Features and Columns · Movies

What ‘Tenet’ Can Teach Us About the Limits of Exposition

For a director as dedicated to visuals as Christopher Nolan is, you’d think he’d be a little more into “show don’t tell.”
Tenet exposition
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on January 1st, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about how Christopher Nolan over-uses exposition in Tenet.

Exposition is kind of a dirty word. While peppering a film with explanatory dialogue isn’t inherently a bad thing, you do run into problems when it pulls audiences out of a story.

Which brings us to Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet. To put it as simply as possible, Nolan’s latest puzzle box is about preventing World War III with time travel. And, conservatively, every second line of dialogue in Tenet is exposition.

Now, Nolan is no stranger to challenging narrative frameworks. And when you’re wheeling and dealing in complex (and even incomprehensible) concepts, giving your audience opportunities to intuit things visually and emotionally can go a long way. The most compelling thing about Interstellars tesseract scene is not the expository dialogue breaking down how it works and why it exists. In fact, when that disruptive voice comes through on Cooper’s radio, insisting on explaining what’s going on, it actually cheapens the moment.

Nolan clearly cares about the power of showing rather than telling. He isn’t flipping semi-trucks through the streets of Chicago to save money. But in spite of his attention to the visual elements of filmmaking, Nolan has also (paradoxically) developed a reliance on exposition that, with Tenet, is starting to prove disastrous. It’s one thing to enjoy a film you don’t fully understand. It’s another thing entirely for a film to get lost in its own sauce.

The video essay below unpacks Nolan’s pattern of unmotivated and uninteresting exposition: from undercutting his own visual storytelling to outright replacing critical emotional stakes with cheap, hand-waving dialogue.

Watch “TENET – Nolan Has an Exposition Problem”:

Who made this?

This video essay was created by Virginia-based filmmaker and video editor Thomas Flight, who runs a YouTube channel under the same name. You can follow Thomas Flight and check out his back catalog of video essays on YouTube here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.