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“A Goya? In a Harrods Bag?” “TENET” and the Nightmares of Late Capitalism…

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This week, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, celebrated its 250th episode with a conversation about Christopher Nolan’s TENET. I had some additional thoughts on the film.

TENET is a film about many things.

It is a movie about the idea that the future will not only judge us, it will condemn us. It is a movie about the importance of faith and mortality in a world that frequently seems to exist beyond basic human comprehension. It is a movie about time, and how there is no escaping or evading it. TENET is one of the most ambitious mainstream American blockbusters of the twenty-first century, with its fractured narrative reflecting the chaos of the time in which it was produced.

However, TENET is also a film about the nightmare of late capitalist excess. It is the story about wealth and power, and how things insulate and isolate those who hold it. It is something of a cliché to suggest that power and privilege protect the wealthy from the laws of men, from the consequences of their action – that civil and criminal laws bend to those with with enough money. TENET follows that idea to its logical conclusion, suggesting a world in which the laws of physics themselves bend to those with enough power.

TENET is a biting piece of social commentary that reflects a profoundly broken world.

One of the more superficial observations about TENET is that the film respresents Christopher Nolan’s take on the classic James Bond template. This makes sense. Nolan is an avowed fan of the James Bond franchise. He has repeatedly suggested that he might like to direct an entry in the series at some point in the future. TENET arguably isn’t even Nolan’s first real effort to make a James Bond movie. The lowest level of Inception, for example, was an extended and loving homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. So it makes sense that critics would latch on to that reading of TENET.

Certainly, all of the markers are there. Boiled down to its essence, TENET is the story of a sauve international agent – “the protagonist” – whose mission finds him infiltrating the inner circle of a sinister relic of the Cold War. There is a largely disconnected opening setpiece before the title drop. There is a beautiful woman, who even wears a white bikini. There is a mysterious and vague organisation. There is the implication that the villain is tied to a nebulous web of international terror. All of this feels very much in step with the James Bond franchise.

More to the point, TENET is anchored in one of the recurring fascinations of the James Bond franchise: extreme wealth. After all, this obsession with wealth and privilege is what differentiates the James Bond franchise from many of its competitors. There is a reason why Bond’s iconic costume is a tuxedo, and why the character frequently appears in a pristine white dinner jacket. Movies like Mission: Impossible or The Bourne Identity are much less visibly engaged with ideas of class and money, while movies like Kingsman understand that class is an inescapable part of the James Bond mythos.

Fleming’s original James Bond novels have been described as “a wealth fantasy.” Published in the wake of the Second World War, those novels were a welcome bit of escapism, inviding the reader to step into a world of international adventure, of the finest fashion and the most lavish drinks. Bond himself wore a “Rolex Oyster Perpetual.” Fans rightly wonder how a civil servent could afford to live like James Bond. It’s telling that real-life billionaires are the only people who can actually afford to live out the fantasy of living like the fictional spy.

Of course, Bond was the product of a different time. In the decades since the character’s first appearance, the wealth gap has only increased. The divide between rich and poor has only grown larger. The rich have only gotten richer. It seems like even superspies cannot keep up with this rate of change. TENET presents its hero as a suave and well-dressed secret agent – one of Nolan’s trademark men in suits. However, it very quickly becomes clear that the character is infiltrating a world so far beyond his own comprehension that he struggles to navigate it.

There’s an interesting recurring motif of class tension in TENET, as the hero movies through the world of the superwealthy. Early on, he bristles in conversation with a snooty maître de at a posh restaurant, whether ordering without a menu or asking to take the meal home with him. Sitting down for lunch with Sir Michael Crosby, the hero looks very suave to the untrained eye. However, Crosby sees right through him. “Look, no offence,” Crosby states, “but in this world where someone is claiming to be a billionaire, Brooks Brothers won’t cut it.” Crosby, after all, has come to lunch with “a Goya in a Harrods bag.”

It is reductive and simplistic to suggest that the rich are simply “a different breed”, but there is some truth in the idea. The wealthy enjoy civil, social and political protections that ordinary people can only imagine. This has been a recurring preoccupation for Nolan as a filmmaker. As Selina Kyle mused in The Dark Knight Rises, when Bruce admitted that the bank was letting him keep the house, “the rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.” There’s a very class conscious vibe to TENET, which is often a thriller about the protagonist infiltrating a world that he doesn’t entirely understand.

Even before the movie gets to its weird time travel shenannigans, TENET suggests that the wealthy live in an entirely different universe to ordinary people. Meeting with Katherine Barton over dinner, the protagonist struggles to maintain the illusion that he belongs in this world of extreme wealth. When Kat states that the nine million dollars that her husband paid for a forgery would “barely cover the cost of the holiday he just forced us on”, the spy replies, “Where’d you go? Mars?” Kat finds this niavety surprising. “Vietnam on our yacht. His yacht. You’ve got the suit, the shoes, the watch – but you’re a little out of your depth.”

The villain of TENET, a wealthy Russian olygarch named Andrei Sator, lives in a world that is disconnected from the material world around him. He spends most of his time on yacht that “sleeps seventy with crew, two helicopters, missile defense.” Floating in the ocean, Sator is a law unto himself. He exists beyond the reach of national governments. It feels in some ways like a logical extension of the way that billionaires insulate their wealth by squirreling it away in offshore holdings. Sator is a man without a country, but with enough wealth and power that he does not need one.

This theme carries over into an early setpiece. Much like Sator himself exists in a liminal space, floating on a fortress outside the borders of any country, he keeps his wealth in a strange transitory space. Trying to figure out what Sator his hiding, the movie’s central character plots to break into a “freeport.” These institutions, which really exist, are “tax havens” where “clients can view their investments without importing them, so they avoid paying tax.” They are spaces where the rules of law and ordinary society – the idea that those who can afford tax should pay it – are suspended.

It is no surprise that TENET really hammers its themes of wealth and privilege, and the horrors of late capitalism, during this trip to Sator’s holding. Casing the joint, the heroes figure out that the fire suppression system involves sucking all of the oxygen out of the vaults, suffocating any poor person trapped inside – including staff members. “Our clients choose us, because we have no priorities, above their property,” the tour guide boasts. Neil responds with a very wry “Blimey.” This is the horror of the modern world, where life is less important than material value – a lower priority than property.

It is in the freeport that the heroes discover Sator’s secret weapon. He has a “turnstyle”, a device that can reverse the flow of time for any object flowing through it. It exists in contrast to everything that the audience assumes to be true of the laws of physics. Much like the yacht and the freeport circumvent the laws of civilised society by placing Andrei Sator outside the jurisdiction of any lawful authority, the turnstyle does something similar to the laws of physics.

This is obviously a science-fiction concept. However, it resonates. After all, the past few decades have seen billionaires manipulating and exploiting science to their own ends. Part of this is reflected in those tabloid stories about billionaires desperately fighting off death using insane measures like literally draining the blood of younger volunteers. However, it is also reflected in more serious concerns, such as the way in which the wealthy have monopolised space travel.

TENET takes this idea to its logical extreme. The implication is that if a technological breakthrough in time travel existed, it would like exist to serve the extremely wealthy and the privileged. It is capitalism taken to its most grotesque and horrific form. There’s never any real sense that this technology could be used for the betterment of mankind. Instead, it is used to maintain the status quo, and to provide those who alreayd hold power with even more power.

TENET ties this process to the triumph of capitalism in the wake of the Cold War. Although Sator is now stateless, he was a Russian citizen. He came across his wealth while operating a clean-up contract in the city of Stalsk 12, where “a warhead exploded at ground level, scattering the others.” The clean-up operation was Sator’s “first contract. Nobody even else bid, they thought it was a death sentence.” As such, it provides a mirror of the horror of the freeports, a monetary value placed above the value of human life.

Finding a message from the future in the ruins, Sator murders his business partner and uses the gold that has been sent backwards in time to establish his empire. Sator is the very definition of “new money”, and the decision to position the film’s antagonist as a Russian olygarch feels very much like a commentary on the end of the Cold War. After all, this era was famously described as “the end of history”, and so it makes sense that TENET would position the fall of the Soviet Union as “ground zero” in this collapsing of past and future into a singular nebulous present.

In what feels like a commentary of the wave of hypercapitalism that swept through nineties Russia, the so-called “wild west”, Sator “staked [his] claim in the new Russia” using that gold and that information from the future. Sator does not succeed because he is a good businessman. Sator does not succeed because he has good ideas. Sator succeeds because he has been chosen to succeed, and because he is able to literally mortgage his future to build his empire.

TENET keeps coming back to the idea of global mass extinction. Decades away from the events of the film, it is revealed that the planet is dying. Sator has been given a weapon that has the capacity to destroy time itself. Asked why the future would even consider using such a weapon – why future populations would chose to destroy everything that ever was – Sator reveals that the inhabitants of the future have already lost everything that ever was when “their oceans rose and their rivers dried up. They have no choice but to turn around. We are to blame for that.”

It is not exactly a subtle metaphor for the very real prospect of a climate change apocalypse – the idea that the actions taken by the current generation might doom their descendents to suffering and even extinction. This is a very real fear. Therapists have patients wrestling with this anxiety. There are reports that younger people are factoring this into their decisions about whether or not to have children. The worst part is that mankind might already be past the point of no return. The planet may not be salvageable.

It is the excesses of capitalism that have done this. The kind of large-scale change necessary to protect the planet simply cannot be done at an individual level. Central to TENET is the selfishness of Sator. Sator is a man who cannot conceive of a world existing without him, any more than he can conceive of Kat existing without him. (The film echoes the line “he can not have her, then no one can have her.”) It’s a possessiveness. It’s about ownership and control. A thing that Sator cannot own has no value, even human life as an abstract concept.

Diagnosed with “inoperable pancreatic cancer”, Sator decides to destroy everything that ever was or ever will be. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor for the nightmare of late capitalism. After all, implicit in modern billionaires’ fascination with space flight – in the holidays to Mars that the protagonist jokes about – is the idea that they can just abandon the world below them to its problems. If Elon Musk, Richard Branson of Jeff Bezos can reach other worlds, it doesn’t matter whether the billions of people on Earth die. Climate change, mass extinctions, huge deathtolls; these all cease to be problems affection those floating in orbit.

There’s a bleakness and cynicism to TENET, one that exists in contrast to a lot of Nolan’s earlier works like The Dark Knight Rises or Interstellar. Then again, it feels like a movie that reads the cultural moment around it. The horrors of the global pandemic have only expanded the gulf that exists between those who have and those don’t. Coming out of the past eighteen months, watching the chaos as mankind is confronted with a major existential threat, it’s hard to feel reassured about the larger nightmares lurking on the horizon.

TENET unfolds in a world beyond the experience of most human beings, long before time travel becomes involved.

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