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Backwards or forwards, it still runs out of steam

dir: Christopher Nolan


The word Tenet is a palindrome. That’s the only reason people keep saying “tenet!” in this really mysterious way, and why it’s the title of the film. The word is a palindrome, and the film is a palindrome, meaning it’s the same backwards going forwards.

Like most of Nolan’s films, it’s incredibly intricate and bombastic, and it has serious people being serious as they go about their serious job of exposition. There are set pieces interspersed between people valiantly trying to explain whatever the fuck is going on to the protagonist.

The protagonist in this film is called, within the film, The Protagonist. I am not making this shit up. At one point he even says to someone “But I’m The Protagonist” with a tone that implies “Do you know who the fuck I am? How dare you bring me a lukewarm latte?”, only to be told, in a bit that made me smile, “You’re – A - protagonist”, implying there are more people getting to make choices in the story than just this guy. Yeah. This Guy. Over Here.

Honestly, I watched the movie carefully, listened to all the dialogue people said they couldn’t hear, mostly understood the premise, at least the main threat, which is the end of the world etc etc, but as to what was actually going on at some points, I honestly had no fucking idea. As in, okay I accept that I understand that some people were moving backwards in time, as others went forwards, and others went backwards for a while before going forwards again, but what that meant at a lot of moments, especially in some of the action sequences towards the end, means I’ve got no fucking idea what was actually happening. Not the “why” of it, not even the “how”, but mostly the “What?”

But it looked impressive, and the soundtrack and the propulsive editing had me excited and revved up for most of the film’s length. And it is a long arse film, make no mistake. It’s 2 hours and 40 minutes you’d otherwise have spent pickling stuff from your garden, dreading the coming of the virus or counting the ways in which you should have done things differently twenty years ago. Speaking of the virus, man, Christopher Nolan can’t catch a break. Of all the people that have suffered in 2020, surely the one to suffer most is the chap whose studio, being Warner Brothers, decided to release a film just as the epidemic was poised to infect so many millions. Imagine trying to entice people into the ideal environment from which they could catch this fucking plague from some random stranger: Come one come all to the latest IMAX extravaganza! Complimentary death for you or someone close to you with each ticket sold! Maybe you’ll even get a handjob from that guy in Marketing or that lady from Auditing who’s just depressed enough to go on a date with you!

Either way, what a hard sell. Going to the movies was becoming hard even before what happened this year happened. Risking infection just to watch Nolan basically jerk himself off to his own greatest hits makes even less sense this year than it ever did before.

I’m sure whatever money they lost through making this very expensive looking movie, and marketing a film they couldn’t force people to go and see even at gunpoint, they’ll make up in tax breaks or, I dunno, donations to Trump’s reelection campaign or something. I’m sure Nolan will get more work down the track. He can’t be hurting for beer money, surely. He’s probably made enough money by now to buy Cornwall, and I don’t mean some nice house down in Cornwall. Those Batman flicks alone probably earned most of the UK’s GDP for those years, but of course that was before Brexit. Now he’ll be lucky to make thruppence ha’penny for his next gig.

Our protagonist might have a name you don’t recognise. He’s a pretty cool customer. The glare in his eye could be genetic. He doesn’t look that much like his dad, but he sure as shit sounds like him. John David Washington has the unenviable career of someone genetically related to, I shit you not, Denzel Washington. Holy shit. Like, how courageous do you have to be to chose to be an actor when your dad is one of the greatest and most famous actors the States has ever produced? People give Clint Eastwood’s kids crap for daring to be in movies, but imagine if Denzel was your goddamned dad! Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to say line one in anything ever if I felt like people were constantly going to compare me to a titan, a colossus, a goddamn Thanos of actoring like Denzel.

Seriously, you have to give John props just for getting out of bed in the morning. He’s pretty low-key, intense but subdued throughout, just like Nolan always wants them. Nolan wants characters that are super-competent but who don’t make much of a fuss and also they don’t, they really shouldn’t emote too much. Emotions in Nolan world are icky. Girls are a bit icky too, which is why there’s usually only one role for a woman in any Nolan flick. Sometimes the role is a solid one, like in Interstellar, with the character played by the great Jessica Chastain and then the even greater Ellen Burstyn. Most often, though, they’re symbol more than character, someone or something to be saved, or destroyed, and the thankless task here is given to Elizabeth Debicki, who’s getting so many roles as an icy otherwise okay person that she’s pretty much cornered the market.

The reasoning behind needing her character here is a bit spotty. It’s like Nolan and his brother plonked down a script in front of a bunch of Warner Brother’s executives, saying “Boom, take that, bishes, here ‘tis”, and the execs starting leafing through the 120 pages and said “wot, no girls?”

Nolan sighs, rolls his eyes and mutters “Fine, we’ll put ONE lady in who gets substantial dialogue, fucking happy now?”

The end of the world is presumably bad. Destroying the world deliberately is bad, too. But we apparently aren’t going to get it, or care, unless there’s A woman who cares about A son, who has to work with the heroes in order to save Her son, and therefore the World.

The threat is so vast, so tenuous, that I’m not sure I really got it or cared. You can’t help but get caught up in the action, as Denzel’s son and Robert Fucking Pattinson do their darndest to save the world from…something, but as to what they were actually saving the world from, well, maybe it was from reverse entropy or something equally portentous sounding.

Robert Fucking Pattinson is in this, but before you get rid of this page and delete your computer to make sure you never watch the film, he’s not completely awful in this! Honestly! I know that’s almost impossible to believe, but he’s better than adequate and not excruciatingly awful, like he usually is. I swear, he uses no accents more awful than his own natural accent! The worst thing he does is wear lots of scarves, and that's forgivable, given the circumstances.

I know, that’s almost more unbelievable than the premise, and all its talk of temporal pincer movements and inverted bullets being even more harmful than actual bullets, which are, last I checked, pretty harmful already.

If someone’s trying to end the world, or reverse the flow of time to effectively make it like the world never existed, then presumably there is some villain who is orchestrating these events, because, honestly, some enterprise this complicated needs someone competent at the helm of the evil organization. Sator is that villain, ably played by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh can be charming, can be a lot of things on camera, but he is none of those here. Here he’s just a cold, brutally cold low key monster. He just happens to be the estranged husband of the one main female character, so, really, she’s a plot device as a way for Our Protagonist to get close to Sator.

The weirdest part of this story is that the film flirts with Sator being a mega-powerful Russian oligarch who not only has private goon squads and armies at his command, who is being helped by some group in the future to end the world, but that the thing that really brings him undone is the thought of his ex-wife hooking up with an African-American man. Is that, is it the sexual jealousy aspect that they’re going for, or the racism aspect, or…? I don’t know, but the thing is, there is no relationship between Protagonist and Kat (Debicki). The only thing she cares about, because SHE’S A MOTHER, DON’T YOU KNOW, A MOTHER! is her son, until she doesn’t, conveniently, and risks destroying all of Creation because she really fucking hates her ex-husband’s guts. A significant part of the plot depends on her going back in time (I guess, it’s not like I really understood what that meant) and tricking her ex into thinking she is the person she’s supposed to be in the past, until she can kill him at a certain point, but not before she gets a signal?

My favourite part of the flick is when she decides “fuck it, I hate him too much”, thus destroying all time and space forever more. The end. Thanks for coming and risking covid, peace out!

Her job, other than the inexplicable amount of times she tries to kill Sator, and is stopped, often by the Protagonist, is also relatively easy compared to Protagonist. He and his mates have to stage elaborate heists in airports where they end up helping or fighting other versions of themselves, have strange car chases with some people operating forwards and others working backwards in time, then go back to earlier parts of the film and do things from the other side of the events, which is, you know, time consuming for everyone.

Just like in Inception, Nolan constructs the climax of the flick such that an A level and a B Level and a reverse negative A level are happening simultaneously and are utterly dependent on each other, and there’s plenty of signals and tells to help you realise “oh, that must actually be The Protagonist or Robert Fucking Pattinson, coming back from the future, or in reverse from the past, in order to make that possible.” I’d argue though, that with all the hand-holding and “clever” signaling, it doesn’t necessarily make me sit back and yell, “Nolan, you crafty devil, you’re a fucking genius!”

What it really reminds me of is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where to get out of a scrape the two main dunderheads towards the end say things like “to get out of this, in the future I have to remember to put a bin just here in the past!” so that a bin falls on Ted’s dad’s head just at that crucial moment in the police precinct.

Now that’s clever. Temporal shenanigans can sometimes be fun, but they can also be tedious. Let’s just say that here the timey-wimey aspects of this story left me cold, but that I appreciated the technical aspects of putting it all together all the same. It’s okay, Christopher, A for effort, truly. C for how it came together, but seriously, A-1 for trying. No, don’t cry, it’s okay, no, it’s not the equivalent of a Participant ribbon, perish the thought. Honestly, it was ever so complex. I swear, you're the most complex director I've ever been with...

No, in truth the last section of the film was more likely to elicit a “how much longer has this got?” from mine own lips or those of the person watching this with me than anything else. I understand, as in, I grasp that something was happening at the end when two different teams of soldiers are trying to do something, and one is traveling in one direction, and the others are traveling in reverse, but I don’t know what that means, realistically speaking. Because the people they’re fighting aren’t going in both directions, so… Plus, their enemies, whether they’re going backwards or forward in that final bit, in some abandoned Russian Potemkin town, that’s about to blow up 9 pieces of something they call the Algorithm which will erase everything? There’s no understanding, at least on my part, of who or what they’re fighting. There’s almost no-one there. They're shooting at these enemies, and, honestly, I wondered whether they were shooting at themselves.

And who are these people who voluntarily fight for life to be erased from the planet? How do you hire these people? Where do you find them?

“Okay, so the job pays a hundred an hour, full medical benefits, but at the end of it, if you do everything right and stop the people we’re fighting against, all life on this planet is wiped out because…reasons.”
- “I’m hooked, where the fuck do I sign, strange guy with menacing Russian accent?”

The threat from the future has a simultaneous antagonist, in that someone is somehow also helping Protagonist and the other people, but, honestly, if you didn’t work out in the first fucking minutes of this flick that its obviously The Protagonist helping The Protagonist, and that every goddamn single time someone asks a lingering question, like, “So, how did you get involved?” or “so who recruited you?”, or “so, who took my underwear off last night?” and then no-one answers, but the camera looks long and lingeringly at The Protagonist, the answer is going to be, eventually, The Protagonist. Seriously, that's not even a spoiler, that's just Nolan 101.

Also, whenever someone points out that these time-based shenanigans make no sense and are complete paradoxes, there’s usually some glib answer that explains nothing, and then it just cuts away to something else. Someone mentions that if this is happening now, doesn’t that mean that the bad Russian failed already and the good people somehow succeeded in what they were doing? Robert Fucking Pattinson says something like “people can’t see the present from other parallel timelines, don't you know.”

It’s like two people sitting in a room, and one of them turning to the other and saying “that smells terrible, what a terrible fart you just produced” and the other says “surely it wasn’t me, ‘twas the cat, I says” and of course there’s no cat in the room, and they don’t have a cat anyway.

But, you know, it’s an explanation of sorts. Or some kind of temporal pincer movement.

Tenet is well done for what it is, but what it is, is a Christopher Nolan film, so it’s far more complicated than it needs to be solely for the purpose of making us, in our socially distanced audiences say enthusiastically to ourselves, because there shouldn’t be anyone near us anyway “how clever is Christopher, oh what a clever boy Christopher is!” as we pet him and feed him treats. He’s ever so deserving, our Christopher, and if we don’t like his films, well then, we’re either jealous or dumb, aren’t we?

Tenet. Like watching Christopher Nolan take apart and then put back together a particularly snazzy bit of IKEA furniture for an hour, but then it's another hour and a half of him patting himself on the back afterwards for the great job he did, first class.

6 times out of 10 I have actually always enjoyed putting together IKEA furniture – it’s one of my secret pleasures in life. But this film ain’t it or a bit.

“There’s a cold war, cold as ice. To even know its true nature is to lose. This is knowledge divided.” – no, this is dialogue that is terrible, no matter who it’s delivered by and in what direction - Tenet