Tenet: A Near Masterpiece

By Eric Vallen

Tenet—a movie about mind inversion, hence the title. The word tenet remains an inversion of itself, and ironically, the definition of tenet outlines itself as the principal belief of a philosophy or religion, yet the concept of the movie works against the principles of reality. 

Conceptually, Tenet is a dream. Like most of Christopher Nolan’s movies, the concept messes with some form of time, specifically,  the inversion and reversing of weapons actions in this film. To  oversimplify, an individual in the future is sending inverted bullets, guns, and people from the future into the past. However, the only way that these inverted weapons can be used is if someone in the present activates them. For example, if someone were to put their hand over an inverted bullet and force it to them, the bullet would go to their hand. However, this information wasn’t written into the bullets code by the future manufacturer, the people of the future don’t know if anyone in the present will in fact activate the bullet. If the person in the present hadn’t willed the bullet to their hand, it would have stayed still. Although the information remains unexplained, people in the future can see anything that has been recorded in the past, i.e. bank accounts, transactions, written documents, etc, and as such can broker deals with people in the present to send back inverted weapons. The entire concept remains enormously compelling and  opens a window for creating amazing visuals, fight scenes with inverted individuals, buildings exploding, re-exploding in different areas after reversing, and etc, throughout the movie. Combined with Nolan’s supreme visual skills and backed by the amazing visuals of inception, interstellar, and others, Tenet cements itself as a visual masterpiece. 

However, this movie has one massive failure. The relationship between characters and concepts. Although the concept itself remains compelling, the characters’ relationships and the concept of inversion is executed horribly by Nolan in this movie. Reviewing his previous works, Nolan has consistently tied his characters tightly to the concept through emotional means, with Cooper leaving his daughter to save humanity in Interstellar, and Cob working to reunite with his daughter through the concept of dream persuasion in Inception. However, in Tenet, the movie operates itself as a pseudo bond movie, in that viewers are thrust into the action, and the action never stops. When Pro, short for protagonist, is first exposed to the reverse bullets,  the incident occurs  on a simple mission, and the result leads to some random teammate of the protagonist dying. Not his brother, not a pre-established, trusted friend that the audience is invested in, just another faceless agent. Furthermore, when Pro is exposed to further information about the inverted weapons, he’s not surprised by the fact that he can wield a bullet to his hand or pull the trigger of an empty gun to provide a bullet in the chamber, he simply accepts it. Conceptually, Pro is perfect for creating yet another tough guy character, however, audiences rarely find that kind of character compelling anymore. The market of tough-guy main characters remains so saturated the overuse seems like a cliche. Audiences need some kind of emotion to attach to, something that they can relate to. The average viewer will hear about the concept of Tenet, and be shocked, likely asking how it even works. Yet when they see Pro’s unfazed demeanor, the magic of the concept dissipates, losing the viewer’s engagement and investment in the movie along the way. 

Delving into character relations, ultimately, blandness defines Tenet’s characters. Every relationship is a one way street for the protagonist’s gain, and the term cliche pertains to most characters within the movie. The main villain’s attributes of rich, evil, russian, and wanting to kill everyone in the world for no reason is boring to say the least. Audiences don’t see a villain with bland characteristics as something they hate, they just see just a villain with no depth. The character has little to no backstory, leaving the character’s motivation weak and unexplained. Furthermore, nearly all of Pro’s accomplices are simply exposition dumps, and exist to offer Pro information about either the location of inverted weapons, the nature of inverted weapons themselves, or information concerning the main villain. Due to the nature of the characters, Pro’s journey has no real structure. The contents of the movie feel based on a video game, characters lead the main character from one mission to another and do side missions seemingly pointless to the player. The majority of the movie has no meaning, and none of the characters follow anything that resembles a hero’s journey, which takes away from the emotional appeal of the movie. Without a hero’s journey, or any emotionally compelling story points, what does the audience have to follow? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

Visually, the movie is unspeakably amazing. The choreography and set design which went into the reverse fight scenes remains absolutely astonishing. The film even bought a functioning Boeing 747 to run the plane into an airplane hangar for just one minute of screen time. However, if there isn’t a compelling story to accompany the visuals, what is the point of the movie? A glorified sci-fi documentary? When a character is used to dump exposition, be a villain for the sake of villainy, or be the protagonist because the movie needs to follow at least one character consistently, nothing the characters do will matter to the viewer. 

Tenet would have been an icon of modern cinema, but it just couldn’t figure out how to attach something worth following to any of its characters.