TENET is one of those films like THE SIXTH SENSE in which any review of the film must dance around the fact that it’s very, very difficult to say much about it—especially in any sort of critical examination—without spoiling something.
So let me just say this before saying anything else: I enjoyed it.
I really liked the pacing. It seemed like they took a very fast-paced action thriller, then cut all the interstitial bits where things are explained and/or set up, expecting the audience to fill in the gaps. Everything on the screen was there for LOTS of reasons—no footage was wasted on stuff like “this is how we get from Kiev to Mumbai.” There were scenes which were confusing, and they worked (at least for me) because I could tell that I was supposed to be confused. My confusion was there to help me identify with the protagonist¹.
For that alone, I think the movie is an exemplary piece for people who want to work on the pacing in the stories they tell. If you’ve got a big chunk of worldbuilding to do, but don’t want to infodump, have a gander at what TENET does.
The rest of this review will be mildly spoilery.
Sandra and I sat down to watch it, and I asked if she’d seen trailers. She had not. So I told her that it was an action movie, and that the title was probably picked not for its meaning, but because it was a one-word palindrome.
About a third of the way in, Sandra predicted the entire last act, and she and I agreed that the central conceit of the film was “what if we take this thing we’ve learned to do with cameras and SFX, and write a whole story around it?”
By the final scenes, we were a bit disappointed, not because Sandra was right, but because there were opportunities for Nolan et. al. to surprise us despite Sandra having been right, and if they swung at any of those, they missed.²
At one point during a big battle, Sandra said “I am glad someone was tracking all of these moving parts with a spreadsheet, because that was probably fun for them, and it means at least one person got to enjoy knowing what’s going on here.”
(If you’re the lucky person who managed that spreadsheet, we’re actually a little jealous.)
TENET is something I’m glad we saw at home, not least because we could have actual food, and pauses for toilet breaks, but because we can watch it again and see if—err… hang on. Sandra has informed me that it will not be “we” watching it again.
TENET is something I’m glad I saw at home because I can watch it again and see if I can reverse engineer that spreadsheet. If you’re the sort of person who watched THE SIXTH SENSE a second time, just to see if you could find all the cues you missed on the first go-round, you might enjoy TENET in the same way.
¹ John David Washington did a brilliant job in the role of the protagonist, but as IMDB is my witness, he deserved to play a character with an actual name, rather than a chunk of meta.
² It can be kind of tedious to watch movies with me and Sandra when we’re at home. At one point late last year, our soon-to-be son-in-law Tyler turned to us and asked “HOW DO YOU DO THAT?” My explanation (“we’re storytellers who have been around for a while, and we’re not actually that good at these predictions”) did not enhance his enjoyment of whatever predictable thing we were watching.