4K Review: Tenet Is Not As Complicated As It Appears

Warning: There are minor spoilers for Tenet below.

Christopher Nolan has a reputation for intricately plotted movies with big surprises, but it’s really only earned based on two or three movies. The backwards-order Memento, the dream-within-a-dream Inception, and the magic trick reveal of The Prestige. (Interstellar has a twist too, but it’s super-easy to guess.) At least as many of his movies — think The Dark Knight trilogy, Insomnia, and Dunkirk — are relatively straightforward action/thrillers. Tenet is honestly more of the latter, though Warner Bros. marketed it, infuriatingly, as the former, such that it was impossible to tell from trailers what the movie was actually about. Their hope seemed to be that the mystery would draw audiences to theaters during a pandemic, and that bet did not pay off.

Would more people have wanted to come had they known the movie was essentially a James Bond-style spy-vs.-megavillain movie? Albeit one in which the villain has  a technology that moves things backward through time? Maybe. At any rate the word is out now, and knowing it spoils nothing. Trying to figure out the plot of Tenet, only leads to the realization that specifics are essentially irrelevant.  There’s tons of technobabble, but fundamentally, it’s globe-trotting good guys searching for a bad guy and then attempting to thwart him. The plot takes some turns, but there is no “Holy crap, that just recontextualized the entire story!” moment.

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What most Nolan movies do have in common, now that he can afford it, is a massive scale and heavily practical effects. That’s in addition to a color palette that’s most blacks, silvers, grays, and the occasional sand. He does memorably use red in at least one Tenet sequence, but mainly because it’s in specific contrast to his favorite blue.

With regard to the movie’s central sci-fi gimmick, it’s as if Nolan got upset that Doctor Strange one-upped Inception‘s city folding upwards scene, and decided to create his own version of Strange‘s backwards-running climactic effect. Besides that, he also falls back on some of his familiar favorites. Yes, buildings collapse, and of course there’s a truck chase. He’s also gotten so much better at shooting and editing fight scenes and military assaults since Batman Begins and the snow battle of Inception. Above all else, Tenet looks great. While the dialogue may be dense and confusing, the action isn’t.

Characters have never been Nolan’s strongest suit. It’s no accident that the most indelible character in his filmography is also the most popular comic book villain of all time. Here, he seems to mock the critics who accuse him of having generic leads, with a protagonist simply named The Protagonist. John David Washington brings him to life with a deadpan version of his famous father Denzel’s natural humor. But how much of that was on the page? As his partner in anti-crime, Robert Pattinson exudes a confidence that should make every viewer feel safe with Batman in his hands. Meanwhile, as  the villain, Sator, Kenneth Branagh goes out of his way to get heel heat. This is not a villain you ever like, but rather one who deserves punishment. No jokey scenery chewing here.

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And speaking of Sator, the movie’s title does indeed come from the Latin palindrome “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas,” but its use is akin to a Star Wars reference in a Kevin Smith film. It may flatter the classical student who gets the reference and thereby feels the director gets them. But it does very little with the concepts behind the reference.

Nolan has always said he wanted to do a James Bond film, and this may be as close as he ever gets. It looks great, and has the shifting IMAX aspect ratio. If it’s no The Dark Knight, well, what is? It’s still considerably more compelling than, say, Insomnia. And despite the auteur’s excessive insistence on theaters, it works just fine on a good size TV. But 4K gets as close to IMAX at the home as possible.

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A separate disc allotted for extras contains only a handful of trailers and a multi-part making-of documentary. This covers most aspects of the production, from its “how did they do that?” cinematography to the costumes and locations. Nolan all but admits the science of it makes no sense, yet he consulted physicists anyway to give it the veneer of plausibility. Nolan makes it clear that as Inception was his heist film, Tenet is his spy film.

Burdened with unfair expectations by its own creator among many others, Tenet is fine large-scale spectacle. It’s best enjoyed by a viewer who realizes that it’s not remotely as smart or complicated as it pretends.

Tenet is out on Blu-ray and digital this week.

Grade: 4/5

Buy it now!  Tenet (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital)

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