The 1 Reason Inception's Confusing Plot Worked (But Tenet's Didn't)
Christopher Nolan‘s Inception works in spite of its confusing plot, while Tenet fails as a result of the same issue. Nolan worked on the screenplay for Inception for nine years, originally planning the project as a horror movie about dream stealers before finally selling it to Warner Bros. in its sci-fi-heist-thriller form. He diligently took his time rewriting the Inception script over and over to ensure that its main character’s “emotional journey…was the driving force of the movie” (via Collider).
A decade after making Inception, Nolan took another stab at making a cerebral sci-fi thriller with Tenet. He spent over five years writing its script before he began pre-production on the film, though he claims to have dwelled over the idea for over a decade. Upon its release in 2020, Tenet was praised for Nolan’s use of practical special effects and its action sequences, even winning an Academy Award for the former. But it was heavily criticized for its story.
Inception and Tenet are both high-concept sci-fi films, but the reasons why Inception still endures today and why Tenet failed have to do with their characters. By Nolan’s own admission, Inception‘s focus was always on Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his struggles as a person, while Tenet‘s characters are mainly used to give exposition to explain the convoluted plot to the audience. If someone doesn’t understand the plot of Inception, they can still understand the main character’s struggle and still want to see Cobb reunited with his family. If they are lost while watching Tenet, though, there isn’t much else that the film offers.
Inception is heavily focused on learning more about its main character’s past as the film goes on. Cobb is haunted by his wife’s death and unable to return home because he has been falsely implicated in her death. The most impactful moments of the film are not the insane special effects shots, but rather the character moments where DiCaprio just gets to do what he does best: act. Cobb desperately wants to be with his children again, and throughout the film, it becomes easier and easier to root for him. The audience’s investment is largely in the characters and their motivations.
With Tenet, it’s hard to have a favorite character. Little is known about “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), not even his name, and the other characters seem to only provide the amount of exposition necessary to move the story forward. Where Inception was led by its strong characters, Tenet was too focused on a plot destined to lose people’s interest, and that’s why the latter ultimately falls short with its own intricate storytelling.