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TENET: Mess or Masterpiece?

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Christopher Nolan has always been known for his higher concept films. He does not like handing the audience a story on a silver platter. Instead, he makes them work for it a little. There is a demand for closer attention, analytical thinking and most times, some Googling at the end. From “Inception” to “The Prestige”, piecing together those confusing pieces has always been a part of the fun. “Tenet”, however, is not just confusing, it is indecipherable.

Essentially, the protagonist (played by John David Washington) is a CIA agent recruited by the organization Tenet to stop World War III. In order to do so, he must grapple with the ever-changing fabric of time and the consequences this inversion of time may have. On paper, this seems like a fairly straight forward action film, but when watching it, the lines between the different times and dimensions quickly become blurred. In truth, one would probably have to watch this film at least three times to fully grasp what is going on.

Nolan’s focus has always been on the greater concept of the film. The issue with “Tenet” is, does this concept get conveyed? The immediate answer is no, not really. It becomes apparent about thirty minutes into the movie that the audience is in for a rough ride. The dialogue is often indiscernible over the soundtrack and when it is discernible, it is heavy and expository. Even with the expository dialogue, it is exceedingly difficult to understand what exactly is going on. It is so complex that most people will leave the theater with only a vague memory of what they just watched. The technology behind the time inversion is only introduced about halfway through the movie. This only becomes a problem because the technology is so mind-boggling that one needs more than a simple hour to fully grasp the concept of it. Even Robert Pattinson, a lead in the film, claimed that he did not understand what was going on for the majority of the script. Nolan’s films often leave the audience to gnaw on some hard-hitting questions. In the case of “Tenet”, unfortunately, the question most viewers will leave the theater with is “Huh?”

With multiple watches and background research, “Tenet” has the potential to be a great film, possibly even a masterpiece. Film fans will enjoy the hunt, ripping every frame and line to shreds looking for the next clue. A casual viewer will leave the film thinking it is an elitist mess. “Tenet” will not be an enjoyable experience for 80 percent of moviegoers, the prerequisite of research and rewatches is a pretentious, unfair demand for those who simply want a few hours of escapism. The other 20 percent, however, will delight in the pretension and puzzle-making, the sleuthing and seeking. This conflict makes it hard to pin down whether or not “Tenet” is truly good. “Tenet”, like the plot itself, is undefinable. It is controversial, confusing and completely impossible to put into a good or bad box. It is simultaneously a mess and a masterpiece. It just depends on who is watching it.



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