Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Tenet is not a good movie

There’s an old saying, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” Back in my English major days, I bullshitted my way through a few papers by making claims and using words I didn’t understand. Clear thought and simple sentences are actually a lot more time-consuming than the senseless drivel I hastily shoveled into Word documents. I forget if I was lazy or if I didn’t have the time, but I know there was also a good student in me who also had the distant hope — in the midst of my free-spirited bullshitting — of accidentally happening upon some interesting truth that no one’s ever thought before, which might compel the professor to give me a good grade. It’s actually not the worst way to write an essay because the process involves a sort of free-wheeling, loosey goosey creative thinking, and every once in a while, using this method, you will surprise yourself with something weirdly worthwhile. But the approach is lazier than it is clever, and most of the time the work is crap. This brings me to the incomprehensible plot of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” Any canny professor with a functioning bullshit detector would give it no more than a D.

It’s like Nolan was thinking: “Let’s throw caution to the wind. Never mind character development, engaging dialogue, or meaningful themes. No, let’s just make a mind-bending plot with cool special effects, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll accidentally happen upon some truth or I’ll accidentally strike a chord with the audience and it’ll weirdly work.” But it didn’t. I could watch this movie another ten times — this time without loudly spitting insults at the screen — and I still won’t understand what’s happening. That’s not to say I’m stupid or that Nolan’s way smarter than the rest of us; it’s just to say that Nolan (who is no doubt very smart) was, in this case, too lazy to make a plot that is mind-bending, intricate, AND comprehensible. 

But the film failed for more than just its incomprehensibility. I can handle incomprehensibility. (I didn't mind not fully understanding Nolan's "Interstellar" or "Inception.") But the film, in addition to being incomprehensible, was also heartless, soulless, and humorless. The only emotion I felt was contempt for the director. The protagonist (who many are calling the next big thing) is not a good actor. The dialogue was little more than stilted physics lessons shared autistically between characters who manage to never seem troubled by the time-bending plot they expertly and nonchalantly navigate that would confuse any other mortal soul. Nolan often shoehorns some emotional core into his cerebral films (sometimes to good effect, such as in “Interstellar,” in which there was an effective father-daughter relationship), but he barely — and perhaps grudgingly — made the effort in “Tenet,” with a very weak and distant mother-son subplot. Critics are saying that yes, while it is incomprehensible, it's at least a visual spectacle. I disagree. I found the action derivative and boring.

Sometimes artists become too powerful for their own good. They convince themselves of their own genius. They believe they no longer need the editorial oversight that the rest of us require. I fear that’s the case with Nolan, who probably got to make the movie he wanted to make, at our loss. I hope his friends and colleagues urge him to spend an extra year working out his next script, this time alongside someone who can help him manage his bad impulses.

"Tenet" was supposed to be the movie that keeps the movie/theater experience alive, but actually "Tenet" would have worked out better as a slower, drawn out, 8-episode Netflix miniseries.

The only thing keeping this movie from being an F is Kenneth Branagh’s performance and I suppose I must give Nolan some credit for his ambitious and never-done-before plot. I'd rather watch someone try to do too much than too little.


Scott said...

Series recommendations: Danish political series Borgen (Netflix US) and Norwegian political thriller series Occupied (Netflix US).

Ken said...

Thanks Scott. I've watched Borgen twice now. The husband/wife relationship story in Season One is terrific. I consider the rest of the series comfort food, and there's nothing wrong with that. I watched an episode of Occupied and I was put off by some overacting, and I wasn't exactly buying the premise, but maybe it's worth another try.