July 21 saw the simultaneous release of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. In anticipation of this momentous event, I am become BARBENHEIMER, the retrospective of worlds. We conclude today with Nolan's 2020 spy-fi film, Tenet.
There are many notable aspects of Christopher Nolan's career. Not the least of these is that sandwiched in-between what might be his best movies, Dunkirk and Oppenheimer, is likely his worst movie, Tenet.
I offer this assessment as a Nolan-stan who risked his life to see Tenet in theaters during the lockdown, saw it again on the IMAX (the real IMAX) when it was finally shown there after the lockdown, and have now re-watched it multiple times at home. You can't argue that I didn't give this movie a chance. If anything, I suspect I gave it more of a chance than most people would precisely because I'm so far up Nolan's ass.
Still, Tenet is the best kind of failure: An ambitious one. Swinging for the fences is what makes Christopher Nolan, Christopher Nolan. Odds were he was gonna strike out sooner or later.
Tenet is a spiritual sequel, of sorts, to Nolan's previous foray into sci-fi espionage, Inception. In that movie, the premise was that thieves can steal your secrets by invading your dreams; in Tenet, the idea is that time can be inverted... or, put more simply, that shit can go backwards. (But not in a way let's-get-in-our-time-machine-and-go-back-decades-in-the-blink-of-an-eye way, though - time can't be sped up or slowed down. If you want to go back 24 hours, you have to live through that 24 hours in reverse in real time.)
Some of Tenet's problems stem from the fact that there's really only so much you can do with this premise. The movie has no zero-G hallway fights or Penrose stairs or folding cities because the concept just doesn't allow for anything so fanciful. All Tenet can really offer, visually speaking, is some version of the same trick over and over and over again. (It also doesn't make much sense. How did those inverse bullets get into the wall, or the seat at the opera house, or the glass divider, or wherever, in the first place? Was there just a bullet casing on the floor in the opera house and no one noticed? When was the bullet hole in the opera house actually made? Was the bullet in there from the time of manufacture, or did it just magically appear there in anticipation of its eventual use? When they cut out the part of the wall with the inverse bullets and brought it to the lab, did they have to locate and bring those casings as well?) Nolan has pointed out that prior to the advent of the motion picture, there was no way to ever actually see anything go in reverse - you could only imagine it. Which is an interesting observation to share at a party, but does not change the fact that watching stuff go backwards again and again and again is optically redundant.
Alas, the movie falls flat on a thematic level, too. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: One of Nolan's greatest strengths as a storyteller is his gift for melding form, function, and meaning. Memento is a movie about the fallibility of memory and the ways we lie to ourselves that unfolds backwards so as to allow the audience to experience the story as subjectively as the protagonist does. Inception uses dreams as a way into the subjects of the unconscious and emotional repression. In Insomnia, the character suffers from the titular sleep disorder as the result of guilt - so the story really ends up being about ethics and morality and whether or not the means justify the ends. And in The Prestige and The Dark Knight Trilogy, characters represent entire philosophical concepts, and so the conflicts become dramatizations of abstract arguments: fame vs. family, order vs. anarchy, vigilantism vs. belief in the system, optimism vs. cynicism, and so on and so forth.
Tenet is a movie about shit moving backwards, which, naturally, suggests a story about someone wanting to correct the past. Which Tenet is and isn't.
Normally, a story's theme is expressed through the journey of its protagonist (whether that protagonist ultimately has an arc or not). Tenet's protagonist (John David Washington) - who is identified only as, I shit thee not, the Protagonist, which is a code name, not a funny meta joke like in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash - does not seem to live in any noticeable state of regret. There are one or two instances where he suggests the idea of saving the present by changing the past, but someone always talks him down quickly and he never pushes back very hard. The people who actually want to try and change the past are off-screen antagonists who exist in the future (their motivation is that, surprise surprise, climate change has totally fucked the planet).
This inversion (beg your pardon) stifles the movie's ability to interrogate its theme via drama. I guess the Protagonist learns that you can't change the past, kinda, because people tell him, sort of? But the antagonists - who, again, we never meet - they don't learn anything, they're just thwarted. So the theme is really expressed in a Tell-Don't-Show fashion.
The fact is, Nolan wanted to present us with a different kind of character than we usually see in spy films - one who does the right thing simply because it's the right thing. That's certainly an idea I can get behind in very broad terms, but it doesn't really serve Tenet's theme.
Frankly, the Protagonist isn't even all that interesting. Some of that is because, unlike most Nolan protagonists, not only does he lack pathos, but he also doesn't really have any emotional skin in the game - he's not trying to get his kids back or avenge his wife's murder or whatever. They try to give him some emotional connection to Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), but they don't really sell those relationships; when the Protagonist gets all teary near the end as he realizes Neil is destined to die, it's not clear why he feels so emotional, because we've never actually watched him and Neil bond in any meaningful way. They've been work peers and nothing more.
(Quick digression: I really, deeply do not understand the origin of the Neil/Protagonist relationship. Neil says the Protagonist will recruit him "Years ago for me, years from now for you." But since time inversion is not the same thing as time-skipping, that means that at some point in the future, the Protagonist will live his life in reverse for years. How the fuck did he pull that off? Like, what did he do with his time while he was living in a backwards world? And doesn't that mean he needed to either wear an oxygen mask or stay in a room being pumped full of oxygen for that entire time? How was he not a raving lunatic when he finally got to Neil?)
I think what Nolan was attempting to do with the Protagonist was to marry Dunkirk's narrative proficiency with Inception's complexity. But the threat in Dunkirk (i.e., trying not to get shot) is immediate and concrete, so we naturally empathize with the character's plight. The threat in Tenet (i.e., people in the future will reverse the flow of time, which MAY or MAY NOT mean the end of the world, they're honestly not sure) is considerably more abstract.
And even that wouldn't matter if the Protagonist was at least charismatic and fun to watch (see such thinly-drawn yet greatly-loved characters as James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Ethan Hunt). But he's not. Washington was great in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, but he's pretty flat here (even when the dialogue suggests the character is being playful, he seems kinda bored). I honestly don't know Washington's work well enough outside of these two movies yet to judge if this stems from a general lack of personality and gravitas, or from Nolan's script and direction. Having said that, it's almost impossible to imagine that Tenet wouldn't be at least a little more fun if a real movie star - like, gee, I dunno, say, Washington's father - played the Protagonist.
Worsening matters even more is that Tenet, like Inception and most other plot-heavy sci-fi stories, requires a lot of exposition to understand. Gleaning that exposition is difficult here, because Nolan responded to complaints that his sound mixes render dialogue unintelligible by doubling down on a sound mix that renders dialogue unintelligible (and unlike in Dunkirk, the dialogue matters here - again, these aren't simple, real-world events anyone can instinctively understand). Not only do important details get buried under mountains of sonic mud, but the dialogue is often written in a kind of clipped, deliberately-equivocal way (e.g., "This siege is a blind for them to vanish you," "I was told you'd left the building," and literally the entire train tracks interrogation scene, in which almost nothing the interrogator says makes sense). So even if you can understand what people are saying, it's not always entirely clear what they mean.
Also - and this is really the least of this movie's problems - but it features what is one of the dumbest expositional dialogue exchanges I've ever heard in a major motion picture. It occurs fairly late in the movie, when Neil is explaining to the Protagonist and Kat what will happen if the bad guys invert the flow of time:
'Neil nods gravely'? Shouldn't Neil says something like "Yes, Kat. Your son does, in fact, fall under the umbrella of 'everyone and everything who ever lived,’ you dumb fucking idiot."? What the actual fuck??? The only other time I can recall Nolan ever writing anything that moronic is during the big fight in The Dark Knight Rises, when Batman and Bane have this exchange:
But even that seems less offensive, because it's Batman, and he probably would be so humorless as to misunderstand that Bane's observation wasn't sincere.
ANYWAY, the combined consequence of Tenet's various issues is a movie that leaves its audience stranded in the wilderness with no compass. If something is deeply wrong with you and you're perhaps too-invested in Mr. Nolan's work, you can watch this movie more than once, and/or read its screenplay, and it becomes somewhat easier to comprehend. But I can't imagine the scores of less-obsessive audiences that made Inception such a cultural sensation would ever wanna see Tenet twice. There's nothing to keep them engaged, so there's no reason to give a shit about what happens to the spinning top.