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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Tenet movie review: I have no time for it

Tenet red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Washington and Pattinson have palpable charisma, but this cold puzzle offers no incentive to solve it. Throw in damsel-in-distress crap, and both my geek sensibilities and my feminism are offended.
I’m “biast” (pro): big sci-fi geek; love a Nolan film
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Man, am I glad that I did not risk my life during an airborne-virus pandemic to see Tenet in a cinema.

What the actual hell is this? I mean… it’s a Doctor Who episode. A Very Special one, sure. Maybe a Christmas one, even. “Temporal cold war”? Yay! (For extremely limited values of war being cool.) Except it’s timey-wimey in a way that everyone who has previously had the slightest exposure to time-travel stories can anticipate. “Predictable” is certainly not something I imagined having to say about a Christopher Nolan flick. (We know exactly how Nolan’s Dunkirk ends, and yet that is an almost unbearably suspenseful film.) But honestly, there’s a mysterious, secret-keeping Big Moment early in Tenet that is very clearly signposted as Something Important that will be circled back around to later — in this case, circled back to in a literal narrative sense, because Time Travel. It was immediately apparent to me that, “Oh, yeah, obviously X is happening here,” so much so that the only ultimately surprising thing about it is that anything was intended to be eventually surprising about it.

*pinches nose extremely*

Tenet Himesh Patel Robert Pattinson John David Washington

“So, you’re saying the scarf works with the debonair-globetrotting-spy look, or not?”

But if my geek sensibilities were to be disappointed by Tenet, that’s nothing to how my feminist sensibilities would be outright offended. The villain who must be stopped, the dangerous madman keen on stomping out humanity forever is Russian arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh: Murder on the Orient Express, Mindhorn), a wannabe family annihilator on a whole-civilization, whole-species, whole-planet scale. Sator is almost cartoonishly savage toward his much-younger wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki: Vita & Virginia, Widows), and his abuse of her is teased, is tantalized, is threatened — will he or won’t he kick her, strangle her, shoot her at this point? — in a way that disgustingly undercuts what I presume is the point Nolan, screenwriter as well as director here, wants to make about male violence, that it exists across a spectrum from the domestic to the societal. I’m not saying that that concept is wrong. It’s just that the way it plays out here, with the abuse of a woman treated as a matter of plot-point suspense, her fear and pain dangled before us as would-be emotional bait, is utterly hamfisted. Humanity as an abused woman? A helluva lot more sensitivity is required to pull this off. Here, it’s a faux-woke feminism the likes of which movies do not need… and no, the fact that there are minor female characters here — Clémence Poésy’s (Final Portrait, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) scientist; Dimple Kapadia’s arms dealer — with a bit of autonomy and authority, who are pawn to no man, does not offset that. Because the movie ain’t about them, and they ultimately have no agency in the story anyway.

*screams into the void*

Tenet Elizabeth Debicki Kenneth Branagh

It’s really something that Tenet’s connecting domestic violence and supervillainy can feel both so obvious and so hamfisted…

No, Tenet is steeped in some real damsel-in-distress shit as elite-operative The Protagonist (John David Washington) — yeah, that’s how he’s credited *groan* — is at least as intent upon saving Kat from her husband as he is upon saving humanity from obliteration. (And don’t even get me started on the offensive myopia of how Kat only seems roused to express the slightest interest in saving the world because her small son would be among the obliterated. What a complete fucking waste of the goddess that is Debicki. I thought she was gonna be, like, another badass time agent or something. She is not. Damn.) This is lazy-ass writing of the highest — or, rather, lowest — order, and is indicative of a shocking lack of imagination, especially when Nolan very plainly thinks he’s done something special and unique here. But it’s just more of the same old bullshit.

I am so so so so tired of male storytellers who seem to be more able to fantasize about destroying the world — even if they also dream about saving it from their invented doom — than they can begin to think about a better world. It’s fatalistic and exhausting and so un-fun.

This is extra despairing because, as a science-fiction fan as well as a movie lover, I’ve been a big devotee of Nolan’s movies. I have been very much here for all the many ways in which he has played with cinematic time, from telling a story in reverse (Memento) to interwoven timelines playing out, disconcertingly, at different paces (Dunkirk). He has messed around with time dilation (Interstellar), and now, with Tenet, he messes around with temporal inversion, the idea that, with a bit of jiggery-pokery, objects and people can move backwards in time while everything else around them moves forward in the normal way.

Tenet John David Washington Robert Pattison

“Apropos of nothing, have you ever seen that De Niro movie Ronin?”

But Tenet is a cold, sleek puzzle that draws you in with mechanistic temporal nonsense only to reveal that none of it matters in the end. Nolan fails to make us genuinely care about a single character – Debicki’s caricatured abused woman is the best-drawn of the lot, which is damning with the faintest of praise — and so, for the first time in a Nolan film, the lack of a truly human element means that Tenet has almost nothing to say about human nature. We learn nothing about Washington’s Protagonist and his sidekick, Robert Pattinson’s (The Lost City of Z, Life) Neil, the sorta-spies operating across time — they are worse than cardboard, despite the palpable presence of the actors. There’s little incentive to solve the puzzle the film poses. And science fiction that forgets people in the pursuit of ideas is pointless. (Even the would-be big emotional payoff is directly lifted from one of the greatest Doctor Who concepts the series ever deployed. I won’t say more in order not to spoil. But click through here and here for the episodes it is featured in. Please add spoiler warnings if you want to discuss the similarities in comments below.)

Ooo, does the clichéd ticking clock of the finale go in two temporal directions? *yawn* Washington and Pattinson do have real movie-movie charisma — I could, no kidding, see either of them as the next James Bond, or maybe just let them buddy up again in another spy thriller — and I want to unabashedly love a movie in which a suave dude drops “I have a masters in physics” as a thing. But Tenet ain’t it. It’s not even interesting to look at. The car chase occurring simultaneously in two temporal directions? The wrong-way car chase in John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, 20 years ago, did it better.

“Don’t try to understand it,” says Poésy’s scientist early on. “Feel it.” Well, I don’t feel Tenet. At all.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other new films.



red light 1.5 stars

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Tenet (2020) | directed by Christopher Nolan
US/Can release: Sep 03 2020
UK/Ire release: Aug 26 2020

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language
BBFC: rated 12 (moderate violence, threat, domestic abuse, infrequent strong language)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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