I Haven't Seen 'Tenet' Yet, But Here's My Review

That’s not just clickbait. I actually haven’t seen Tenet yet, although I want and plan to do so. (Alas, living in Los Angeles County during this period makes moviegoing…difficult.) And although this may not constitute a “review” of the film, exactly, I will say some things that may help contextualize it.

I’m seeing plenty of responses to the film that have something in common, which is, “Tenet was pretty cool to look at, and I think I enjoyed parts of it, but I don’t really understand what was happening and that was slightly off-putting. I guess I need to see it again.”

There are about three parts to that idea, and I want to break them down in such a way as to explain what Christopher Nolan’s goals are for you, and how knowing those goals can at least help you understand how to think about the film, whether it makes you like it more or not. (As for whether you like it, that’s up to you.)

The first part is how cool and (at least partially) enjoyable Tenet is. That’s the part that shouldn’t surprise us. For however unique and artistic Christopher Nolan may be as a director, let’s remember that he’s a director of big-budget Hollywood movies. Hollywood has a long history of gambling on big-budget movies as little as possible. This is why Hollywood movies always have strategies to minimize the risk: release dates when more people will see them, release dates that don’t compete with other major blockbusters, stacking the cast with popular stars whenever possible, sticking to formulas that have worked well in the past, storytelling that tells archetypal stories appealing to the largest number of people possible, and many more things like these. By and large, Nolan’s movies actually stick to this formula quite well. Bottom line: if Christopher Nolan wants to continue to make spectacular movies that make spectacular amounts of money, he needs to bankroll that spectacle, and Hollywood needs him to go by the book as much as possible in order to cut him those checks.

The second part revolves around how confusing Tenet is. Yep. No surprise there. Nolan has a track record of telling stories in such a way as to throw us off track and focus our attention precisely where he wants it. That can be a mark of a good filmmaker. But Nolan clearly likes to play with film form just enough to press at the boundaries of the acceptable formula (see previous point). This not only contributes to interesting storytelling, but it bolsters Nolan’s status as an auteur, which in turn brands him as A Director That You Should Follow. I won’t go off about this too much, but it’s worth mentioning that a major contributor to the formation of the auteur as we now know it was European art cinema in the 1960s. This was the generation that peaked with a more modern conception of the director as the central “author” (auteur in French) of a film, and this generation of directors distinguished themselves from one another largely through formal and stylistic experimentation that made their films harder to penetrate. What did Bergman mean to say about death in The Seventh Seal? What is the nature of alienation in Antonioni’s Red Desert? How about Agnès Varda’s take on the nuclear family in Le Bonheur? Christopher Nolan is one of many contemporary directors who has harvested authorial and storytelling techniques from that generation of film history and married them to the Hollywood approach to storytelling. This, mainly, is why you kind of like Tenet but also don’t get it.

And that, in turn, is why your reaction is mixed in the sense that you don’t have the simple enthusiasm that you have after you see a decent MCU movie or the simple disappointment you feel when you watch some obscure art film that’s assigned for a Screen Studies class. To be fair, Nolan is adept enough at what he does—and let’s not forget about the investments of the bankrolling producers—that he stays much closer to the Hollywood formula than he does to that of European art cinema (and I mean much closer). Nevertheless, you still feel like you need to rewatch the film. That’s good! You should! Films that elicit that reaction are, almost by definition, better than films that you’re satisfied watching only once.

When the ending refuses you clear answers...

So, I still haven’t seen Tenet and I’d still like to. Is it a recycled version of Memento-meets­­-Inception? Maybe, but those were successful films and the same guy directed all of them, so it’s probably okay to admit that we don’t mind a little recycling at times. If you take away nothing else from this, hold on to this thought: filmmaking, as you probably know if you’re reading this, isn’t some unfathomable activity that mystical geniuses take part in behind closed curtains. There are tons of evidence all over the place about how movies get made. But even the most ardent among us often forget that when we see a film that’s confusing. Here’s a thought: maybe it was supposed to be confusing. Maybe it was supposed to make you come back for more (gasp—then I would have to fork over more $$!). Maybe there’s a relatively straightforward way to situate a movie within a tradition—or within a couple traditions—that explains why it works just the way it does.

If you’re looking for answers after watching Tenet, I would suggest that this is the clearest one you’re going to get. Feel free to search the internet and find some fan-driven plot outlines breaking down every detail of Nolan’s latest. But remember that there’s a broader and simpler strategy here that’s actually far more linear than any of Nolan’s plot structures.

P.S.: For further reading on the topic, I recommend this blog post by David Bordwell on the films of Christopher Nolan.

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