Tenet

At some point in the last decade, Christopher Nolan became known as a purveyor of experiences. Not movies, not stories, but immersive sensory extravaganzas that one must delve into completely unprepared, or risk losing some ineffable quality that can never be regained. It's hard to pinpoint when this transformation occurred—it doesn't seem to have been in place for Inception, which was marketed rather plainly as a movie about a team who conduct heists in people's dreams. But that film, and especially its reception as a philosophical text, seem to have been the tipping point. The increasing weaponization of FOMO, through which Hollywood has learned to market as unmissable, go-in-knowing-nothing experiences even those movies that could easily have been sold on the strength of their plot, also played a part. Which is how we arrived at 2020, a year in which nobody should even consider spending two hours in a closed, climate-controlled room with two hundred strangers, and found Nolan and his distributors insisting that this is nevertheless what we must do. Not just for the sake of movie theaters, but for the experience.

All of this would be strange enough—a millionaire filmmaker, whose catalogue already includes one entry associated with a mass-death event, urging his fans to risk their and other people's lives in order to save an industry that his billionaire bosses could have stepped in and bailed out at any time is so 2020. But when people actually ventured out to see Tenet, their primary reaction was "what? What was that? What did he say? I couldn't catch it!" A $200M, must-see-it-in-theaters experience, it turned out, had a less intelligible sound mix than your average Tiktok video, the blaring soundtrack repeatedly overpowering the dialogue. In my first viewing of the movie, only one out of every three or four utterances was intelligible.

Of course, this sort of thing doesn't happen by accident. Nolan is known for overbearing sound mixes, and has spoken repeatedly about his indifference to complaints about inaudible dialogue. This Hollywood Reporter interview quotes him, in response to complaints about the sound mix in Interstellar, arguing that "I don't agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound". And in a reddit AMA last year, Nolan's sound editor, Richard King, tried to explain the philosophy underpinning the garbled, incomprehensible mixes he's produced:

Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one. Like punk rock music, it's a full-body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette ... He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience. If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix.
I hope it doesn't need to be said that this is nonsense. Not the basic idea, that is. Of course dialogue isn't the only way to convey ideas and emotion in a filmed presentation. There is no shortage of films and TV series where there is minimal dialogue, no dialogue, or dialogue that is irrelevant. There is no shortage of films and TV series whose import is conveyed through visuals, music, sound effects, or performance. And there is no shortage of films and TV series that successfully bring across complex SFnal concepts using little or no dialogue. (Off the top of my head, Twin Peaks: The Return does all of these things exceptionally well.) But Christopher Nolan does not write those kinds of movies. He is a moderately clever writer and always good for a bit of spectacle, but he has never created a work that didn't rely, for its effect, on the audience being able to follow at least the basics of its plot, and he has never conveyed those basics through anything except dialogue. 

Tenet is actually a fairly convoluted story whose stakes are sufficiently nebulous that you need a firm grip on its characters in order to actually care about anything happening on screen. And the way in which the film establishes both of those things, story and characters, is through dialogue. The effect when you find yourself unable to follow the dialogue is thus not "being grabbed by the lapels and pulled towards the screen". It's alienation, frustration, and boredom. Eventually, it's the urge to look at your phone. The technique that Nolan keeps telling us is a purer, better way to experience cinema in fact ends up neutering his films of all effect, reducing them to a string of well-executed set-pieces in which it is impossible to become emotionally invested.

I've prefaced my review of Tenet with this discussion of sound mixes, projection standards, and the philosophy of storytelling because there are, in fact, two Tenets. The first is the film as its creator intended it to be seen, an incoherent, hard-to-follow mess that is all the more frustrating for Nolan's insistence that it's your fault for not enjoying it, because you were watching it wrong. The second is the one you can watch in your living room, with subtitles, volume control, a rewind button, and the ability to go back and rewatch tricky scenes or even the whole movie—a perfect pandemic pastime, in other words. That movie is near the top tier of Nolan's filmography, probably the best he's made since The Dark Knight. When I write about Tenet in this review, I'm going to be talking about the second version of the film, because it is that movie that excites and delights me and is interesting enough to talk about. But even as I'm doing that, I think it's important to remember that Christopher Nolan deliberately mutilated that movie, creating a significantly lesser version of it, all because Hollywood convinced him that he's good at making experiences.

Tenet stars John David Washington as a nameless CIA agent (dubbed "Protagonist" in the credits, which will no doubt kickstart the same discussions we've been having since at least Inception, about how all of Nolan's writing is ultimately about the craft of writing) who is recruited into the titular top secret project, dedicated to preventing a world-destroying menace so secret, even the man who recruits him doesn't know the full extent of it. The first half of the film proceeds as a fairly standard espionage thriller, with the typical Nolan-esque trappings. Which is to say: handsome but muted, somewhere between the lifestyle-porn excess of a Bond movie, and the grit and grime of a Bourne movie. Washington wears well-cut but unflashy suits, travels to interesting but not consciously exotic locations, and spends at least some time in basements and the backs of vans. Along the way, he accumulates a team, the most prominent of whom is Robert Pattinson, who, like Tom Hardy in Inception, plays the louche, queer-coded but not explicitly queer, fun member of the team, the better to bounce off Washington's stolidness. Before long, the film delivers up A Villain—Kenneth Branagh as Sator, a Russian arms dealer—and A Woman—Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, Sator's abused wife, whom Washington recruits with the promise of helping her escape with her young son.

So far, so conventional, but woven through these early scenes is the film's core SFnal concept, the idea that it is possible, through technological means, to reverse (or, as the film puts it, invert) an object or even a person's direction of movement through time. Tenet is impressively good at gradually easing us into what is, after all, a highly unintuitive concept. It starts small—a bullet that whooshes past Washington's face in the film's opening scene, out of the hole it made in the wall and into the muzzle of a nearby gun—and then slowly adds more elements. Searching for leverage on Sator in a storage facility in Oslo, Washington and Pattinson come across a turnstile, a machine for inverting one's movement through time. The doors open, and two men emerge, fighting our heroes on their way out of the building. It's only in the next scene that someone explains to us that these were both the same man, moving forward through time out of one of the machine's openings, and backwards through time into the other.

In other words, Tenet is working with the same idea already used to such tremendous effect in Shane Carruth's 2004 film Primer, the idea that time travel is still a matter of continuous motion, just in the opposite direction to the usual one. Instead of stepping into a box and emerging at whatever time and place you desire, you step into a box and are transformed, moving backwards instead of forwards, but still at the same speed. The big twist that Nolan makes on Carruth's idea, however, is that instead of sequestering themselves in a pod while they travel back in time, his characters can be out in the world. Which allows Tenet to tell a story whose characters are moving in two directions simultaneously. Protagonist lives through certain scenes, then reverses his movement through time and experiences them again from a different perspective. Characters can exist twice in the same time, moving in different directions. Interactions read one way when observed in normal time, and another way when seen in reverse.

(At this point I might be expected to recommend that you watch the challenging indie darling instead of the big-budget, explosion-heavy studio product. Carruth's second movie, Upstream Color, is even an example of how you can bring across complicated SFnal concepts through visuals and sound, and using minimal dialogue. However, earlier this year Carruth revealed that his former partner, Amy Seimetz, had taken out a restraining order against him. That he made this revelation just days before Seimetz's own movie, She Dies Tomorrow, was released in theaters can only be taken as yet another act of violence against her. I find Christopher Nolan annoying, and his writing doesn't exactly champion women, but he isn't, as far as I know, a domestic abuser. So if you haven't seen Primer yet, watch Tenet instead.)

The result is a film that teaches you how to watch it as you watch it. The lynchpin of the movie is a car chase in pursuit of Sator and Kat, which ends with her critically wounded. To save her life, she has to be taken through the turnstile (a vague excuse is made for this in the form of "inverted radiation" that will kill you if you're hit with an inverted bullet). Our heroes accompany her, and the second half of Tenet thus becomes a journey back towards its beginning. The major set-piece of the first half of the movie is revisited in a way that fills in its missing pieces. Even then, the film isn't done upping the ante—the big battle at its end of the involves a "temporal pincer movement", with one team moving forwards into battle, and another team moving backwards out of it, both operating on a single battlefield, influencing each other in strange, brain-teasing ways. Tenet is—as you will probably have already heard, even though the veil of secrecy that surrounds experiences of its type—a cinematic palindrome, whose story doubles back on itself and ends where it began, but with both viewers and characters having learned to surrender linear thinking, and approach storytelling in a new and exciting way.

One of the reasons that I find Tenet so delightful is that it is, at long last, the movie everyone was telling me Inception was ten years ago. A mind-bending, challenging SFnal puzzler in the guise of a heist movie, featuring eye-popping, widescreen set-pieces that also force the audience to readjust our understanding of narrative. But where Inception was dull, airless, and not nearly as clever as it pretended to be, Tenet is the real deal. Not only is its storytelling genuinely smart and challenging, but it actually manages to thread the needle between being a thoroughly plot-driven exercise whose characters are merely the engines moving that story along, and imbuing those characters with enough humanity to make us care for them and root for their success. Washington, for example, plays a nearly personality-free everyman whose main purpose is to advance through the plot and operate as an audience stand-in as he learns the rules of the film's world. It's a role that requires him to tamp down the charisma he's shown off in films like BlacKkKlansman, where his character seemed to take up extra space in the room. And yet he's never less than appealing, exuding intelligence and determination, and sparking delightfully with Pattinson.

At the same time, the comparison with Inception also throws into sharper relief some fundamentally Nolan-ish problems that Tenet can't entirely overcome. Kat, for example, is somewhat hilariously almost the exact same character Debicki played in her breakout role in the 2016 Tom Hiddleston miniseries The Night Manager, as if Nolan had just decided to lean into the accusation that he doesn't know how to write for women, and opted to copy someone else's work. Except that Kat is actually a less psychologically complex character than The Night Manager's Jed, who was complicit in her husband's illegal activities, conflicted about motherhood, and nowhere near as heroic as Kat ends up being. And someone must have mentioned to Nolan that the stakes in Inception were a bit hard to get worked up over, so in Tenet he raises them to the rafters—not only is Sator a supremely hissable villain, casually terrorizing his wife and dropping over-obvious lines such as "if I can't have you, no one can!", but it turns out that he's working with people from the future to invert the entire world, which would cause a world-destroying apocalypse. (Kat, upon learning that her husband's plan will kill everyone on the planet, makes sure to remind us: "including my son!" Hmmm, maybe Nolan has a point about dialogue.) The thrills and puzzles of the final battle scene don't entirely conceal the fact that it is a McGuffin hunt, with Protagonist, Neil, and their team scrambling to gain hold of a particular widget (an assemblage of vaguely mechanical-looking parts dubbed "the algorithm") whose world-destroying capabilities can be released through the simple expedient of, um, blowing it up.

By over-egging the pudding in this manner, Nolan draws attention to the fact that as satisfying and interesting as Tenet is, it isn't ultimately about anything. This is perennial problem with Nolan's movies, and a flipside of his fondness for stories about storytelling. Right before the end of the movie, for example, Sator drops a bombshell. The reason the future wants to destroy us, he tells Protagonist, is that we left them no other choice. We poisoned their world and rendered it uninhabitable. With no option to go forward, they had to go back, to take our world from us and make it theirs. It's a shocking moment that the film does absolutely nothing with. Sator dies moments after delivering this revelation. Protagonist shrugs it off and, as is his wont, keeps moving. The film's epilogue has nothing to say about it, even as it reveals that Protagonist is going to establish an organization dedicated to fighting future terrorism. One might almost take it as a commentary on how the security state focuses myopically on the specific problem in front of it, without stopping to consider that its actions as a whole are ultimately creating that problem. But really, it's just a storytelling kludge that Nolan came up with because he found a hole in his plot and needed to plug it, much like Kat revealing that Sator is OK with his own death because he's already dying of cancer, which surely obviates her desperate need to get herself and her son away from him.

This is, perhaps, the only way in which it is correct to describe Nolan as a purveyor of experiences, though it isn't really a compliment. Tenet is thrilling for how it forces you to figure out how to watch it, but once you've done that, and once the film has folded back in on itself, what's left? There's been a thread of this running through most of Nolan's career—his best movies, Memento and The Prestige, both ended with the unraveling of a mystery that, even as it exhilarated you with its cleverness, also left a sour taste in your mouth. But the further he advances in his career, and the more enamored he becomes with the cinematic tools at his disposal, the less compelled he seems to be to say anything with them. Instead, he seems to be using them for the sheer pleasure of doing so. In Tenet's case, the result is certainly worth experiencing (though, again, only on your own terms, not Nolan's). But once the experience concludes, you find yourself wondering if we wouldn't all—the filmmaker as much as the audience—be better off if the myth of Christopher Nolan hadn't been allowed to get away from him.

Comments

Mr K said…
I saw this in a nearly empty cinema late at night to lower my risk and came out fairly underwhelmed.

Certainly the sound mix didnt help, but i think fundamentally the reversal concept made for bad action scenes. I found it impossible to understand the narrative of the reversed fights precisely because of their technical wizardry, and found the best scenes in the film to be those without any reverse nonsense at all: the nuclear heist was great for instance.

The final fight was i think just unforgivable, putting everyone in dull fatigues, the enemy almost not visible at all, it was just incredibly boring to watch.

I also did feel like the protagonists lack of motivation was a problem. He apparently risks everything to save the girl but i honestly didnt feel a connection between them
Artur Nowrot said…
I would very slightly push back on Tenet not saying anything (although I kinda wish it wasn’t, because what it is saying is pretty reprehensible to me). At first it seems to be a movie about fighting a nihilistic past (embodied by Sator) to ensure that there is a future. But then comes the reveal that Sator is working for a bitter future that wants to feed on the past. A charitable reading would be that envisioning the past as a golden age and striving to return there (as the future powers that be try to do) will always lead to atrocities.

But the Protagonist’s response is “Every generation fights for itself” and for me that makes Tenet an expression of social Darwinism (perhaps it could be seen as an expression of middle class anxieties, of being squeezed between super-wealthy oligarchs and a literally faceless masses that crave the little that you possess), as well as an abdication of responsibility, an evasion of being held accountable. It’s the generations that ruined the Earth telling Greta Thunberg: “Well, yeah, we’re responsible, but it doesn’t matter now, go save the planet!”

(It’s interesting how this movie inverts and complements Interstellar. There the future humans acted as a secular God, guiding the main character towards saving mankind once the Earth was ruined. Here the future humans, trying to save the Earth and continue to inhabit it, decide the best course of action is to annihilate the present humans.)
Aonghus Fallon said…
I doubt if I’ll see this movie. Nolan has a talent for taking ideas best suited to a short story format and producing some leaden monstrosity. You’re far better off checking out films like ‘The Endless’ or ‘Coherence’ imo (both of which are on Netflix).
S Johnson said…
For me, Inception faltered because it didn't have the DiCaprio and Murphy characters interact. The two characters suffering inception have plots that don't illuminate each other. Worse, the protagonist who does make a choice, Murphy's billionaire, is given short shrift. But when the DiCaprio character makes a choice, we have no clue why. This is especially true given the toying with the dramatic climax being DiCaprio's character choosing not to test whether he was in the "real" world. (The fact that the dream worlds were depicted as richer, more fulfilling, greater, more crammed than paltry reality was not a wise premise either I think.) You can read the story as saying that preferring the movies because they make you feel better is wisdom, I suppose.

For me, Tenet had the same problem. The Protagonist really only chooses to save the woman, which is supposed to be dramatically satisfying because, Elizabeth Debicki. She's always seemed competent to me and obviously attractive but her roles in Burnt Orange Heresy and Widows were more compelling and even Guardians of the Galaxy 2 were more compelling. (Sorry, Kettering Incident was unwatchable for me, The Night Manager I couldn't finish and The Crown I cannot conceive as a worthy subject.) So this is not just a weak motivation, but as the OP points out, the compelling decision to make is, what do you make of the future being a hellhole?

It's one thing to say you can't change the past, but to assume you can't change the future too? I think there's a deeply felt but unarticulated political/moral/theological conviction at work here.

(Seeing drama as being about decisions, whether by the protagonist or in a few works, by the audience, is not the customary view, I admit.)

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