Skip to main content

Culture Movies

<em>Tenet</em>’s unsound track

(Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Movie

Tenet’s unsound track

Messy audio mix, nebulous plot make the sci-fi thriller a laborious big-screen event

Cinephiles familiar with the work of Christopher Nolan know the writer-director has a burden for brain-bogglers. It took a second viewing of his 2010 film Inception—winner of four Oscars, including two for best sound mixing and best sound editing—for me to make some sense of its dream-within-a-dream framework. 

Nolan’s new mind-bending, time-rending film Tenet proved to be an even more frustrating affair for my first trip back into a movie theater since COVID-19 put the kibosh on indoor big-screen outings. The film’s sound design, of all things, was the culprit.

For starters, almost all the characters have British or Russian accents, a tough assignment for American ears. Can’t blame Nolan for that, though. Also, numerous verbal exchanges occur behind speech-muffling oxygen masks. That’s ironic, given that filming was completed months before the pandemic hit, but necessary to the story. Inexplicably, however, the pounding soundtrack drowns out many conversations. The messy audio mix bothered other film critics, too. Adding it all up, I missed half the dialogue. Viewers might consider waiting until Tenet arrives on streaming platforms to watch it with subtitles.

Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Nolan also offers few clues for mapping the film’s perplexing plot. The basic idea, per a drop of clarity late in the film (no spoiler here), goes like this: Someone from the future has sent a device back through time and hidden it. This device reverses an object’s trajectory through space and time. Unforgivably, my future self neglected to ship a subtitle-enhanced copy of Tenet back through time to assist present-day me in deciphering the film. But here’s what I could piece together.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment

(Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

The Protagonist—as the end credits name him, played by John David Washington—is a CIA agent tasked with tracking down the “entropy inverting” technology. An arms dealer in Mumbai tells him he must find a billionaire Russian arms dealer by the name of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). A British intelligence agent (Robert Pattinson) helps the Protagonist, advising him to make the connection through Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who lives in fear of her husband. Nasty villain, chill hero, the fate of the world in the balance: standard thriller stuff with a commendably nonstandard amount of offensive material. Rated PG-13, the film has largely bloodless violence, little sensuality, and infrequent bad language—as far as I could hear.

The spectacular visual effects pop on the big screen. The Protagonist bungee plunges at night from a Mumbai high-rise. An Audi SUV speeding in reverse chases a BMW down a highway. A time-flipped bullet is sucked back into a gun as a pane of glass unshatters, and a collapsed building reassembles. Two men moving through time in opposite directions engage in hand-to-hand combat. In the finale, two allied squads of soldiers descend on an abandoned Soviet city. One fights forward through time, while the other engages the enemy entirely in backward motion. The seamless on-screen blending of the two time frames is quite remarkable to watch.

Making sense of the film is another thing altogether.

“Don’t try to understand it,” a scientist tells the Protagonist early in the film. “Feel it.” That’s probably good advice for viewers, too.