Tenet review: Can visual spectacle make up for missing humanity?

The launch of Christopher Nolan’s spy-fi blockbuster marks cinema’s awakening from an anxious sleep, but its prioritization of spectacle and pseudo-science over human emotion means some may wish to stick with the films they can watch from home. Eleanor Zhang reviews.

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After three postponements and millions of dollars’ worth of Covid-induced extra marketing, the much-anticipated action-thriller film, Tenet, has finally greeted a global audience, giving many the necessary push to make their first cinema trip in months. Said to be in the high-risk tier of activities, sharing a screen with multiple strangers has become a daring adventure in and of itself.

The whole world is crumbling, and people need a pleasant distraction. But cynical as it may seem, cinephiles these days are finding themselves wondering: is the film worth the risk? With the promise of a star-studded cast, a cerebral setting that will make you wish you know more about physics, and a real Boeing 747 set on fire – my answer to this question is yes, albeit with hesitation.

Tenet tells the story of a CIA agent (whom I’ll refer to as “The Protagonist” as he goes unnamed throughout the entire film) who is recruited by the eponymous secret organisation after a failed rescue mission at an opera house in Kiev. Tenet introduces The Protagonist to the concept of “inverted” entropy, a theory that allows things and actions to be rendered backward both materially and temporally. A team is sent to seize and destroy an algorithm designed by the villainous Sator, who intends to wipe out the world by inverting it. The Protagonist seeks help from Sator’s estranged wife Kat, and fellow Tenet agent Neil. Together they embark on a mission to prevent World War III.

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One of the most prominent features in Nolan’s oeuvre has been his novel applications of the laws of physics, and Tenet is no exception. The idea of “inversion” not only allows the director to further explore his fascination with time, but also creates room for ambitious action scenes. Nolan’s dedication to this concept is unmissable and applaudable. To accommodate an “inverted” timeline to the fullest, several sequences in the film require both forward and backward motions in the same on-screen space, including a car chase which proved so challenging, a highway in Tallinn almost ended up shut for a month. Nolan’s habitual dismissal of CGI means audiences can expect both meticulously choreographed movements and dextrously assembled mise-en-scène – visual stunners which would no doubt constitute an immersive viewing experience, if accompanied by the right sound and music.

Regrettably, the acoustic dimension of the film lacks lustre against its breath-taking moving images. With Hans Zimmer having “defected” to join the next-door production of Dune, composer Ludwig Göransson was hired in his stead, and had to record musicians at home following the onset of the pandemic. Beyond the undeniably original stroke that was playing part of the soundtrack backwards to match the backwards motions on screen – another sign of loyalty to the film’s wholistic design – the music in Tenet feels unremarkable and bares no comparison to films like 2014’s Interstellar (which was nominated for Best Original Score at the 87th Academy Awards). The score shows little interest in distinguishing scenes from one another; the background music in the opening opera house scene sounds almost identical to that which accompanies Tenet’s various, more intense operations in later scenes. Tenet‘s auditory landscape is also polluted by flawed sound mixing. This is especially noticeable during action sequences, where diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are so poorly balanced, one has to strain to hear the dialogues even with Dolby Atmos. These factors further frustrate one’s understanding of a plot line already brimming with brain-twisting concepts.

Yet Tenet‘s biggest disappointment is not technical in nature. With cinemas around the world recycling Nolan’s other works to reopen, we are reminded of their virtuoso presentations of human emotion; be it the parental love of an astronaut that defies time and space in Interstellar, or the collective desperation and fear of abandonment on the French sea front in Dunkirk, it is Nolan’s ability to evoke sympathy that has ultimately made his films unforgettable. One can hardly say the same for Tenet. Despite the actors’ undeniable skill, most of the characters’ motives on an emotional level are indiscernible. One finds oneself wondering, on several occasions, why some of them are going to life-threatening lengths to save and protect other key characters they barely know.

Among the few relationships that feel sufficiently developed is that between Kat and Sator, which, in a nutshell, is an abusive marriage characterised by violence and coercion. There are several scenes of domestic violence, one of which included moments so explicit, they were removed from the UK theatre version to avoid a 15 certificate. Compared to other violent scenes in the film, of beating and torture between men with little blood and gore, these depictions of a man’s power over his wife are tackled with a precision that not only feels extraneous to the storyline, but produces a level of unpleasantness that escapes the screen. The film eventually attempts to tie up loose ends regarding the connections between characters, there are no feelings visceral enough for tears.

Tenet’s launch in cinema at the end of August marks Hollywood’s awakening from an anxious sleep. With film festivals gone virtual, and many films released online, it has been offered more screens per multiplex than originally planned, quickly becoming the fifth highest-grossing films of 2020. After months of uncertainty, anger, and grief in the midst of pandemic and protests, the return of big screen invites reflections: what is it that makes us love cinema? Need there be more to it than an extravaganza of escapist excitement? Watching Tenet will help you find your answer, whatever it may be.

Image credit – Wikimedia commons / Thekingross