Some feel that TENET doesn’t work on many levels. I suggest that many but not all of its issues can be found in its screenplay. Because the screenplay doesn’t work, it’s actually highly informative because it tells screenwriters what not to do. Though screenwriting requisites are to some degree genre specific, there are essentials that a screenwriter needs to get right whatever the film genre. If we look at what TENET does wrong, then, we can find out what to do right.
The principle issue with the screenplay for TENET is its incoherence: the plot is extremely hard to understand. A comprehensible plot is vital if you are going to grab a film audience’s attention and hold it. All the other stuff can either help or hinder this comprehensibility. Stuff like cinematography, acting, set design, and most of all: editing. So if your film plot is tough to understand (and who found MISSION IMOSSIBLE: FALLOUT easy to understand, but who cares, right? It was a stunning looking thrill ride) but all the other stuff is amazing, more people might forgive the film makers’ narrative turgidity.
Still, though, why confuse people?
TENET was extremely confusing, and it was visually unimpressive. The cinematography, and visual and special effects would have been boring 20 years ago. This visual flatness further compounded the problem of the confusing plot. If TENET was astonishing visually, we might forgive it its plot turgidly; but it isn’t, so we can’t (though of course many do).
A plot that’s impossible to understand creates another problem: the all-important bond the audience must make with characters on-screen, and their relationships. TENET doesn’t give us multi-dimensional characters with relationships we can involve ourselves in; or if it tries to do so, the efforts are dashed upon the rocks of confusion (and a deafening and repetitive sound track, rather than a memorable orchestral theme, like other successful Nolan films).
Not caring what happens in a film because you can’t understand it, then, makes you less likely to care about the on-screen characters and their relationships. Audience buy-in, of course, is the screenwriter’s Holy Grail. In this respect, it can be said, TENET fails, too.
What do the film’s shortcoming tell screenwriters about what to get right then? It tells us: create a comprehensible plot that manifests a compelling story (compelling because it’s original in a good way, or familiar in a familiar way). Narrate that plot clearly, giving an audience enough to keep them interested, but not enough to spoon-feed them into boredom. Have that plot changed by characters we can care about who are themselves changed (the beats) by the plot. Don’t have characters do silly things with sunscreen, or make them talk the audience into a stupor about things they can’t or don’t want to understand because they don’t care. Get your science right, or (better) leave hard science out of your story; because getting it wrong (and thus creating a comedy you weren’t intending to create) can make you, the film maker, look silly or (in my opinion) worse, pretentious. Don’t mess with timelines unless you absolutely have to, and then do so minimally, and avoid flashbacks if you can. It can all get very confusing very quickly, and there are limits to how much work a film maker should make an audience do without risking their disengagement. Keep things concise and pacey – especially if you are creating a thriller or action feature film: if people want verbiage they can go to the theatre and watch a stage play – stage plays are all about dialogue (tell, don’t show); whereas films are all about actions and reactions that show but don’t tell.
TENET, then, can be seen as a very useful film for screenwriters at any stage of their career. It can tell us what not to do, and therefore tell us what to get right.