Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
I don't know if there was another film this year more freighted with expectation than Tenet. Just to start with, it was the new Christopher Nolan movie—which is, on its own, always something of an event—but more than that, it was (I believe) the only original live-action movie in its budgetary class to have been released even before the schedule was hollowed out by the plague. It was always intended as a coup against the status quo: an auteur director's bid to do something new for once, instead of just rehashing the old shit for the hundredth time. (That Nolan's "something new" was a film that can be pitched so succinctly—"a Daniel Craig-era Bond, but, also, time travel"—that you'd spend the rest of your elevator ride with the producers in thoughtful silence is not as important, I suppose, as the absence of franchise branding.) When that plague did hit, however, and 2020's other would-be blockbusters were sent into stategic retreat, Tenet was invested with an even greater responsibility: to serve as a champion for the continued viability of theaters altogether in the face of COVID-19. It didn't really work out, but ever since I've been awfully curious to see if Tenet justified killing people. Unsurprisingly, it does not. But in pushing Warners to release it into theaters and encouraging audiences to aerosolize their fluids in an enclosed space together, I guess at least Christopher Nolan got to achieve what I presume has become his life's ambition, which was to be become a raving megalomaniac.
This probably makes me seem biased against Tenet, or Nolan—or perhaps even you, dear reader, because unless you waited till this past week, or saw the super-spreader event of September at a drive-in, well, yes, I'm afraid that you also did a bad—but, nevertheless, I had some pretty high hopes for it as a piece of spectacle and/or art. To some degree these were even met; buying it blind on 4K, as a way to support Warners and Nolan despite it all, is not something that I necessarily regret. Yet in a better world, I don't think I'd have had any especially keen need to physically own a movie that will, in due course, show up on HBOMax whether its maker wants it to or not. It is an unsatisfying movie in many ways, but this is distinct from unsatisfactory.
I cannot, in conscience, weigh in on one of the actual controversies that Tenet occasioned, regarding its sound mix—somehow, when it came to Tenet, what humans in 2020 decided to talk about was not "the sound mix is blasting waves of virus into my mucous membranes" but "the sound mix was loud and disorienting" (and, lest I become tedious, I promise that's my very last scolding)—because, at home, it sounds perfectly fine. This is closely allied, however, to the other controversy about Tenet, which in précis would be along the lines of "Tenet is a confusing Goddamned mess, and every time they try to explain it, I couldn't hear it." I can weigh in on this, and I can sympathize with this reaction even if I don't agree with it. I don't think it's just because I had access to closed captions, either, insofar as when Tenet does try to explain itself, it almost invariably makes it worse.
I think folks are talking past each other a little bit on the issue: there are two kinds of ways Tenet could be confusing, and as regards the first, on the level of its general plot, it's almost as non-confusing as a plot could be. Hence I doubt anybody who ever expressed their confusion toward it was ever confused about what the stakes were, or what was happening, because the stakes are the world, and what's happening is downright disappointingly basic: an evil Bond villain has evil plans, the heroes have to stop him, and sometimes there is time travel. There's one time travel-based "twist," and it prompts a "hm, yes, that checks out, I like that" kind of reaction, rather than the more mind-blowing "holy shit, Angier is a madman" or "could Cobb still be in a dream?" ending that one might prefer. (Even Interstellar's ending seems to be trying harder.) There are some other turns, here and there, though my best guess is that Nolan actually expects you to get ahead of the characters on those. Mostly, then, it's just fighting the bad guys, breaking into locked rooms, and getting tortured and talking your way out of it, with some sci-fi concepts overlaid. Honestly, the most confusing part of Tenet's plot—again, generally; it can be a little pell-mell in the specifics—doesn't even have anything to do with the sci-fi. Rather, it's whatever the hell the logistics were of our main guy surviving his first scene, which are rendered extremely vague.
But there's the other way that Tenet can be confusing, because those sci-fi concepts pull so much focus that it really can be hard to pay attention to anything else. In a sense, Tenet barely wants you to pay attention to anything else, because it is, fundamentally, a gimmick. It's a good gimmick, at least, one that Nolan (both as director and, on this go-round, as sole screenwriter) builds up to with a lot of enjoyable mystery. This, of course, is so-called inversion, a bizarre phenomenon that our erstwhile CIA operative (John David Washington) runs into over the course of a mission gone pear-shaped at the Kyiv Opera House to grab a package of plutonium before it falls into the wrong hands. Having proven himself willing to die for the greater good, he's given entrée into a much stranger world than the one he knew. His key is a code word, or perhaps a name: "Tenet." It's here that he learns what inversion is: the process of sending an object backwards through time, not by conventional time travel but by turning it around so that it runs in the opposite direction—this is demonstrated when he's shown a piece of masonry with bullets lodged into it, asked to pick up a gun, and finds the bullets leap back into the barrel—and he determines to plumb the depths of a secret war being waged by the future against the present. He's given a partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson), who claims, by virtue of having a Ph.D. in physics, to actually understand this, and together they make their way to the future's agent in the present, Russian arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh), by way of his isolated and loveless wife, Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki). And that's when they realize that the world is in greater danger than they ever knew, but to stop Sator they'll have to follow him back in—backwards through—time, before he can complete a diabolical weapon and finish the dreadful mission the future has given him.
"Russian gangster plots to acquire a superweapon in order to blow up the world, and the good guys have to save the day." If anything, it's too boilerplate to be anything but faintly embarrassed by, and the parts that try not to be boilerplate don't even help: for some reason, Nolan thought the best way to give his villain a vulnerability was to cobble together a strangely brittle marital drama that is played with just enough nuance and damaged psychology by both Branagh and Debicki—incredibly, Branagh even keeps his accent reined in—that it only emphasizes what cardboard their "cartoon domestic abuser" and "long-suffering mother" characters are made out of. (Thought experiment: try to imagine these two dating in the first place.) It's also the most salient expression of a certain dourness that courses throughout the picture—this is why when one says it's "like a Bond movie," one absolutely should add "Daniel Craig-era" to that—and it's not entirely clear that a movie about dudes fighting backwards and the like benefits from elements like "spousal abuse" and "the toll being a CIA man takes on your soul." It at least cracks a smile sometimes: Pattinson, for the first time in possibly ever, feels like he's having fun with a part, and the eagerness with which Neil runs around on this adventure is what they call "irony"; meanwhile, Washington does the strongest work in the film, mostly just by anchoring it to something sympathetic, but also by imposing at least some personality onto a character who's almost a complete tabula rasa, most effectively when the script allows him to express a certain detached, working-class amusement at the world of Bondian lifestyle porn that duty has thrust him into.
It does leave us with a fairly dry tale, though, and to the extent it tries to find emotional hooks in all sorts of places—with Debicki and Branagh, with Debicki and Washington, with Washington and Branagh—Washington and Pattinson is the only pair who work, because theirs is the only relationship that isn't based on flat declamations of personal philosophy or sullen enmity (rather, it's about exposition, but you take what you can get), and the rest of it is transparently about stringing together certain necessary plot points that will eventually allow Nolan to spend the back half of the film playing with the ideas that really interest him, none of which have much to do with the human objects he's established. Or not established, despite the 150 minutes we spend with them: it's not even the thing about the movie that's the most video game-like, but you probably noticed that Washington's character doesn't have a name. There's a fine tradition of nameless protagonists in movies, but they are not usually referred to as "The Protagonist" in dialogue. Tenet does this, in part because I think Tenet fancies itself some exploration of narrative structure and a hero's journey, and in part because Nolan's screenwriting has just decayed incredibly badly over the past decade or so.
Which is a lot of words to say what the movie's not about, but Tenet spends a great deal of time not being about what it's about. So what it is about, on the one hand, is a fair amount of extremely impressive Bond-not-Bond stunts, as channeled through Nolan's love of big, practical setpieces that bear down upon you in their weighty realism. On the other, it's about Nolan's love for manipulating the flow of time, taken to pretty much its utmost and even most broken extreme.
The former is excellent enough you kind of wish he'd split the project, put his time stuff in a genuinely heady sci-fi film, and just done his Bond knockoff with a more agreeable screenplay and the exact same craftspeople: while Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography captures the size of all those setpieces in crystalline 70mm and IMAX, Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame power right through the footage with the kind of invisible grace that lets them strike with Nolan's customary matter-of-fact bluntness, but also with an elegance that Nolan's action has rarely managed in the past—there is a heist in the middle here that feels like the ultimate Nolan setpiece in a way, in which our protagonist comes up with a plan that is clever but also, fundamentally, just the most gorgeously-applied brute force. Nolan and Lame also bring distracting twitchiness to several dialogue scenes, but, happily, the balance favors their almost impressionistic take on the spy thriller—there is not a little bit of M:I—Fallout in this (also in the film's self-importance, unfortunately)—and while that's driven in part by the cutting, it might owe even more to that much-despised sound mix, which permits significant stretches of the film to pass effectively dialogue-free while the audio is swallowed up instead by bangs, booms, and, above all, Ludwig Goransson's very extraordinary score, a tense work of structured noise that sometimes resembles Daft Punk and sometimes comes off as anti-music entirely, and is probably the most avant-garde score for a blockbuster I've ever heard.
The fun with time, of course, is what Tenet was sold on, and there may be less of it than you'd think, and also some of it is not necessarily great: the final setpiece, involving armies of NPCs moving backwards and forwards across time is big and loud and imposing, but also chaotic and anonymous and not even trying to be easy to follow, or interesting. More frequently, however, "not being easy to follow"—that is, confusing!—is maybe even the point, or at least something like the point: Nolan's big idea here is one of the few genuinely new things in action cinema in decades, and I half-wonder if "action cinema" was even the right context for it. It is cool, but it's more uncanny: it feels incorrect and uncomfortable, and when it pops up you become hyperfocused on how eye-violatingly wrong it is. There is a horror movie version of Tenet just dying to get out, but I think Nolan, who had to think all this through—and hence I imagine he demystified it for himself a bit—could see only the coolness. It is, in any event, productive; it never stops being weird as fuck. It raises questions that are never asked—for example, "what if he fires the gun again?"—while answering questions that have no bearing on anything, like when an extra explains that physical contact with your past self would cause annihilation, which is some serious bullshit to set up and never pay off, especially considering how it (like all the "physics" of Tenet) rests on what seems like an inattentive viewing of half an episode of PBS Space Time and a vague pop awareness of what "CPT transformations" are. I'm frankly kinda bummed the Protagonist doesn't come out the turnstile left-handed. (For some reason, it's the "reversed heat exchange" crap that makes me the crabbiest: it's in service of pure contrivance, but if you take the notion seriously, our dude is dead within like ten minutes.)
It also never really becomes anything besides a gimmick: there's a half-formed theme about the interaction between fate and free will, and considering the movie is about the exploration of a block universe from two sides, this functions better than anything else; there is a conversation 135 minutes into the film about the motivations of the antagonistic future, ecological catastrophe and all that, that brings up quandaries that Tenet has not come close to earning the right to discuss, and serves mainly as a reminder that this (again) two-and-a-half-hour film is crying out desperately for a much more elaborate mythology than it receives. (I was downright shocked that the Sators' son remains a pure maguffin for the spouses to struggle over the entire time, and was never revealed to be the instigator of the future's war upon the past. The film also discusses distinct time travel paradigms to explain why the future's even bothering with its own past, and these differing opinions seem like they'd have been resolved one way or the other, pretty much the exact instant inversion was invented, and, insofar as it's time travel, long before.)
This is part of the film's disappointment, because Nolan's filmography is full of gimmicks, but they've always pointed toward grander, and yes, genuinely humane ideas, from the sensation of a neverending present tense in Dunkirk to the inward pull of fantasy in Inception. Hell, even the supreme nonsense of Interstellar has heart. But Tenet also creates some of the most alienating and strange visions imaginable, on top of some genuinely awesome spy thriller action, so even if it offers nothing else, is that really not enough? I mean, not enough to die for, but I'd recommend the movie.
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