Tenet (2020)

The term “tour de force” is one I’ve always liked to use when describing a great movie. Sounds so smart, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of a false friend, though – it doesn’t necessarily only apply to intense and captivating thrill-rides such as Tenet, it can also be used for an excellent yet quiet and calm movie.

Tenet is not quiet, and it’s not calm. Watching it was probably the most intense 2.5 hours I’ve experienced this entire year, and not just because this year is a little different. From start to finish I was on the edge of my seat, fascinated and confused. I’m still confused days after. I didn’t get it. Not in the way that Interstellar or Inception left me with a sense of wonder but an overall understanding. I really didn’t get it, it was too much. Since then, I’ve spent a few hours on the internet, and I still don’t think I get it.

But here’s the thing: I loved every minute of it regardless. I think the movie is fantastic. Everything about it was great, the cinematography, the acting, the soundtrack, the special effects, the whole idea behind it. I want to see it again, and I certainly will. Maybe I’ll start understanding the “science” behind it better then, maybe not. Maybe understanding more will actually make me like the movie less as weak spots become more obvious, or maybe it will form a more cohesive picture and add to my enjoyment. In the end, it probably won’t matter too much. The first impression is set, and I think it’s very close to what Nolan wanted to deliver.

Fittingly, Tenet was the first movie I watched on my brand new OLED screen, the first time I watched a movie in 4K and HDR at home. It looked absolutely fantastic. I can only imagine what it would have felt to get the full IMAX experience (even on my comparatively small screen, the full frame sequences were a blast and quite effective). That said, fuck anyone responsible for killing people by putting the movie in theaters.

Plenty has already been written about the sound mixing.1 Yes, dialogue in this movie was even harder to follow than has long been common in modern movies in general. Yes, Nolan has an even more extreme approach to it. I think Richard King summarized it really good in his AMA:

Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one. Like punk rock music, it’s a full body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette. He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience. If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix.

That comparison is so good, because not everyone enjoys punk rock, and not everyone will enjoy what Nolan does. If you do enjoy it, you will love it. Nolan makes some of the greatest punk rock there is. But if you don’t like punk rock, that won’t matter to you. It seems to me that a lot of people think that because they enjoy music, and they especially love rock music (I guess that would be “intelligent action blockbusters” in this metaphor), there has to be something wrong with Nolan and his work when they don’t enjoy it. They also seem to think that the only alternative would be that there is something wrong with them, which obviously isn’t the case. I’m always sad when others can’t enjoy something as much as I do, but you know what – there is a ton of shit I don’t enjoy as much as others.

While King’s AMA was long before Tenet hit theaters, “a visceral emotional experience” is pretty spot on for what Tenet delivered to me. It’s exactly what I wanted from it, and I’m incredibly happy that he gets to do his films. I didn’t enjoy Dunkirk nearly as much as I hoped I would, but I’ll take a Nolan movie that doesn’t meet my expectations over “Marvel Movie #38” any day of the week. Not because all Marvel movies suck (they don’t), but we should all want more people to do what Nolan does. They wouldn’t all make punk rock, they’d do different things. But they’d go all in. They’d want to make their thing in the best way possible. I’d probably hate some of it. Like I hate Jazz music. But I’ll cheer for anyone who can enjoy a fantastic new Jazz record in the age where most of our arts is often more defined by KPIs than by artists.


  1. Obviously this is written while listening to the score, an absolute masterpiece by Ludwig Göransson. ↩︎