REVIEW: Excessive techno-babble makes ‘Tenet’ tiresome

Having nearly three fourths of the dialogue in your movie be scientific terms and concepts doesn’t make your movie smart.

“Tenet” follows a character simply known as The Protagonist (John David Washington). A spy who appears to work for the American intelligence apparatus, Washington’s character is assigned a mission where he has to investigate weapons that defy time.

For example, the spy is shown bullets that are inverted, which means they move backwards in time. On his mission, the Protagonist is assisted by a helpful contact named Neil (Robert Pattinson). As the mission continues, the Protagonist discovers the main person associated with the weapons is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). To get close to the arms dealer, the agent begins speaking with Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).

“Tenet” clocks in at exactly two and a half hours, and that runtime is certainly felt. The movie never feels like it’s building to anything other than some visually impressive action sequences.

Additionally, much of the film feels hollow, cold and sterile, with the characters mostly explaining concepts of time travel and related paradoxes. But a lot of explaining doesn’t add a lot of depth.

Often lacking in these moments is passion and a feeling of humanity. The picture feels as if it wants to be so smart about how the science works, that it forgets to address any impact on the human condition.

Maybe what’s worse about “Tenet,” though, is how repetitive it feels. Neil and the Protagonist will discuss a bit of techno-babble related to how time inversion is involved, then plan out the next operation, then the operation will take place and the characters will move on to the next thing.

That’s not the worst way to run a movie, most spy films use this type of formula, but the in-between moments from the action in those flicks are also entertaining and compelling. Whether it’s the main characters having introspective moments or engaging in relationships, there’s usually a hook to make the audience more invested.

“Tenet” fumbles on this level, though, causing the movie to feel repetitive and as a result, make that two and a half hours feel longer. A main example of this are the interactions between Kat and the Protagonist, a relationship that feels largely void of emotion.

It’s also a shame that the picture’s big finale isn’t all that fantastic. As previously stated, the actual action set pieces look good, but the investment isn’t there.

On top of the issues stated above, for all of its attempts at being smart, “Tenet” boils down to a simple ticking clock climax with a bad guy that has some generic motives.

Merry-Go-Round AKA Tenet
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures and Syncopy.

The film squanders some fine work by the cast, too. Debicki, Pattinson and Washington all give strong performances, with Pattinson especially being a bright spot with his suave persona.

Branagh was rather disappointing, though, coming off as way too over the top in his performance. His excessive villain performance doesn’t meet the tone of the rest of the picture.

As usual, Director Christopher Nolan and his team provide audiences with an impressive visual experience with the audio to back it up. There’s a large scale battle at the end of the movie that’s genuinely entertaining, along with a scene at an airport that’s truly impressive.

The problem is it can be difficult as a viewer to really care about all the commendable action taking place on screen. Smart sci-fi action films are welcome, but they work better when they offer a human connection. This has been done successfully in movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Blade Runner 2049.”

Another good example is Nolan’s own picture “Inception.” “Tenet” is a prime example of just getting lost in the weeds. It looks great and the cast is strong, but so much is sacrificed in the need to over-explain the techno-babble here. 2.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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