Release Date(s)2020 (December 15, 2020)
Studio(s)Syncopy/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) is the Protagonist, an undercover CIA agent attempting to exfiltrate a blown operative during a terrorist attack on an opera house in Ukraine. He recovers a strange object during the mission, but is captured by Russian mercenaries and tortured. So the Protagonist does the only thing he can; he makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect his team by swallowing a cyanide capsule. He’s thus surprised when he subsequently wakes up on a ship at sea, is told that he’s just passed a test, and is given a new mission with the code word “tenet.” That mission: To prevent someone, somewhere, from somehow destroying literally everything. To do this, the Protagonist will need the help of some unsavory illegal arms dealers, including a Russian oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who likes to brutalize his wife (Elizabeth Debicki). And the Protagonist isn’t even sure he can trust his own allies, including his handler (Robert Pattinson) and another arms dealer named Priya (Dimple Kapadia) who’s sympathetic to his cause.
TENET is hard to review effectively without giving away its twists, so I’ll simply say this: The film concerns itself with time. That’s not really a spoiler: If you’ve seen the trailers you know that much already. It’s the way the film draws you into and reveals that concern that really matters here. And there’s much that’s good about it. The cast is terrific across the board, John David Washington in particular. (I’ll officially watch any film he’s in.) Hoyte Van Hoytema’s large-format cinematography is glorious. And director Christopher Nolan’s ambition is as grand as ever. But the film, as I see it, has three big problems. The first is that you’re never really given enough information about the Protagonist to be invested in him emotionally. What connection you do have forms over the course of the film simply because of Washington himself. But early on, action set pieces and intricate plotting get in the way of it. The second problem is TENET’s central puzzle. Without giving it away, early in the film we’re only offered a bit sketchy sci-tech dialogue and a couple of slight-of-hand tracks to illustrate what it means. So the film’s supposedly world-shattering threat remains vague and unsubstantial for far too long into the narrative, making much of its action seem paint-by-number. Even after the film ended, I was left feeling that the stakes were never genuinely threatening.
Nevertheless, it all looks great. TENET was shot entirely on large-format photochemical film (in both 65 mm and IMAX) using Panavision Panaflex and Arriflex cameras (for dialogue scenes) and IMAX cameras (for action) with Panavision and Hasselblad lenses. It was finished on film, with a variety of aspect ratios for its theatrical exhibition. But for this 4K Ultra HD release, the presentation shifts back and forth from 2.20:1 to 1.78:1 (for the IMAX sequences). The 4K DI also been graded for high dynamic range (in HDR10). The image quality is extraordinary, as you’d expect given the larger negative. Clarity is so striking, in fact, that it’s easy to miss how subtle the fine detailing is. The film’s color palette leans toward cooler shadings, with industrial grays, greens, and browns tending to dominate (especially amid the Brutalist, Eastern European settings). But the HDR adds a nice measure of nuance and depth to everything. And with nearly all of this action having been captured for real, in-camera, everything has a more visceral feel. The sheer scale of it all is impressive. I wouldn’t say the image has that eye candy dazzle, but it’s very impactful, and it would be hard to argue that this is anything less than reference quality.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is offered in lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format. And in case you were wondering, this gets me to the film’s third problem: There’s a good deal of dialogue in this film that’s spoken with heavy accents, and it’s mixed in such a way that it’s often very hard to understand clearly. Now look... I get it. This is exactly what Nolan intends. His whole conceit is that if you were actually in these situations in reality, you wouldn’t be able to hear everything. So, in his mind, mixing his films like this adds to the realism. And I’ll admit: It certainly worked for me in Nolan’s Dunkirk (a film I’ve reviewed here on The Bits in 4K and which I believe is a masterpiece). But here’s the problem: If I really were in those situations—and my life depended on being able to understand the people around me—not being able to would piss me off. And I would most certainly not be having a good time. So achievement unlocked. But in my actual reality as a cinephile, when I’m watching a puzzle-box movie and my mind is straining for clues, not being able to understand the Goddamn dialogue pulls me right out of my immersion in the film. I finally had to put on the English subtitles, which actually made me laugh out loud; more than once a character said something on screen and the text was: [Indistinct.] Sorry, but that’s an epic sound mixing failure for my money. Still, the dynamics are impressive, the soundstage is expansively large for a 5.1 mix without overhead channels, panning is smooth and immersive, and the bass is firm but somewhat overpowering. This mix certainly does not lack for bombastics. Your appreciation of it will vary. Additional audio options include English Descriptive Audio, French (Quebec Dubbed), Italian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Czech, Hindi, Polish Voice-Over, and Thai all in 5.1 Dolby Digital, plus German Audio Description for the Blind in 2.0 Dolby Digital, and French and German in 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Optional subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, two forms of Chinese, Cantonese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, and Thai.
There are no extras on either the 4K disc or the included movie-only Blu-ray, but you also get a second Blu-ray that adds the following (all in HD):
- Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of TENET (13 chapters – 75:22 in all)
- Teaser Trailer (1:12)
- Trailer 2 (2:16)
- Trailer 3 (3:00)
- Trailer 4 (3:13)
Now, that doesn’t seem like a lot of content, but it’s nice to have the trailers included and the documentary is actually pretty great. While it isn’t the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes piece you’ll ever see, it’s thoughtful and covers virtually every aspect of the production effort that you’d want to see touched upon. All of the key players are given a chance to weigh in. The documentary is actually compelling enough—and illuminating enough—that it made me want to watch the film a second time, something I didn’t feel like doing initially. And that’s no small achievement. Note that you also get a Digital Code on a paper insert.
In the end, I guess I admired TENET more than I actually liked it—a feeling I experienced with Nolan’s Interstellar as well. The film is exceedingly clever, but never profound. It’s like playing a game of Twister on the noisy flight deck of an aircraft carrier with someone you barely know, then playing the exact same game again in reverse. And it’s just about as much fun as that description makes it sound. Which is to say… kinda. But it might be a film that I grow to appreciate more with time. It certainly looks great in 4K. And it sounds exactly the way Christopher Nolan wants it to. (You’ll have to make your own call as to whether that’s a good thing or not.) TENET is in no way a bad film. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially on physical Ultra HD. But I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone other than Nolan fans. I think this director’s legendary reach, while laudable, exceeded his grasp a little bit here. But I’m sure glad he keeps on reaching.
- Bill Hunt