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Non-Review Review: TENET

NOTE: I live in Ireland. Our cinemas are open. Evidence suggests that it is (relatively) safe for people to attend the cinema if they take the necessary precautions. However, I am aware that it is not safe in every country to do so, and I also understand that many readers may not feel safe attending their local cinema even in areas where the evidence suggests it is safe. As this seems to be a hot-button issue with all theatrical releases during the pandemic – but with TENET in particular – it feels important to stress this outside the body of the review itself.

This should go without saying, but given the nature of the current pandemic it is worth repeating: No movie is worth risking your life for. If you feel – or if information from sources you trust suggest – that it is unsafe to go to the cinema, then please do not go. I loved this film. I will see it in cinemas again at least twice within the next week, because it is safe for me to do so. This review should not be taken as an endorsement that the reader should feel they have to (or are expected to) risk their lives to see this film. With that in mind, here is the review.

“Time isn’t the problem,” insists Neil early in TENET. Like a lot of things that the shady operator says over the course of the film, this is not exactly true.

There is a lot riding on TENET. Almost none of this was intended when the film was conceived and produced. As the first major theatrical release since the coronavirus pandemic, TENET effectively shoulders the burden of saving cinema – particularly with a death of major releases between now and Wonder Woman 1984 and with the planned release of Mulan on Disney+. It’s a lot of weight for a film like TENET to carry. Time will tell whether it can succeed or not, but it makes a valiant effort.

Shattering the release window.

TENET rises to this challenge in a couple of ways. Most obviously, TENET is quite simply a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking. Director Christopher Nolan has boasted about how much of the film was completed using in-camera effects and how carefully choreographed it all was. TENET is a movie that showcases the power of spectacle, whether in its delightfully complicated action sequences or even in Hoyte Van Hoytema’s breathtaking establishing shots. TENET is a movie that demands as big a screen as possible, reminding audiences of the scale of such filmmaking.

However, there’s more to it than that. TENET is a film that feels curiously attuned to this cultural moment. It is a film that deals with many of Nolan’s pet themes and obsessions, but in a way that feels very much in step with the modern moment. It’s hard to summarise TENET without spoiling the movie, without revealing too much in terms of plot mechanics or character motivations, but TENET is a film about the breakdown of time itself. It is a film about the collapse of chaos and effect, and a world in which the future and the past are a war over the present.

A career highlight?

It’s an ambitious film. Nolan’s movies are frequently driven by high-concepts and abstract ideas, and the director is remarkable in his ability to build crowd-pleasing blockbusters around concepts like time dilation in Inception and the theory of relativity in Interstellar. If anything, TENET seems to push that idea to breaking time. As Neil repeatedly points out over the course of the film, he has a degree in quantum physics and he struggles to make sense of the film’s internal logic. Perhaps the film’s protagonist (known simply as the Protagonist) sums it up best, “Woah.”

TENET is an interesting film from Nolan in a number of ways. The villainous Russian oligarch Andrei Sator is probably the director’s scuzziest character since Insomnia or Memento. The film itself is perhaps Nolan’s most emotionally repressed since The Prestige. These sensibilities are blended with his more modern high-concept blockbuster aesthetic, and flavoured with a surprising amount of self-awareness. The result is a heady cocktail that is occasionally overwhelming, but never unsatisfying.

Well, masks are recommended at cinema screenings.

Note: Warner Brothers have specifically requested that reviews avoid spoilers. As a result, this review will talk rather generally about TENET. However, if you want to see it completely unspoiled, it is perhaps best to just take our word for it: it is good. It is probably even the best film we’ve seen this year. That is a very short review.

Christopher Nolan is a obsessed with the passage of time. Most of his films – with the obvious arguably exception of The Dark Knight – unfold in a non-linear fashion, dating back to Following. In Nolan’s films, time is often disjointed and chaotic. It unfolds in unforeseen ways. It passes faster or slower for some characters in movies like Inception or Interstellar. It seems to flow backwards for some characters like Leonard in Memento. Even characters like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins are liable to just have the past come at them out of nowhere.

This worry about the passage of time unfolds in various ways. In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of Nolan’s favourite films, two characters talk about their recurring dreams. One reflects on his constant dreams about drowning, and how it is about now “having enough time.” Nolan’s films are suitably preoccupied with drowning. It’s the most visceral horror in Dunkirk, a film packed with visceral horrors about war. It’s the fate of the exiles in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s even a central motif in The Prestige.

Oceans of time.

Similarly, this fear about the passage of time is often framed in terms of lost time with loved ones. Nolan’s films are populated with parents separated from their children – Coop and Murph’s separation in Interstellar, Dom’s exile (and the Fischer schism) in Inception, even the angst felt by Mister Dawson in Dunkirk. Time effectively gets away from everybody, and it’s an acute pain for a parent who has to watch time slip away.

Given how explicitly TENET literalises this fear about the flow of time – and, in particular, the way in which time is warped and manipulated by malign actors – it makes sense that it returns to these motifs repeatedly. TENET spends a lot of time with the monstrous Andrei Sator on his lavish yacht. Even when the film moves away from the yacht, it is often literally at sea; boats floating between wind turbines, cargo ships making their way to Oslo. An early sequence involves an attempted drowning of a major character, rather than assassination by more conventional means.

The art of the operation.

Suffocation is a constant and persistent threat in the world of TENET. Early in the film, Neil and the Protagonist visit a “freeport”, a haven where the rich keep items of value outside the eyes of any government oversight. In case of fire, the vaults are flooded with a gas that removes an oxygen, so as to avoid the damage a sprinkling system might do. Any person unlucky enough to get trapped in the vaults suffocates. Later on, when Neil and the Protagonist uncover a secret medical procedure, the survivors are forced to wear breathing apparatuses to survive in the real world.

Like so many of Nolan’s films, the emotional hook of TENET is in that notion of a parent separated from their child. Nolan has traditionally focused on a father’s anxiety, in films like The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar. Here, TENET hinges on the character of Kat. Kat is an art dealer, and Andrei’s estranged wife. Andrei has used their son as leverage over Kat. Although Kat longs for a separation from her monstrous husband, she knows that he will take her son away. “Every day my son spends with that monster, he becomes a little less of me,” Kat explains.

Kat me if you can.

Kat is the most fascinating character in TENET, and perhaps the most explicit illustration of Nolan’s self-awareness as a writer and director. It has become customary to criticise Nolan for the cliché of the dead wife, an integral part of films like Memento and The Prestige (and, in broad concept if not literal detail, The Dark Knight). These criticisms are not unfair, but Nolan has made a conscious effort to compensate and explore that trope. Inception explicitly renders that cliché part of its critical exploration of the protagonist, with Cobb literally haunted by Mal.

Nolan’s recent films have made an effort to feature more complicated and compelling lead characters than his earlier films, allowing for the exception of Natalie in Memento. In The Dark Knight Rises, both Talia and Selina are integral parts of the plot, with Selina serving as the hinge on which the entire movie pivots. Interstellar allows Murph her own plot and agency running in parallel to Coop’s emotional journey. However, TENET goes a little bit further, in that Kat is very explicitly playing with that trope for which Nolan has been roundly criticised.

Andrei or the highway.

Kat is a woman trapped in an explicitly abusive marriage to Andrei. She is also identified as a potential weakness that can be exploited by the Protagonist, who initially treats her as a way of getting access to Andrei as part of his investigation. However, as TENET develops, Kat takes more agency in the plot and plays an increasingly large role in the drama that unfolds. TENET cannily and cleverly refuses to allow Kat to be cast as a victim or as a pawn. Indeed, the movie’s climax hinges on Kat’s autonomy and choice. It’s her scenes which have the greatest emotional stakes.

Indeed, the dynamic between Kat and Andrei is interesting, because they serve to ground a film that is otherwise rather abstract and high-concept. The casting of Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh in these roles helps. There’s an interesting dynamic at play in TENET, whereby Kat is revealed to be more than she initially appears and Andrei is exposed as less. (This is itself a recurring motif in TENET, as demonstrated by an early scene involving a daring raid on an Indian arms’ dealer.)

He’s kinda a big deal(er)…

Andrei is a villain, but he’s an interesting villain in the context of a film like TENET. There are points where TENET feels very much like an homage to classic James Bond movies, a familiar mode for Christopher Nolan movies like The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. The film takes considerable pleasure in having the Protagonist navigate the world of upper-crust British espionage, including fine dining with Michael Caine as Michael Crosby, who takes a moment to critique the Protagonist’s cheap sartorial style.

With that in mind, Andrei offers something of a deconstruction of the archetypal Bond villain. Andrei lives a life of decadent luxury, and is wired into the international espionage community. He has an army of goons who work at his behest, operates with complete immunity, and retains access to weapons of mass destruction. However, at the core of it all, he is still “a grubby little man.” Andrei is a deliberately and unsettlingly grotesque character, because his most brutal crimes are also the most intimate.

Disarming conversation.

Of course, TENET is about more than just the broken marriage between an art dealer and her arms smuggling husband, even if that is where the emotional pivot lies. TENET is also an excuse for a variety of high-concept action scenes. It’s hard to describe the mechanism that drives these sequences without dipping too far into the realm of spoilers, but TENET plays with time in the same way that Inception played with space. In TENET, time warps and distorts, bends and breaks.

A lot of Nolan’s high concepts are reverse-engineered from the outside in. Famously, one of the reasons that Nolan wanted to make Inception was because it worked on a plot device that provided narrative justification for the use of slow motion. Watching TENET, it often feels like there was a similar motivation at play – as if the movie’s central plot engine was reverse-engineered from Nolan’s desire to justify a number of impressive physical setpieces.

Looking down on it all.

The film itself seems to allude to this reality. Early in the movie, seeking an explanation for what exactly is going on, the Protagonist visits a scientist to explain why this technology is so important. Laura explains that the technology may lead to “World War III”, while other characters compare the technology to Oppenheimer working on the atomic bomb. Asked to explain her deductions, Laura points only to a few artifacts collected over the years. From these mismatched items, Laura has reverse-engineered the shape of an apocalypse.

TENET‘s set pieces are breathtaking on their own terms. It’s rare to see something that appears fresh and exciting in modern blockbusters, particularly those dependent on practical special effects. However, the action sequences in TENET are dazzling. Those audience members who find Nolan’s editting to be be frantic and confusing are unlikely to change their minds based on TENET, but Nolan demonstrates considerable faith in his audience’s capacity to follow the action.

Young gun.

Director Andrei Tarkovsky famously described filmmaking as “sculpting in time”, and one of the most interesting things about cinema is how it manipulates and distorts time. Tarkovsky argued for the manipulation of time in a single frame, but Nolan manipulates it through editing – through the two plots running in Memento, the quick flashes of memory in Batman Begins and The Prestige, through slow motion in Inception. It is no surprise that the manipulation of time in TENET is also a piece of editing sleight-of-hand.

In TENET, character often move forwards through scenes that are flowing backwards, and vice versa. The central tension of TENET is the juxtaposition between the way the character moves through the world and the movement of the world itself. Perhaps acknowledging the indulgence of this most absurdly heightened take on Nolan’s fascination with the manipulation of time, TENET will often play out a scene twice from both perspectives – in forward and in reverse. The result is visually stunning, unlike any other action sequence in recent memory.

Cracking under pressure.

TENET occasionally teases out this possibility. Nolan is very fond of cinematic and storytelling metaphors within his film, most notably with Inception serving as a gigantic metaphor for the process of making a movie. TENET is not quite as heavy-handed, but it leans into the language of storytelling. The main character is “the protagonist.” Two unidentified assailants are “antagonists.” Neil organises a daring airport raid with the sort of theatricality and misdirection that the protagonists employ in The Prestige and The Dark Knight.

Indeed, the film’s meditation on predestination and manipulation often feel like discussions of internal narrative logic. In a story where time can be “inverted”, the question of free will inevitably comes up – if a character “catches” a bullet rather than “firing” it, did they make a choice? As with most movies that play with the subject of time, it is best not to contemplate the question too deeply, and it’s notable that Laura explains the movie’s internal logic by filming an action and playing it in reverse. TENET is a movie about the power of editing.

Suited to the job.

Of course, it also offers a more potent contemporary metaphor. In this respect, TENET feels timely. Nolan’s films understand the passage of time, but are wary of attempts to cheat it. Nolan’s films understand that time cannot be reversed, wounds cannot be undone. The attempts of characters like Leonard in Memento or Dormer in Insomnia to erase their pasts will end in failure and have dire consequences. It might be possible to slow down time, as in Inception and Interstellar, but it is impossible to reverse it.

Attempts to make time flow backwards represent an existential threat in the films of Christopher Nolan. “I’m not seeing armageddon here,” complains the Protagonist on examining the evidence presented to him. “No,” Laura agrees. “Something worse.” At the movie builds towards a climax, it is made abundantly clear that trying to reverse the flow of time itself – similar to the climax of Superman – would mean the end of absolutely everything.

It might not be everybody’s cup of coffee.

In this sense, TENET feels like a movie aligned with this cultural moment. The distortion of time certainly resonates in the middle of a global pandemic, where an individual’s sense of time has been warped and bent by forces outside of their control. It also exists in the context of debates about who controls history and the past, arguments over what culture chooses to remember and celebrate as compared to who it wants to erase. In its own weird way, TENET feels like the perfect movie to cap off a summer movie season that wasn’t.

Of course, TENET was written and filmed long before the pandemic. It is grappling with ideas that have been simmering away in the subconscious for quite some time. After all, the film very pointedly establishes Andrei Sator as a monster who emerged from the end of the Cold War. Of course a threat to the very fabric of temporal reality should be a product of a time period often described as “the end of history.” The fears at the heart of TENET are perhaps outcroppings of the anxieties of the embrace of postmodernism in the eighties and the nineties.

Fractures in time.

In a very literal sense, TENET is an expression of what might be called “presentism”, an anxiety that the past and future no longer exist. Everything is happening so quickly. “Cause” and “effect” are no longer linked. Time is compressed and stretched. Social media warps the perception of the passage of time. It is no coincidence that this happens as the world pushes itself into a “post-truth” age, in which nobody can agree on a consensus reality. Culture wars are raged over who controls the past and who controls the future, just less literally than the “temporal cold war” in TENET.

Nolan is a writer and director who excels at exposition. The entire first two acts of Inception are largely expository monologues explaining the mechanics of the concept to the audience. TENET is similarly heavy on techno-babble, but Nolan deserves credit for clever structuring. Even before the proper time-manipulation hi-jinks begin, his characters are moving contrary to the laws of physics. TENET opens with the death of its protagonist, and one early set piece is built around its heroes bungee jumping from the ground into a building. Reversal is established as a theme.

Red alert.

The major point of comparison for TENET will inevitably be Inception, as both are high-concept action movies separated by a decade. However, TENET is most interesting read in the context of Interstellar. Both TENET and Interstellar are built around the idea of mankind’s future speaking to them. In Interstellar, mankind is saved by their future selves sending help back to a time of great need. TENET is decidedly less optimistic.

To be fair, Interstellar was a product of the Obama era. There was at least a narrative of progress in place. There was a future towards which the world might aspire, even if that future seemed precarious. It’s notable that this era also produced both Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, movies that were explicitly about reclaiming sixties utopianism. In that context, it was possible to believe that the future might be better and more hopeful than the present.

Pane and suffering.

In contrast, TENET is a product of a different time. It is harder to look at the future with any sense of optimism – whether political, economical or environmental. TENET is explicit about this. The film’s plot hinges on the idea that the future is waging an existential war on the present, one motivated by betrayal and anger. TENET is not an explicitly political movie, but it is implicitly political. It’s a story that asks who does – and who should – control the narrative of history and time.

It is notable that the advertising for TENET made a big deal of the fact that “time has come for a new protagonist”, acknowledging the fact that John David Washington is playing the first protagonist of colour in a Christopher Nolan film. As noted above, TENET is also structured to afford Kat greater agency than characters of her kind have generally enjoyed in films like The Prestige and Inception. It’s notable that the bulk of TENET is built around Kat and the Protagonist trying to wrest control of their narratives from Andrei, an old and resentful white guy.

Neil by mouth.

Of course, there is something in the decision to cast Andrei as a Russian oligarch with ties to British intelligence. After all, there is ample evidence that Russia has been instrumental in the erosion of the sense of consensus reality in the United States and the United Kingdom – supporting Donald Trump, backing the Brexit referendum, even stoking racial resentment. It has been observed that this manipulation comes from a place of post-ideology. It is just a political power trying to fracture its political and social rivals, rather than advancing its own philosophy.

TENET plays into this. The film is built around a literalised generational conflict – the past and the future at war with one another. This is the story of an older generation that has held power so long that it cannot make peace with its eventual end. It lacks the foresight to understand that the world will go on without it. It is unable to conceive of the idea of leaving the world to the generation that will follow in its wake, and so clings desperately to power – even when that power is apocalyptic. (Older voters voted for the self-destructive policies of both Trump and Brexit.)

Pressing forward.

However, as much as Nolan admires Star Wars, this generational conflict is something different. This is a conflict in which narrative structures have collapsed into themselves. At one point early in TENET, Laura tries to help the Protagonist to understand the mechanics of what is happening. “Don’t think about it. Just feel it.” That seems to be advice for the audience – another nod to Interstellar, which was similarly predicated on the primacy of emotion. As much as Nolan is criticised for being unemotional, he trusts his audience’s feelings to guide them.

This is interesting, because it gets at the tension in TENET. This is a film that is largely driven by abstract thought experiments. Despite engaging performances from both Robert Pattinson and John David Washington, the heart of the movie belongs to Kat and her journey. As such, TENET opens itself up to familiar criticisms of Nolan’s filmography, that he is a cold and clinical director who cares more about cool imagery and broad ideas than he does about the characters inhabiting his worlds.

Could they use a time out?

This is not a fair criticism of Nolan’s filmography. Interstellar is a movie that is openly driven by the idea that love is a universal force equivalent to gravity, while movies like The Prestige and Inception are cautionary tales about what happens when men repress their emotions and those emotions are forced to manifest in corrosive or destructive ways. However, TENET has little emotional investment in the lives of the Protagonist or Neil, which makes it a reasonable target for these sorts of criticisms.

Indeed, watching TENET, there is a sense of indulgence on the part of Nolan – something not too different from the general vibe of The Dark Knight Rises. There is a sense of a director pushing theme and concept (and a blockbuster budget) as far as they can go, and using his position as the (relatively rare) modern studio auteur director to do whatever he wants to do. It’s too much to liken the temporal mechanics of TENET to something like Shane Carruth’s Primer, but it is also perhaps as close as a blockbuster is likely to get.

Getting tied up in knots.

As such, the general response to TENET will be interesting. There has been a slow but steady sense among a certain critical subset that Christopher Nolan’s time as come. To be fair, that narrative has slowly been mounting since the double whammy success of The Dark Knight and Inception, and the vocal backlash to The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. Among a certain type of internet commenter, there has been a growing argument that Nolan perhaps deserves to be brought down a peg, despite the fact that he is the only director making original blockbusters on this scale.

TENET seems to have been identified as a target for such criticism when it was first announced. Nolan’s plans to get the film released in theatres as soon as it was safe, to support theatre owners who are desperately in need of new releases to survive this pandemic because government support (for which Nolan advocated) is not forthcoming, invited sensationalist commentary that the director was leading something equivalent to a death cult. To hear Seth Rogen tell it, Nolan was trying “to kill his greatest fans.”

The man with a plan(e)…

However, it seems likely that anything that Nolan might have chose to do would have been the wrong answer. The fact that Disney’s Mulan is now skipping theatres was apparently also worthy of criticism. The leveraging of the digital release of movies like Trolls World Tour, The King of Staten Island and Irresistible by Universal against theatres to narrow the exclusive theatrical window also seems like a cynical business ploy. To be fair, Warners are reportedly taking 63% of the box office for TENET. This is less than Disney took for The Last Jedi, but still seems exploitative.

Of course, it’s worth conceding that the right thing to do here is simply to shut everything down until the pandemic is over, and for the government to support industries like cinemas that are in a precarious situation. In many countries beyond the United States, it has become safer to visit the cinema, and so opening worldwide to offer a lifeline to cinema owners seems like a reasonable choice. After all, it’s worth noting that Warner Brothers will only show TENET in cinemas that require masks.

This is apparently what Twitter believes happens if you bring a chair to a Christopher Nolan set.

It seems quite clear that the criticism has little to do with TENET itself and more to do with a general sense that certain segments of the critical community have decided that he is due for a reckoning. A charming chat show anecdote from Anne Hathaway about how Nolan discouraged actors from sitting on chairs on his sets devolved into an absurdly over-the-top campaign of moral outrage about how Nolan was an inhumane monster who subjected his cast and crew to grotesque working conditions – in spite of actual evidence to the contrary and an actual denial.

Again, it’s interesting that Nolan should become a focal point for such outrage on the basis of a throwaway observation from an actor that was intended as a compliment of his directorial style. There is a long overdue reckoning taking place with the concept of the auteur director, and directors like Shane Carruth, Christophe Ruggia and even Alexander Payne have all been called out for alleged gross misconduct. This is good and important. Indeed, there’s a historical reckoning required with directors like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock.

No time like the present.

However, it feels exceedingly cynical that Nolan’s perceived “reckoning” should be based on an easily falsifiable anecdote framed as a compliment. As with the moral panic over the scheduled release of TENET, it suggests more about the attitude of a certain vocal section of commenters towards Nolan than it does about the director himself. As such, it is interesting that TENET will be released into this maelstrom, and how it will inevitably be worked into that narrative of a director who is “due” for a humbling.

TENET leaves itself open to these sorts of criticisms. It is definitely one of the more “Nolanian” of Nolan movies. From an emotional perspective, it is one of his coldest movies. It is built around one of his highest concepts. Its action sequences are more frantically edited than any of his previous movies. It marks a return to some of the grubbiness and grittiness of his earlier films, which may not necessarily click with fans looking for pure escapism at the multiplex.

However, these aren’t flaws. TENET positions itself as both an accessible piece of mainstream blockbuster entertainment built around the kind of spectacle that rarely exists outside of modern superhero films, and also the esoteric work of an auteur with a distinctive aesthetic and something to say with that aesthetic. Even before the pandemic, these sorts of films were exceedingly rare. Nolan was one of only a handful of directors capable of shepherding so distinctive a project through the studio system. In the current climate, it feels like a miracle that TENET exists at all.

TENET is a breathtaking reminder of what big budget crowd-pleasing cinema is capable of, at a time when audiences have had amble opportunity to forget. It arrives as cinemas are reopening after months of closure and as distributors have pivoted towards video on demand. TENET is visceral, ambitious and breath-taking. I can’t wait to see it again.

One Response

  1. Yeah, I’m gonna have to respectfully disagree.

    I thought the first half of the movie was incredibly slow and dull, with most of the dialogue being just pure unfiltered exposition to a ludicrous degree even by Christopher Nolan standards.

    It was also confusing and hard to following both in its general plotting and even the sci-fi elements – where the attempt to explain how Inversion worked to the protagonist actually somehow made it make less sense to me.

    Not helping was that the soundtrack was incredibly loud, bombastic and incredibly intrusive not just to the point of hilarity, but sometimes to the point where it overwhelmed the dialogue making it difficult to understand what characters were saying – which occurred throughout the film but was especially problematic in the earlier parts where the film is trying to establish what’s going on.

    At that point I was just about ready to completely write the film off, but thankfully when we reached; what I assumed to be the halfway point, the film finally established some stakes and began doing interesting things with both the characters and the Inversion elements – even paying off an early scene from the first half by re-contextualizing it (Admittedly when the scene originally happened I’d figured out that particular twist and did assume we’d be seeing it again, but it was still immensely satisfying when it did happen and it finally felt like me and the movie were on the same page so I’m fine with it).

    However once we began entering the climax, the pacing started to drag and the film became confusing again, which had the unintentionally side effect of blunting the emotional impact of what was almost a satisfying ending.

    So yeah this wasn’t a bad film, just a “meh” one. And speaking as someone who has no particular beef with Nolan (of his movies I’ve only seen The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and this), this was probably the weakest of his films that I have seen and whilst not the worst new release of 2020 so far that I’ve watched it’s among the weakest.

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