by Philip Price
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson & Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime: 2 hours & 30 minutes
“Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”
This is a direct quote from Clémence Poésy’s character in writer/director Christopher Nolan’s “TENET,” which derives its name from the Sator Square (or Rotas Square) containing a five-word Latin palindrome. The text on this square may be read top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, left-to-right, or right-to-left; it may also be rotated 180 degrees and is still able to be read in all those ways. In the simplest of terms, this is kind of all you need to know in order to understand what Nolan is going for in his latest if not necessarily grasping how he’s meaning to achieve it.
“Broad terms” is a key phrase for an initial viewing of “TENET” as in it’s best to try and understand everything in broad terms. If one tries to focus too heavily on the intricacies (or the exposition, as you may have heard) it’s without doubt that one will also become overwhelmed by the complexities Nolan and his screenplay are compacting into a narrative that is not only here to serve a story or an idea, but the filmmaker that is Nolan himself.
Is the film complicated?
Undoubtedly, but does it make sense in those broad terms to the extent there is something for audiences to take away from the experience?
As stated, this is Nolan functioning at his most Nolan-est. John David Washington (star of “BlackKklansman,” son of Denzel) is our literal protagonist here (seriously, that’s the character name he’s given), but the real star of “TENET” is Nolan himself. The director has explored time through multiple facets throughout his filmography whether it be backwards in “Memento,” the extended experiences of our dreams that might amount to only a few minutes of actual sleep in “Inception,” the relativity and dilation of time when travelling through the stars in “Interstellar” as well as in the ticking clock of war in “Dunkirk.” Nolan has always used this element as a point of view though, as a way to better understand what his characters are going through; what the individual experience of whatever story Nolan is telling might have actually felt like. “TENET” is a different beast. Whereas time has always been more a factor of the plot (maybe even the antagonist, I see you “Interstellar”) it has never become the purpose, the cog on which the entirety of the point of the story turns.
“TENET” is both a spy film that ultimately culminates in our hero saving the girl and the world from a bad, bad man while also being a film steeped in the fantastical idea that someone has engineered a product that allows human beings to pass both forward and backward in time. Like I said, broad terms. What’s unfortunate is that while Nolan is spinning his impressive wheels at the highest of levels and combining his strong visual and atmospheric prowess with that of truly inventive and innovative ideas (per usual) he is still unable to make us care about the people parading through these locations and ideas. In short, Poésy’s character was onto something when she said, “Feel, don’t think,” as a lack of understanding regarding the world of “TENET” might more easily be forgiven if there were anything to feel for any of these individuals, but Nolan’s script is so intent on generating questions over care that it’s difficult to consider much reflection once the astonishment wears off.
I almost feel foolish for even trying to write anything analytical or interpretive about the film after only a single viewing due to the blinding awareness of how many details and plot points were either missed or misinterpreted. To try and explain the plot of “TENET” feels like an exercise in insanity. There are simply too many leaps in logic and too many questions around the necessity of certain action sequences that would undoubtedly only spurn more questions all of which I’m obviously ill-prepared to answer. It is in this regard that Nolan’s film feels more like a conveyor belt for a few cool time travel ideas and a handful of action concepts than it does a whole and complete story with people, places, and stakes that actually matter. And so, say “TENET” is nothing more than a collection of sequences set-up around the idea that a technology now exists that allows objects to have their entropy reversed and move backwards through time. Cool, right? That seems to be where Nolan started. Moving forward with that idea, Nolan seemed to think that instead of creating and developing a character through which we experience the revelations and impacts of this product, we instead watch that protagonist go through the motions of a James Bond plot while using said technology to his advantage. That’s a simple enough approach to funnel interesting ideas about time through and it’s almost enough of a cool combination that it could work, but as the thought process progresses one naturally begins to wonder if there might be anything outside the realm of this being our main character’s job that inclines him to be so adamant about his involvement. To this Nolan poses a hard rejection and dismisses such extraneous details with the simple explanation that this man is a soldier and therefore is obedient and loyal to the cause. At this point there’s still a willingness to sacrifice whatever character work is left to be done as long as we’re afforded the opportunity to see Nolan execute his ideas on the practical scale, we know he will. That’s all well and good, but about an hour into the film there begins to be this nagging feeling that there should be and needs to be more to what’s unfolding outside of being given the opportunity to watch Nolan do all the things Nolan does best with his IMAX cameras. There is a longing for pertinence between our hero and the invisible adversary he is working against. It is in response to this *feeling* that Nolan introduces the character of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to potentially enable growth and set-up dire circumstances for our hero, but it’s revealed all too early that both Kat and Robert Pattinson’s character, Neil, are little more than pawns set in motion to function as a way in which Nolan can cutely tie in both the time travel bit and the evil, narcissistic antagonist. As the movie barrels into its third act said bad guy (Kenneth Branagh) is the most developed character in the whole damn thing, Washington’s protagonist has developed little to no motivation or investment of his own and while the spectacle is nothing short of just that, with what we’re seeing on screen fully utilize the idea of inversion to the coolest possible degree, there is simultaneously this black hole sized emptiness around the ever-present “why?” Why should we care? Why did this have to happen? How is that critical to the overall arc? How is this possible, but not that? Well, in the words of Bruce Banner, “Time travel!”
As reductive as that last paragraph may sound, there is no doubt an immeasurable amount of effort that went into the writing, researching, and planning of Nolan’s “TENET” screenplay. The issue is simply that these things were not evenly distributed throughout all aspects of the screenplay, with character development receiving the short end of the stick. What almost saves Nolan though, is the presence of each and every one of his performers. Maybe our no-name lead simply referred to as “The Protagonist” is intentionally vacant in his character description and development; maybe Nolan wanted this vessel guiding the audience through a world where reverse chronology is possible to be as such in order for the mechanics of how said world works to not become less important or more overwhelming. Whatever the case, Washington’s charisma and his ability to engage with all of his co-stars on a level that oozes chemistry is undeniable and adds a very necessary layer of swagger to Nolan’s highbrow espionage thriller. The ease of the rapport and effortless harmony exuded by Washington is immediately apparent the first time he shares the screen with Pattinson with the two displaying an undeniably fun dynamic from that point on. Even in his single, short scene with Michael Caine, Washington is able to quickly establish a palpable bond endearing us to this character not only for the role he plays in the plot, but simply for the personality he injects into all of Nolan’s complicated dialogue and/or action-heavy scenes. Furthermore, Nolan hopes to root the emotion of the piece in Kat’s yearning to return to her son and be something of a dependable mother while placing Branagh’s Andrei Sator, Kat’s estranged husband, as the obstacle she must overcome which is naturally the same obstacle our hero must overcome in order to gain control of this time-reversing technology. While the drive of this mother to protect her child is an understandable and relatable one, the easiest character with which to emotionally invest surprisingly becomes that of Branagh’s Russian arms dealer. Born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sator is a man who earns his entitlement and never looks back. He has positioned himself in a role he holds to be of the upmost importance, living in a world of grandeur where he only accepts praise and admiration, but who only spouts demeaning remarks of guilt and shame on others. It is in the shaping of this antagonist and the realization of the purpose for his evil plan that Branagh really finds the goods in turning what very easily could have been an archetypal, trite villain into someone we hope gets what they deserve, but also feel somewhat sorry for when they do. It’s the most complicated relationship between viewer and content and exhibits the fact Nolan can have his cake and eat it too when fully in tune with all of his capabilities.
Whether the idea was weaved through the story or the story was created for the idea, in the end as the credits rolled whatever informed what doesn’t seem to have mattered. Instead, it was everything Nolan created and concocted in order to bring to life his vision in the biggest and most impressive of ways that left the biggest impressions. There’s much to be said for the pure experience that Nolan creates with his films as he’s a singular talent in this day and age in terms of having the clout and popularity to create and conduct original ideas on this massive a scale. And what a scale “TENET” displays. There are a few moments in which one genuinely sits back and considers if they’ve ever seen anything like that in the movies before which, after more than a century now, feels like quite a feat. One such example is that of the idea of having some characters move one direction in time while other characters, all within the same frame, move the opposite direction. It’s one of those visual tricks that is difficult to fully comprehend the first time you see it and even after it’s fleshed out and repeated in multiple scenarios is still rather disorienting. It’s mind-boggling. It’s something that initially feels akin to when you would just hammer buttons on a game controller in hopes you were inadvertently unlocking a killer combination and hoping for the best outcome, but in reality had no real sense of what was happening or how everything actually worked. It’s that kind of adrenaline rush. As if delivering a whole new visual sensation wasn’t enough, Nolan also applies this idea of one part moving forward in time and the other moving backward to his fight sequences where the two parts are the two individuals fighting one another. In classic Nolan fashion, no camera tricks or computer magic were used, but rather Mr. Washington and the stunt team choreographed how this would look and memorized the movements making the final effect appear not only grounded and equally inconceivable, but damn near flawless to the point we fully buy into the crazy conceit. “TENET” also sports one of the greatest high-speed chase sequences ever put to screen. Out of all the astounding visual moments in the film it is this sequence in particular that lasts, that is striking in the sense of how much of an achievement it is, and that is as thrilling in the moment as it will undoubtedly be mythologized to be in the years to come. The astonishment rendered by such sequences as this car chase lasting longer in the memory than any single thing the story has to say.
It’s been established not only by myself in this review, but by countless others throughout the course of Nolan’s career that where he excels in the technical aspects and how he achieves such sweeping scale is often times lightyears ahead of what he can provide in terms of emotional resonance. That obviously doesn’t mean an effort isn’t put forth, but while it’s often easy to pinpoint a major theme in a Nolan work it’s more difficult to justify how much of that intent was actually felt or was relayed successfully. As with every Nolan film there will also be countless interpretations of what the writer/director is actually saying or commenting on with his work, but in regards to “TENET” it would seem Nolan has reached his limit with how complacent we’ve become not only as viewers, but how content his fellow filmmakers have become as well. Audiences are so enamored with entertainment options and move through them with such speed and thoughtlessness that expectation for each individual piece only continues to drop lower and lower. In this line of thinking, TENET is being presented as a challenge to viewers to not only see just how much they might test the capacity of their brains when it comes to their entertainment options, but through the “time element” employed in the film if creators can begin to see their own projects and ideas from different perspectives; perspectives that don’t ascribe to the traditional method of making movies or whatever type of art is being created. Nolan issues the challenge by explicitly naming our hero “The Protagonist,” by calling out Sator as the antagonist as well as having characters discuss “tying up loose threads” while other characters are urged to “stop thinking in a linear fashion”. Nolan is using these traditional pillars of story to show how they can be arranged in different patterns, looked at from different views, and the power and originality of what can be produced if we invert our own expectations. We have succumbed to looking at our entertainment through a very narrow lens with “TENET” serving as Nolan’s plea that if we’re not going to change our viewing habits that we might at least become more astute viewers in the process of becoming more experienced ones. “TENET” sees Nolan doing everything he could seemingly want to do in a motion picture so much so that some elements almost feel like a parody of a himself-namely the pounding score by Ludwig Göransson, but even as I write I’m listening to the score and marveling at how each track immediately transports me back to the moment in the film in which it played-while others feel particularly progressive and poetic in regards to typical Nolan staples. Christopher Nolan’s eleventh feature film is a mixed bag, but is nonetheless an achievement and an effort put forth by someone who’s clearly a proponent of the art form telling a story concerned with keeping time and our present reality intact while serving as his defense for doing the same for the experience of this art form he adores. I feel that.
“Their oceans rose and their rivers ran dry. They had no choice but to turn back. It is our fault and they came back to tell us.”