear, this part is getting lazier and lazier with every review, but I feel like I have an excuse this time.
Oh, also, with the whole weird spousal abuse plot-line, does anyone want to check on Emma Thomas? She’s still producing his films, so I assume everything's alright between them, but if she’s just there because of a fraudulent painting, we should definitely keep an eye out.
PS. I think that painting thing was a reference to the movie. Can’t be 100 per cent sure; I couldn’t hear it.
Ouch/10 for the Sound Mix
Twelve-year-old me is very upset that Christopher Nolan clearly extracted these ideas from me as a child, but I could never have done anything this good.
It’s genuinely impressive that despite not understanding the literal words coming out of people's mouths, I still understood the broad strokes of the plot and the mechanics of this world. I know it will be so much better as a rewatch because I might actually understand The Character Who is Named After His Use In the Story’s motivations.
Just from the title alone, I could tell that the movie was going to be palindromic by nature, but when I actually understood how, it got so much more exciting.
I know I criticised the first half for being nothing by exposition, but I will say that the blatant expositional scenes are still fun and engaging. He breaks them up with different locations, and with stand out set pieces, which makes it far less dry than a lesser director would have given.
Pictured: We are going to talk in so many locations
Pictured: So many locations
Pictured: SO many locations
And the set pieces! Oh man! People fighting forwards and backwards all at the same time? I can’t even imagine how that was choreographed, but it is a visual wonder! The entire third act is an accumulation of everything forward and backwards all at once, and even when you know what’s about to happen, it totally blows you away (and this time, not just because the sound mix is so freaking insane).
Definitely see this in cinema at least once, but leave your second time for when you can actually hear and understand what characters are saying.