2021 Oscar Reviews: Tenet

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

Tenet

[2 nominations for Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects]

I went into Tenet assuming that I would hate it. And in that regard, it did not disappoint!

This movie is hot garbage. Or should I say, egabrag toh si eivom sihT? Pretentious, confusing, boring beyond all belief, sexist, blargh blargh blargh.

Tenet is a very boring standard-issue spy movie, leaning very heavily on the assumption that viewers will be so in awe of the absolute brilliance of Chris Nolan’s MING BOGGLING TIME CONCEPT that we don’t notice how boring everything else is, and we don’t question whether the story makes any sense whatsoever (spoiler alert: it does not). The basic gist is this: someone in the future has figured out how to get objects and people to move backwards in time. In a very early scene, our protagonist (literally listed as “protagonist” in the character list and played by John David Washington) meets a scientist of some sort who explains the concept to us. If you don’t understand the basic concept after that scene, rewind and rewatch it once so you at least try to grasp on to this stupid ride a little longer. But don’t panic if it still makes no sense. The character straight-up says something like “Don’t overthink it” or “don’t try to understand it.”

This line aggravated me. I tend to not get into time travels stories, because time travel is of course by definition complex. Time travel stories almost always either skip over basic time-travel logic (which makes me angry), or spends so much effort detailing the complexities of this particular stories’ time travel science that it overshadows whatever the actual story is supposed to be. I’ve only encountered a couple stories that quelled my frustration. Stephen King’s 11/22/63, for example, did two things great: first, they have the guy explaining the time travel be some local yokel who, when pressed to explain the science, exclaims “Dude I have no idea! I’m not a scientist!” (or something similar). It also has a timeline that does it’s best to resist change, which helps explain the lack of butterfly effect. Though not time travel, Mystery Science Theatre, a goofy comedy show about a janitor and his robot friends trapped in outer space, opens with the line “If you’re wondering how they eat and breathe and other science stuff, you should tell yourself it’s just a show. You should really just relax!”

If Tenet had told us “hey don’t overthink it” and then moved on with a light story, I’d maybe be okay with it. But you can’t introduce your central complicated concept, tell us to not overthink it, and then proceed with this nonsensical story that relies so heavily on your completely flawed concept. You don’t get to Emperor’s New Clothes us right after saying “don’t worry about clothes.” You can’t both acknowledge the flaw, and then smash us over the head with the flaw. UGH.

Much of the movie felt like it was being made up as we went along. It worked like this: A random character tells us a random thing for some reason that makes no sense. Then we go to a new location and do a thoroughly uncompelling action scene, I guess sometimes based on the random parameters they just set up for us, but maybe not. Then a new person shows up and throws other random new information at us, and we move to a new location for a convoluted boring action scene. And so on and so forth. We don’t care what’s happening in any action scene because we don’t understand why we’re there in the first place. So much shit is left completely unexplained. We have no clue where these people came from or what anyone’s motivations are for anything. Virtually none of it is ever explained. We get a brief motivation for our villain’s actions but it’s the weakest sauce action ever. We have an arms dealer who randomly tells our protagonist info in tidbits, but we have no clue why she’s talking to him. Michael Cain shows up for 2 minutes. I don’t know why. There is exactly zero character development for anybody, except for a barf-inducing attempt at humanizing our random hot chick damsel in distress by making her a saddo trapped wife and mother. WE HAVE TO SAVE HER! Do we? Why? Who knows.

Tenet is nominated for a whopping TWO Academy Awards! I don’t know why it’s nominated for production design. There’s nothing original in the look here. It’s a carbon-copy of every other spy movie out there. It is nominated for Best Visual Effects because in some scenes there are some people or objects moving forwards, while other people or objects move backwards. It’s a cute trick. Once. Maybe. It could have been really effective and cool, like the legitimately fun-to-watch dream scenes in Nolan’s Inception. But it just didn’t land in this film; it wasn’t strong enough to carry the rest of the flick. It also had a scene where we they slowly crash an airplane into a building. It was a very boring action scene. It probably cost more than the entire budget for all of our documentary and international nominees combined (no idea if this is true- I’m completely guessing). What a slap in the face to all the talented dedicated real storytellers who are scrounging to get their stories told and made, and then this Nolan asshole has like a mountain of gold to waste on this garbage.

What WAS good? Some of it is set in Estonia, so it’s nice to have a Baltic country mentioned in some way I guess. We also get some solid eye-candy in Washington, who randomly starts doing pull-ups in dangerous settings for no reason, and alternated between shirtlessness and finely tailored suits. My jury’s still out on his acting chops, though. This is only he second of his films that I’ve seen, and he seemed to play both characters exactly the same. Of course in both cases he was playing some sort of spy, so maybe that’s just his Spy Voice. But I dunno- he seems to lack his father’s depth. Shirtless pullups are A-ok, though! However we also have to watch a 60 year old shirtless Kenneth Branagh ickily interact with his 30 year old wife, which is so gross and unappealing that the shirtlessness cancels out.

The one actual shining star here is Robert Pattinson. I never saw any of the Twilight films and have never given its star much thought. That changed last year when I saw him in The Lighthouse. He was incredible. So talented! Here I am seeing him a second time in a very different role, and I basically didn’t eve recognize him. Pattinson plays some sort of time spy (or whatever- they never explain who the fuck anyone actually is), and he’s easily the only person on screen even remotely compelling or charismatic. I got a sense that Pattinson himself had no clue what the hell the film was about, maybe realized it was bullshit, and so just picked a fun new character to try out and then ran with it. (I’m thinking of Gina Gershon, who I think said she realized halfway through shooting Showgirls that she was in a bad film, so from that point on she hammed it up.) Everyone else seemed to be trying to play it straight and cool, resulting in an affectless void of a film. But Pattinson dazzled. Oh! That reminds me that I was happy to see Himesh Patel in the flick, even though his character also had no established personality. But I liked him in Yesterday so hooray for more Patel.

Do you all remember the year 1999? There was this really popular movie out starring Bruce Willis and a little kid who saw dead people. Sixth Sense was a creepy smash hit, contained a REALLY good twist ending, and put its writer/director M. Night Shyamalan on the map. “Give this filmmaker all our money!” everyone screamed. So he made another movie. Some people liked it, some didn’t, but it ALSO had a big twist ending. “More money and movies please! We can’t wait to be surprised by a big twist!” Then the audience turned. “WHY AREN’T THESE TWIST ENDINGS SURPRISING ME!” we angrily exclaimed after going into a film 100% anticipating that it would contain a twist ending and not understanding why it wasn’t as good as the 1st Shyamalan film where we had zero expectations going in. To me Nolan has followed a similar path. Momento (just 1 year after Sixth Sense) was brilliant. It played with time and timelines and had a clever premise. “More time-twisting films with a clever premise please! Here take ALL OF THIS MONEY so you can rely on big budget effects instead of a tight script and concept!” We wound up with Inception, which had a VERY STUPID premise BUT was also really fun to look at (OMG Joseph Gordon Levitt in a vest fighting in a spinning hallway! Swoon!). We wound up with Dunkirk, which could have been good but was told out of order for ZERO REASON except that freakin’ Christopher Nolan is a pretentious turd who thinks chronology is for pussies. And now, finally, we have Tenet. A bloated piece of crap waste of a film with zero redeeming qualities.

Oh! And they used the word “Tenet” in casual conversation like 3 times, which is 3 more times than anyone on the planet ever usually the term “tenet” in casual conversation. OMG JUST LIKE THE TITLE WHICH IS AN ANAGRAM JUST LIKE TIME IN THE MOVIE! STOP DROPPING YOUR MASSIVE GENIUS ON US! WE CANNOT HANDLE IT! OUR BRAINS ARE EXLODING!!!!!!

Bottom line: No. Just no.


2 thoughts on “2021 Oscar Reviews: Tenet

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