No matter which way you look at it, Christopher Nolan’s directorial work is indisputably iconic — he’s distinguished himself by creating such well-known films like “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “The Dark Knight Trilogy.” The latter, many of whom have claimed, is not just the best interpretation of Batman, but also houses arguably one of the best films of the 21st century with “The Dark Knight,” which still stands tall despite attempts at dethronement by Marvel.
Nolan’s films are not just grandiose in scale and production. His themes are also far from grounded, as he encourages audiences to deconstruct their perceptions of time, believe that love’s power is transcendent, capable of intergalactic travel and accept that some men’s evil does not stem from their mere wanting of riches and fame, rather their desire to “watch the world burn.”
Yet, Nolan’s not perfect. His films have often received their share of criticism, with many saying that his latest film, “Tenet,” which was released last September, also bears some guilt. Now, we’re going to be looking at the extent to which this is true, both concerning just “Tenet” as well as Nolan’s filmography as a whole, by breaking down the most prominent points of criticism that have circulated across the web.
Poor Audio Mixing
I felt it appropriate to get this one out of the way first since I’ve thought it’s the one that’s been most talked about online. Poor audio mixing has long been a commonly critiqued problem Nolan has faced.
I never had any grievances with sound mixing in any of Nolan’s previous films. Still, I cannot say the same about “Tenet,” as it was one of the first films I had to rewatch multiple times, not because I couldn’t understand the plot, but because I couldn’t actually hear it.
At some points, the film’s score booms so loud you can’t hear what characters are saying, and dialogue is inaudible because characters are wearing masks or their voices are distorted.
Now here’s the thing, had this been an isolated problem, I don’t think the film would have suffered as badly. If a movie can present its concepts, the world’s mechanics coherently and effectively, then dialogue isn’t always vital for plot retention. You can do a lot more with visuals than you can with audio, and so you don’t necessarily need the two to work in tandem to communicate a story effectively.
Unfortunately, “Tenet” also lags on this, which brings me to my next point.
Bad World Building
“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” This line from the film highlights the crux of the film’s issue, and that’s that Nolan understands that this film’s concepts are so confusing that he doesn’t bother with trying to explain to moviegoers the logic behind his world’s concepts. Instead, he expects you to take them as givens and to keep on watching.
Now there are two main problems that I have with this, the first being that, contrary to popular critique, I actually believe that Nolan excels when it comes to world-building. I believe “Inception” to be one the best-produced films of the 21st century because of its ability to introduce complicated concepts as effectively as it does.
With “Inception,” Nolan crafts his world in an engagingly, fluid way — he doesn’t try to “infodump” everything. Instead, he takes the concepts apart and expands on them when the plot requires it. By the film’s third act, we’re still learning about the implications of being stuck in “dream limbo” and what it means in relation to the character’s current circumstances.
In other words, the iconic dream “training montage” from “Inception” doesn’t just start and end at the café in Paris. Instead, it carries on to the film’s final shots, using Elliot Page’s Ariadne as the vessel by which the audience is introduced to these concepts. Like her, we’re all new to this, and like her, we’re still asking questions about the world’s mechanics — questions that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is still answering despite being deep into the thick of it.
This is not the case in “Tenet” though the film’s protagonist is still asking questions about the world, he’s more seasoned, less prone to questioning. As a result, the plot’s more fast-paced, and it moves on at the same pace by which he can carry onward, which is not the same pace by which the audience can do the same.
Again, this would not be as big of an issue if it did not conflict with the second issue I have with his lackluster world-building — that’s that knowing how the world is built is crucial to understanding the plot.
Once again, in contrast to “Inception,” one can get by just understanding that the characters of the film are trying to plant an idea inside someone’s head and that they are infiltrating said someone’s dreams to do so. Thus, while simplifying the plot to a criminal extent, one can get by knowing just this.
With “Tenet,” this picture becomes a lot less clear to paint, as you need to understand how time inversion works so that you can then understand how terrorists in the future are manipulating it to send an item back in time so that the villain from the current timeline can use said item to invert time permanently, which would lead to the present word’s eventual destruction.
Knowing this allows you to understand the protagonist’s motivations, why it propels them to enter a time-inverted war zone in which two teams are fighting forwards and backward in time to kill the villain at the exact moment where he would have triggered the weapon, which the protagonists only know about because they’ve seen the future because of the aforementioned time inversion.
Did you get it? Yeah, neither did I.
It just does not work without profound exposition, something this film crucially lacks — the worst part is that nobody cares, which brings me to point three.
Lack of Character Development
The worst part about everything I’ve mentioned is that by the time the film’s credits roll, nobody cares — in my opinion, compelling, well-written characters are the only things capable of usurping a difficult-to-follow plot.
“Interstellar’s” messages scene only brings us to tears because we care about Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and his relationship with his daughter Murph. Likewise, we root for the character of Cobb in “Inception” because of the time dedicated to crafting his character, exploring his relationship with Mal, and we continue to ponder over “Inception’s” ending because we care enough about Cobb to want to know whether he’s still dreaming.
But that’s a discussion for a different day.
“Tenet” lacks this. The final scene, which reveals that John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s characters are life-long friends, means nothing because not enough time is dedicated to developing that friendship. Lastly, Nolan’s decision to name Washington’s character The Protagonist turns a stylistic choice, centered around turning attention away from the character into the story, into the final nail in the coffin that solidifies this film’s characters as underdeveloped, which, combined with the poorly defined concepts of the plot, makes “Tenet” a bland, lackluster cinematic experience that highlights Nolan’s most controversial tenets as a cinematic director.