A look at the film ‘Tenet’ directed by Christopher Nolan
Good and bad… Though I recognise that human behaviour is a tad more complicated than lumping everything into a Donnie Darkoesque Love Vs Fear scale, just about everything we do can eventually be boiled down to either be an action for positive outcome, good, or for negative outcome, bad.
Parking your car across two spaces because of laziness is most definitely a bad thing. It’s selfish and rude and has no positive consequences. Conversely, helping some with their shopping bags if they appear to be struggling is a purely good thing. You’ve lost a minute of your own time, but have been an invaluable assistant to a stranger who’ll likely remember your random act of kindness and may even be tempted to pay it forward. One little gesture of kindness could start an entire chain of kind events and who knows where that may eventually lead.
Those are two very light examples. Of course, there are extreme acts of good and bad to consider. There are the incredible actions of philanthropists who pour unthinkable resources and money into projects to improve conditions for people around the world. There are people who put their lives in harms way to try and protect the public from danger.
The extreme bad acts include violence against other living beings, murder and tricking people into watching ‘Swiss Army Man’. Wars, genocide, theft… The list, sadly, is almost endless. And the fact that there is so much of the negative, it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming and the world can feel like an exhausting and difficult place to want to be in.
Fortunately, we have means to distract us from the world and its ugly bits. One such escape is film and cinema. A way to sit back and relax while a story plays out before us on the big rectangle. Most of the time, this works quite nicely, but there are times when it becomes apparent that the filmmakers were possessed by demons or had no idea what they were doing.
And thus we end up watching utter bollocks for an hour and a half and come away at the end of it with similar feelings to those who return from ten days on Magaluf; “Christ, I need a holiday!”
And by “utter bollocks”, I am – of course – having yet another dig at ‘Swiss Army Man’ (twice in one essay, good going) and the latest bucket of sputum that my poor senses were assaulted by, Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say again here for clarity; When I see a film where a single name gets a production, direction and a writing credit, you can absolutely guarantee that what you are seeing is about as pure an experience as something can be. This isn’t a film where the vision of the original writer is compromised by the production crew who stump up all the money, or by an opportunistic director looking to make a name for himself by making his own changes. Nolan had control of this all the way along.
That is, perhaps, the saddest observation of all. Because the end result is such a catastrophically convoluted, badly made mess, you have to wonder if Nolan was suffering from a long term concussion or if his meds were switched out for some hallucinogens as a prank that went a bit too far.
I want to give you a run down of the plot so I can explain and justify being so harsh, but I just can’t. I have a rough idea of the basic premise and I have some sense of the reasoning behind the more complex story elements, but it’s all so flimsy and just gets worse the more you think about it.
Things can get complicated with films that explore time travel and paradoxes and such. Part of what makes stories about time paradoxes interesting is the keeping up with them and going along for the ride.
‘Tenet’ is less about taking you along for the ride and is more like speed-marching you blindfolded through a hedge maze and expecting you to be able to recite your precise longitude and latitude at four-second intervals. Not only that, but that sensation must last for nearly two-and-a-half hours!!!
And it gets worse. Nolan, apparently, must have done his ears in whilst working on ‘Dunkirk’. I couldn’t watch ‘Dunkirk’. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. The constant barrage of noise was tiring and unpleasant. I’ve mentioned in previous essays about programs or films that have too much music. ‘Dunkirk’ takes the idea several steps further by bombarding you with a wall of noise. Effective at making you feel uneasy and unsettled, but also effective at making one reach for the ‘shut up you noisy bastard’ button on the remote control.
For ‘Tenet’, it seems that the idea of noise is being used again but in a very different manner, and it is such a misuse of sound, it makes an already tough film to swallow, actually rather unpalatable.
I was fortunate. I was watching it in a home environment. My good friend, Bruce, has screened many a film for me so I know that his sound system is well-balanced and about as close to theatre sound as you’re going to get from a 5.1 home setup. It was instantly clear that ‘Tenet’ had been mixed together by an absolute moron.
The bass has been dialled up so high, that the sofa I was sitting on was shaking. Ambient sounds and film music were startlingly loud to the point where I was wincing, and to top it all off, the actors voices were so faint and muffled, that it was almost worthless trying to pay any attention to it at all.
Just for a moment, let’s think of another film that has both noisy and quiet moments… ‘The Matrix’. You can set your volume level for it and not need to change it once. You can have the lovely deep rumbles and booms from the action sequences, you have the top-end sounds like the spent rounds hitting the floor in the shootout scenes and when someone speaks, it comes out the centre speaker with enough force to not overwhelm or pull you out of the moment, but with enough clarity to be audible and understandable.
Even in the quiet moments in ‘Tenet’, voices are mumbled and muted. And because there is three hours worth of dialogue to fit into a two-and-a-half hour film that also needs to have wordless action scenes, everyone is rushing through their lines at the same time. But very little dialogue is actually delivered in the film’s quiet moments. The majority of it is underlined with a shoddy synthesizer soundtrack that adds no value or positive contribution to anything that is going on.
Some of the music cues flare up and die down again with seemingly no pattern at all. In the three-second gap between one line of dialogue and another, there’ll be a surge in music volume. It’s as if the guy at the mixing desk when they were mastering the final cut, had wagered with a friend how bad he could make a big-budget film before anyone called him out on it.
As I said, I was fortunate to be seeing it in a home environment. Others were not so lucky. Watching it last night, Bruce had remote control in hand and spent the entire duration of the film controlling the volume up and down so that we could try and catch a bit of the dialogue but without shaking the grout out from between the bricks of his house. He assured me that the cinema experience was not so comfortable. Cinema sound systems are set to one level for the run of the film. And since the dialogue had to be at a certain level, it meant that the rest of the film was so astronomically loud that it was actually distorting in the theatre speakers.
What surprises me is that this film is scoring relatively positively with the wider film-going public. It just goes to show that bad doesn’t necessarily mean bad and good doesn’t necessarily mean good. I mean, The Spice Girls weren’t much good, but they were hugely successful. And there are countless amazing artists, bands, films, shows that are absolutely spectacular but never achieve great success.
‘Tenet’s dodgy science, endless exposition and poor direction should drop this into the ‘barely mediocre’ score range. But because it was a big budget feature containing lots of big budget names and was made by big budget people, it’s fashionable to like it. It has people firing guns, a few explosions, fist fights and at one point a slightly silly moment where an airliner is taxied into a building at 15mph… because reasons.
This gloss and polish looks very impressive, but it all feels a little hollow if you like to pay attention to your films. And it’s for the people who pay attention, those who see past all the shaky cameras and quit cuts and the God-awful soundtrack to point out how inconsistent the rules of the time inversion theory are and how shambolic its implementation as a story device can be.
It’s a proper catch-22; It’s something that has to be seen to truly comprehend how daft it is, yet you’d never – not in good conscience anyway – prompt someone to watch it.
On the grand scale of things, this is a poorly produced film in an expensive frock. It doesn’t serve the forces of good in any way at all. It does not allow one to detach from the absurdities and complexities of the world, but merely adds to them.
I once said about the TV show ‘The West Wing’, “I can’t work out if it’s dumb TV for smart people, or smart TV for dumb people.” It handled human matters in a way that was engaging and wrapped it all up in a very political shell that made it feel like a fairly cerebral show. But then it treated its audience like fools by giving us absolutely insulting “previously on…” catch ups that were so needless and non-relevant to the episode that was about to play, one had to wonder who the target audience really was.
I briefly had the same thought about Tenet, but then I realised it doesn’t apply. The film wants to be smart but it is actually as dumb as mud. It wants to appeal to the thinker in the audience, but it’s the thinker who will be able to pull it apart. It definitely has some concepts that could have been explored and handled much better, but when a film is trying to be a science fiction, spy thriller, action extravaganza, paradoxical, heist movie, it tends to do none of those things very well.
Poor pacing, lousy editing, terrible sound and nonsense story aside, there’s just not enough left to salvage from this film. By the time you reach the end credits, you’ll wish you too could invert time simply so you could go to a point in your life before you sat down to watch this trifle of a film.
I suppose it could be enjoyed better by simply switching on the subtitles and keeping the volume nice and low. At least then you’d have a poor-average film in a format that makes it bearable, but still don’t expect answers to life, the universe and everything.
If you enjoy a good paradox, time-based film, I suggest sticking with films that don’t try and get too big for their own boots. I have an essay on here for the film “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” which I would recommend. It’s a very different kind of film, but it’s entertaining, it’s good fun, it tells a story and it does it with a bit of style and with great British wit.
If you want to make a decision that influences the forced of good, decide against ‘Tenet’. In a manner similar to throwing a sack full of puppies into a raging river, endorsing this film can have very little good come of it.
A reason why you should watch it: You need something to help you make the frown lines in your forehead a bit deeper.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: You shouldn’t have to keep adjusting your speakers & volume to keep it watchable.