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Tenet: Reconsidering Christopher Nolan’s Whirligig of Time

Image: Warner Bros.

“There are many events in the womb of time which will be deliver’d,” says Shakespeare’s Iago. One such occurrence might be a fair hearing for Tenet.

I rarely feel compelled to step up to the plate for films of this scale, but this strangest of would-be blockbusters was doomed to appear in the strangest of seasons. Was this movie a failure? Measured by box office take, it was a failure. Film critics called it a failure. My friends thought it sucked. Personally, I love an underdog.

After being denied the chance to catch it on the big screen (a trip to the West End’s Prince Charles Cinema was going to be mine and Sara’s second date before lockdown bit anew, scrambling our sense of time all over again), we eventually rented it via Amazon. My flatmate Nick and his girlfriend Emma were as perplexed as they were unimpressed, but Sara and I were eager to watch it again. I thrilled at its imperfections, its opacities, and its singularly minatory vision.

Image: Warner Bros.

That was in April of 2021. Recently we got to watch it again, this time on Blu Ray. I emerged from the experience even fonder of the movie, but also more attuned to its flaws. Will they prove forever fatal?

Let’s be upfront and get the movie’s problems out of the way. Some of these are native species, and some are new discoveries. Nolan’s cinematic universe is, for better and worse, unmistakable. His films are onyx labyrinths, worlds of black steel inhabited by grey-suited loners. In Tenet his well-tailored humourlessness has been pushed to the Nth degree — see how he cast John David Washington for his looks and poise rather than his comic timing — as has his reliance on expositional dialogue.

Also, it hardly needs pointing out that Nolan’s directing of action sequences has never been a model of clarity; as Jim Emerson noted in a controversial video-essay on The Dark Knight, the problem is spatio-temporal. And that’s before Nolan throws the headache of “inverted entropy” into the mix. All three of these points are undeniable, yet there are rejoinders to be made.

Image: Warner Bros.

Let’s look at how this movie sits at the tail-end of Nolan’s career to date. (I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what his Oppenheimer is going to be like. A leading role for Cillian Murphy? A return to honest-to-God acting for Robert Downey Jr.? A new Ludwig Göransson score? I’m seeing nothing to dislike.) In retrospect, the one-two misstep of The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar looks like a creative crisis for the writer-director, particularly coming after his unbroken run of knockout crowd-pleasers: Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception. Truly, the back half of the 2010s belonged to Nolan.

But then came the weakest of his Batman movies, in which the caped crusader’s lumbering fistfights with Bane were a witless synecdoche of the whole affair. Even more damaging was the lazy storytelling; I’d take the massive confusions of Tenet over that movie’s smaller but more irritating narrative fudges. Then came Interstellar, which I’ve resented as much as any movie I’ve ever seen. With its predictable paradoxes and jaw-droppingly stupid love-will-save-the-day idealism, it’s the only movie in Nolan’s filmography that was embarrassing to watch. Its apocalyptic scenario was also one of the limpest I’ve ever seen — or, rather, not seen. The earth is supposedly being starved by crop failure and choked by desertification, but it’s as though the impeccably fastidious Nolan couldn’t bear to get any dust on his lens. And he was evidently so unconvinced by his own dramatic stakes that he felt compelled to throw in that whole Matt Damon business.

Image: Warner Bros.

Now Dunkirk I need to revisit, but it was clearly a way out of the cul-de-sac Nolan had found himself in. Its experiment in calibrating variable rates of time’s passing struck me as a solution in search of a problem, as though he felt compelled to place some unique accent upon what would otherwise have been a thrillingly austere war feature. We can discern the thinking that would lead to Tenet, and I mean this in another regard. We should have seen it coming as soon as it was announced that Washington would be playing a character known only as Protagonist. Nolan was doubling down on Dunkirk’s abandonment of rounded character. In both films, I’d argue, it served him nicely.

That he’s the Protagonist is pretty much all that we get to know about our main man. His steely professionalism is the same that characterises all of Nolan’s leading men, and the flashes of sass and rectitude that his creator allows him are all standard issue. He’s given nothing like Bruce Wayne’s Oedipal intensity, the duelling narcissisms of Angier and Borden, or the paternal agonies of Cobb and Cooper. In only one of these cases are the agonies of the agonist incommensurate with the dramatic stakes.

For all of Nolan’s championing of 2001: A Space Odyssey (I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the restored print that he spearheaded), he failed to learn an important lesson from Kubrick: namely that personality doesn’t amount to a hill of beans before the vastness of eternity. By foregrounding Cooper’s family drama — and now that I think about it, leveraging temporal relativity to turn his movie into a tragedy of an absent father is a mawkish touch straight out of Spielberg — he made Interstellar into an uncomfortable space opera when he should have been going for hard sci-fi. Love makes us lose perspective, and in the case of his worst movie it made Nolan forget that we are less than dust on the cathedral floor of the universe.

Reflecting less on theme, Interstellar disappointed because its dramatis personae wasn’t up to the director’s usual touch. The movie left me feeling short changed because it kept behaving as if it had succeeded in hooking me on the level of personnel engagement. His previous successes were densely populated with vivid personalities. There’s no-one in that film like an Eames or a Cutter, let alone any of Batman’s allies. Something clearly went awry up there in outer space, so Nolan cast old methods out the airlock before returning to Earth and going to war.

Image: Warner Bros.

As General George Patton once put it: “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavour shrink to insignificance.” Yes, that feels right; it feels like the lesson that Nolan applied in Dunkirk, which improves on his previous feature by not even attempting the depiction of rounded personality. I haven’t seen that film since the cinema, and glancing at its credits now is a meaningless experience. It’s nothing but a list of names. That feels appropriate, because the characters are nothing but their dramatic situations. Call it the anti-Gravity approach: Nolan trusts that the perilous unfolding of military action is enough to hold our attention, that we don’t need the filigree of emotive backstory to guarantee our sympathies.

Which brings us up to Tenet. Built, like Inception, around a high-concept sci-fi hook, it riffs on espionage thrillers just as that other film styled itself as a heist feature. But where Inception’s concept licenses and rewards the foregrounding of its protagonist’s hang-ups and neuroses, Tenet insists on the obviation of mere character. This is partly an effect of its dramatic stakes, which make good on Interstellar’s fumbling of its apocalyptic theme, and mainly the natural consequence of its central conceit.

None of which is to say, however, that the movie makes the slightest bit of sense. And that, I think, is why I love it. Is this the most high-budget genre satire ever mounted? Could this movie be the most expensive joke to have never landed?

Clearly this is a film that can only be rewatched, which is different from a film which rewards rewatching. The latter sort is perfectly coherent on a first viewing, and prolonged acquaintance only deepens that initial good impression. The former presents difficulties which make a second attempt unlikely; audiences tend to resent movies that they have to have already watched. It’s the difference between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 21 Grams.

Image: Warner Bros.

Anyone who watches Tenet for its plot risks losing their mind. The distant memories of my first viewing didn’t help much. The opening sequence at the Kiev Opera House plunges you straight in with no explanation of its constituents’ objectives or the larger context and stakes. I frankly still don’t understand what mission the Protagonist thinks he’s on, nor what mission he’s actually on, nor what the fragment of the algorithm is doing in the opera house. But what’s unmistakeable is the craft on display.

An inverted bullet flies backwards out of a wall and the musical score starts backmasking itself; Nolan has struck up a beautiful new partnership with Göransson, whose Rolling Stone interview on their collaboration (see below) is well worth your time. Or look at the baffling but also beautiful trainyard scene, when the Protagonist is being held hostage by the opera house terrorists. Nolan’s compositions are usually flat and unexciting — visually speaking, he tends to be a one-thing-at-a-time kinda guy — but here we have the most dynamic and layered images he’s ever conjured. We may have no clue as to the stakes or situation, but we’re carried along. A new sense of visual excitement seems to be the correlate to a more elliptical approach to character and story.

When Tenet first appeared, many complained about its sound design and wondered aloud about the condition of Nolan’s hearing. And the dialogue that could be discerned came in for mockery. In both cases, matters of artistic volition have been mistaken for errors. Nolan may have his blind spots, hobby horses, and recurring tics, but one thing he isn’t is sloppy. After the Protagonist has been recruited by Tenet to avert future catastrophe, Clémence Poésy turns up as a scientist who, we expect, will provide some clarity. What follows is indeed an infodump, but a very peculiar one. Some sample dialogue, after the Protagonist has caught an upwards-falling bullet:

— Inverted. Its entropy runs backwards. You have to have dropped it.

— But cause comes before effect.

— Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Normally we bristle at such scenes because they spoon-feed us information. In this case — despite or perhaps because of how it’s played utterly deadpan, as if nothing were awry — we emerge more confused than before. Obscurity is this film’s stock-in-trade. We hurtle from set-piece to spectacular without ever being quite sure why. Whether it’s the infiltration of Priya’s compound or the Oslo freeport heist, Nolan’s previously overworked dialogue only supplies motivation after the fact. Playing with paradox allows him to invert the usual sequencing of espionage and action movies. When Robert Pattinson’s Neil — an exquisitely louche Our Man in Havana sort — turns out to know more than he’s letting on, it’s for reasons of temporal spy craft rather than bad faith.

Image: Warner Bros.

Even when viewed stone-cold sober, there’s something elusive about this movie; it’s as though you’ve missed something crucial in the first few seconds of each scene, never to be repeated. Because this is a Christopher Nolan movie, the characters talk, and talk, and talk — and we feel none the wiser. Details don’t accumulate so much as slip like sand through our fingers. I’m reminded of Inherent Vice, which is similarly but more amiably disobliging. If Paul Thomas Anderson’s shaggy dog story carries on as if it were stoned and induces that feeling in the viewer, Tenet plunges its audience into a K-hole of incomprehension.

If you doubt that this was deliberate (and arguably wilful) on Nolan’s part, look no further than the catamaran scene, in which crucial dialogue between the Protagonist and Kenneth Branagh’s Sator is drowned in surf and filtered through the fuzz of their face-mics. And this when the plot is meant to be thickening. Clearly, this movie wants us to feel like thwarted eavesdroppers.

Because Nolan is going out of his way to obscure situation and make muddy motivation, he’s pinning a lot on his big fights and shoot-outs. It’s a pyrrhic victory. “Final set-piece impressive but meaningless,” I wrote in my notebook. “More like a surrealist deconstruction of an action sequence.” Because they’re so well executed by the SFX team, we don’t exactly tire of seeing explosions in reverse; it’s very satisfying, watching a building reconstitute itself in gravity-defying fashion before expelling the ordnance that had brought it down. But since none but the most obsessive and meticulous freeze-framers could hope to make any sense of this time-scrambled delirium, all the rest of us can hope to do is tease out how this chaos emerges from the movie’s underlying ideas.

Let’s entertain the notion, floated by some wags, that Tenet is Nolan’s feature-length audition to helm a James Bond movie. Well, if that’s so then he’s made his case on the premise that such a film rises or falls on the back of its villain (notwithstanding that No Time to Die succeeded despite Rami Malek’s Safin being nothing but absence and tics). There’s not much to the Protagonist, unless we read such zingers like “Buy a guy a drink first” and “You British don’t have a monopoly on snobbery, you know” as Nolan deliberately swerving from Bondisms. And since Neil (anagram of Line? As in time is a scrambled . . . actually, never mind) is kept a charismatic enigma, it falls on Branagh’s glowering plutocrat to do the thematic muscle-work. In this sense he takes his place alongside Nolan’s Batman baddies.

Image: Warner Bros.

Andrei Sator made his fortune in the rubble of the future. What is the Russian oligarch class if not a kleptocratic cabal, stepping into the breach of Communism’s failed promises of a better future and then robbing the people of a brighter tomorrow? But Sator’s cynicism runs deeper than a mere drive towards self-enrichment; his curse is to see his time as bookended by mankind’s capacity for world-ending hubris.

He grew up in one of the Soviet closed cities. While the movie’s Stalsk-12 is fictional, it’s clearly modelled on Ozyorsk, aka City 40, the birthplace of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. This secret city was once home to a population of a hundred thousand; a string of plutonium production catastrophes turned it into one of the most contaminated zones on the planet. To a young Andrei, leading a hardscrabble existence that we would think of as postapocalyptic, the future must have always seemed like an absurd proposition.

We like to congratulate ourselves on having averted nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, but Sator sees with grim clarity what lies ahead: “Their oceans rose and their rivers ran dry.” Note the past tense. All that’s left to the inhabitants of this future is to flee the uninhabitable Earth through time travel. By designating Stalsk-12 as the spot where Sator shall return the all-important algorithm to them, the antagonists of the time war evince a sense of dark humour and poetic justice.

Image: Warner Bros.

And firstly, why is our man known only as Protagonist? Protos Agonistes: in Greek it means the first actor, competitor, sufferer. In classical tragedy the key action has already taken place — it was set in motion long ago by the folly of the agonist — and what we witness on stage is the final reckoning of time. The hero of Greek tragedy is not an autonomous individual. Critics are fond of calling Oedipus Rex the first detective story; I’d go further and call it the first postmodern detective story, in which the detective turns out to be the very pervert that he was hunting all along. Remind you of anyone?

At some point, in the murky hinterland of the future, the Protagonist got the ball rolling on this whole business. He comes to understand that he will go on to found the very organisation, Tenet, which recruited him right at the start of the movie. His destiny is to walk a path that he will have laid out for himself in advance.

Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

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Alexis Forss

Alexis Forss

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.