Christopher Nolan’s films are always a bit hit-or-miss for me. When they work, I enjoy his dramatic tendencies and his sense of scale and spectacle. But when they don’t work, they really don’t work. To this day, Inception remains one of those films that I can watch repeatedly without growing bored. But I haven’t liked a Nolan film since The Dark Knight Rises. It’s with this level of trepidation that I approached Tenet. With movie theaters in my state closed for the foreseeable future, I can’t see the film anytime soon. But I can read its recently published screenplay. Based on the writing, alone, Tenet is weak. It’s devoid of any meaningful characters, hampered with a premise that never fully makes sense, and reads less like a film and more like a collection of loosely related set pieces. (2 out of 5 wands)
(NOTE: There are mild spoilers for Tenet ahead. Read at your own risk.)
Tenet: The Complete Screenplay (written by Christopher Nolan)
Tenet is a global thriller whose action stretches across time zones, and stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington. The film displays Nolan’s preoccupations, especially how Time can shift from one moment to the next.
Before I start, it’s important to note that a film script is not necessarily reflective of its final quality. Things that don’t entirely work on the page often come together once the visuals are done, clunky dialogue can often sound better when delivered by talented actors, etc. I have not seen Tenet so I don’t know how it works visually. All I have to go on is the script. And, to be frank, if the script hadn’t been written by, or associated with, a filmmaker of Nolan stature, I don’t see how it would have been greenlit. The whole thing is a bit of a convoluted mess.
For starters, it’s plot is simultaneously simple and incomprehensibly complex. The objective is easy enough to understand: sometime in the future, a machine has been invented that can invert a person or object’s entropy and cause them to travel backward in time. A mysterious organization wants to prevent the creation of this machine before it can be used to destroy the past. How this objective is executed is where the film veers into total incomprehension. The biggest culprit is that the time inversion never makes sense. This wouldn’t inherently be a problem if the film didn’t spend so much time trying to explain the rules and methodology of its time inversion to the audience while in the same breath telling them to just go with it and not understand it. But here’s the thing – if you want audiences to just go with something, don’t start explaining how it works. The more you explain, the more the audience thinks, and if your concept doesn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny, it’ll fall apart.
This is exactly what happens in Tenet. There are several expository scenes where the minutiae of the time inversion gets explained, but it’s so complicated, and the more they try to explain it, the less sense it makes. Had they just said something simple like “once something goes through the machine, it travels backward in time,” it might have been fine. Instead, Tenet‘s time inversion is filled with tiny details that never coalesce into an understandable whole. There were several scenes that I had to read multiple times and still never managed to understand. I honestly can’t imagine how frustrating watching those scenes must be. Maybe I have just thrown my hands up and gone with it, but reading them just made me think about the concept too much. It’s way easier to just accept that something doesn’t make sense if the film doesn’t try to continuously explain it to you. It doesn’t get to have it both ways, either they need to make it make sense or they need to embrace that it doesn’t and not even bother. But Tenet tries to have it both ways and completely fails.
And without an understanding of what this time inversion actually means, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow what’s happening in the script. Several action sequences feature multiple timelines happening simultaneously, but, without understanding the time inversion concept, it’s nearly impossible to track what’s happening in those scenes. It just devolves into various people trying to do a thing and it’s so disengaging. Maybe these scenes work better visually. I hope they do. But you’d think one of the script’s jobs would be to describe them in a manner where the reader could picture and follow what’s happening. And the script totally fails to do that, making the film’s narrative feel dull and convoluted.
The other element that contributes to the script’s woes is the total lack of any characterization. As written, the characters of Tenet range from archetypal to paper-thin. Aside from Kat (who merely fills the damsel-in-distress role), none of the characters seem to have any real personality or emotional stakes in the narrative. The Protagonist – he literally remains unnamed for the entire script – has no character arc. There is no emotional journey for him to embark on, no lesson that he must learn, nothing that gives him any reason for doing anything he does. He just does stuff because the plot needs him to. With a plot as obtuse as Tenet‘s, the script needed well-developed characters with whom the audience could relate to in order to get us to care about the story. But it fails to do this. I don’t know what anyone in the film wants or why they’re doing what they’re doing, so I don’t care about what’s happening. And if that’s not bad enough, much of Tenet‘s dialogue is just bad. It’s a level of pretentious that I haven’t seen in quite a while. It’s a mixture of clunky and cringy and it sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m sure the actors do a lot of work to make their characters and dialogue more dynamic, but on paper, it’s all extremely weak.
And that’s really the case for Tenet‘s screenplay overall. It’s weak. As written, the plot never makes sense, so it never coalesces into a satisfying narrative. The characters have no depth, no development, and no emotional stakes that tie them to the plotline and make them interesting to follow. And the central premise of the film is over-explained to such a degree that its total lack of coherence sinks what could have been a fun idea for an action film. Now, to be fair, there are positives to the script – it moves fast, the action is fun when it’s coherent, and it’s filled with some cool ideas. But it never goes anywhere or comes together into a good read. Scripts never represent their films’ full potential – but they’re usually better than this. Many of Nolan’s past films had much stronger scripts. And, to be fair, maybe this all really works on screen. I don’t know. But on paper? It’s a mess and I didn’t like it.
2 out of 5 wands.