Blu-ray Review: Tenet

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So many resources went into the creation of Christopher Nolan's Tenet, it's truly a shame the results weren't so confounding. When a filmmaker as massively talented as Nolan has some $200 million at his disposal to craft a sci-fi/spy thriller hybrid, the results should be dazzling and engrossing. The former adjective certainly applies. Tenet is a spectacularly kinetic experience from a purely sensorial standpoint. John David Washington stars as a CIA agent known only as "the Protagonist," tasked by the titular organization with saving the planet from World War III. That much, I think I got.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, the set pieces are skillfully executed. The movie looks and feels cool. But have you ever turned on a movie, one which you've never seen, and thought it looked cool but were confused because it was halfway over? In those cases, your best option was to wait for an opportunity to watch it from the beginning. Starting Tenet from the very beginning still creates that disorienting feeling, although obviously the viewer has missed nothing. Dense and complicated storytelling can be fine. Asking your audience to pay close attention to the unfolding plot is fine. But Nolan just dives into his time-bending concept (Tenet members can move freely back and forth in time, so the clock is ticking to prevent future technology from being invented in the first place... or something like that) and expects us to keep up.

Again, demanding full concentration from your audience is one thing—leaving them largely in the dark about what is actually happening at any given time is quite another. It absolutely must also be said: the dialogue in Tenet is often both spoken and mixed so low that even following the characters' speech is unduly challenging. "Puzzle" movies, ones in which the twists and turns reveal characters and their motivations to mean something altogether different than initially expected, can provide for extremely involving viewing experiences. At their best, they can inspire multiple viewings (and even if you never quite get what's going on, like in a David Lynch film like Lost Highway for instance, there can still be elements to savor amidst the confusion).

But not only will I not try to offer any standard summary of Tenet (I can't, quite frankly), I do not feel the slightest bit compelled to ever return to figure out what I apparently missed. To rely on a hoary cliche of a phrase, your mileage may vary. Nolan is understandably one of very few rock star directors working today. But this feels like indulgence. Somewhere buried under all the layers of confusion probably lies an intriguing concept. But the characters are plot devices (and uniformly portrayed as such by an otherwise worthy cast). The entire hunk of technical prowess is leaden; no humor, no wit. It's beyond me how anyone could bring themselves to care about what is unfolding throughout a thriller that fails to thrill.

Again, Tenet has plenty of pizzazz, but Nolan forsakes his audience by taking them for granted. Go along with the ride, he seems to be saying, and if you don't "get it," well then—I guess you just weren't meant to. Personally, I'll stick with the more straightforward spy fare like 007, Bourne, or Jack Ryan.

Warner Home Entertainment's Tenet Blu-ray release also includes a standard DVD, digital download code, and a second Blu-ray containing a 13-part, 76-minute making-of documentary. It's a nicely comprehensive breakdown of the production and possibly worth watching in advance of the actual feature film, as it provides some much-needed insight into the film's concepts. Though for my money, that's another strike against Nolan's determined anti-storytelling technique employed in Tenet.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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