Tenet

Tenet ★★★★½

More like first impressions: while skimming the films Wikipedia page as I waited for the movie to start, I was delighted to discover that Nolan had again consulted with the physicist Kip Thorne for this film, whose theories make up for the brunt of Interstellar, my favorite of Nolan's works. On the surface this appears almost a mashup of the last several Nolan films - the genre co-opting of Inception, the bonkers narrative structure of Dark Knight Rises, the time-looping of Interstellar and the stripped-down construction of Dunkirk - but even with the first half's 60s Bond playtime extravaganza, it's the space travel film that this resembles the most, as Thorne's involvement implies.

I'll try to be as tactful as I can: thinking back to the long-needed dumb grin on my face as I left the theatre makes me think this is one of the movies I'd least like to spoil. But it's not plot or character relationships, or narrative contrivances that are in danger of being spoiled - in fact I can think of relatively few films where such things matter less. It doesn't become apparent until reflection (more on that below), at least in my experience, but complete narrative arcs and even whole characters are established before being completely abandoned upon reaching a point where it can only be surmised that Nolan himself no longer has any use for them. Nolan does have a tendency towards a certain clumsiness in conventional storytelling terms, rather placing all his attention towards information and structure - most of his films actually tend to have glaring plot holes before being wholly upended by (and in favour of) the eventual cumulative effect of the film as a whole. In Tenet, a literal multitude of characters introduced in the films first 45 minutes are abandoned with absolutely no sign of what happens to them, and at times even his most ridiculous plot holes - how does Washington get back from the inverted Oslo car chase to in the room with Pattinson and Debecki? For better or worse, I expect a lot of viewers to say this is Nolan's best and worst tendencies at an extreme, and they're not wrong. Personally, I'm not complaining - as Nolan's storytelling "deficiencies" (for lack of better wording) are magnified, so too is the impact of the films cumulative effect, and the things that Nolan actually cares about - which happens to also be the subject of Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, here brought to perhaps its fullest expression: how our experience of time shapes our reality. No "how, when, and where" could possibly match - all movies are movies before they are stories. This is why people go see them.

I can easily see this becoming my favorite of Nolan's works, but both in the spirit of not spoiling the movie as much as I can and also that given these are first impressions, I can only go so far, especially based on a single viewing. This is partially because (and like all my favorite cineastes) Tenet doesn't just encourage repeat viewings, it might just be the only way to make sense of the film - as implied earlier, certain aspects aren't apparent until reflection, but as I write I'm realizing it is impossible to explain why I like this movie so much without spoiling it, so I will notify when I do so. Before I get to that, here's some neat details - it is very impressive in how Nolan has developed how he handles exposition: it remains to be seen how this goes down with the mass public (and it seems to be doing relatively well already though critics seem to be put off by it) but I personally find it hard not to be in awe in how Nolan has streamlined his "game-plan, sequence, repeat" to a point where these dynamics are worked into the action itself while limiting the amount of information we're handed to essentials - I find this flatly more effective in its immediacy (this is also easily Nolan's fastest paced movie) while still encouraging further study and revisiting. It's not nearly as sparse as Dunkirk, but you can quite clearly see the lessons he learnt from making that film. Nolan has also (to my eyes) improved the way he shoots dialogue - using Washington/Debicki's first scene as an example, I recall before thinking that one of Nolan's limitations was that although he has clearly studied the silent masters to a tee, he never figured out how to shoot dialogue with those same techniques, so he tends to shoot dialogue in the most plain way possible. But here, and in this sequence in particular, Nolan reverts to a deceptively simple shot-reverse shot mechanic - deceptively in that between shots, focal lengths change, or the angle is positioned just *slightly* differently as to provide subtle emphasis towards new, important information or a key character peculiarity. This is exactly what I've been dying to see/do and it functions in a manner as to gain entry into a level of character subjectivity that Nolan tends to avoid, shifting his presentational style towards a more precisely controlled and designed emotional/tonal manner of processing information.

Perhaps it helps that I have watched Interstellar excessively, but I don't think you need to have a background in quantum physics to understand what's going on in the film, as some critics seem to believe. That is where the filmmaker comes in. Now it's time for the spoiler warning, so if you want to save the surprise of seeing these mechanics in action for when you watch the movie yourself, don't read onward. In something like Inception, the deluge of exposition (not a criticism, I like how Kristen Thompson termed it - "continuous exposition" as a new form of narrative)
results in a sharp separation between "information" and "sequence" wherein the viewer has the option of actually not using the exposition for an understanding for the rules of an action sequence, allowing them to still lean into each action sequence on its merits alone and experience the sequence as though it's any other movie - such a freedom sounds liberating on paper but it's exactly the reason why we see so many people complain about Nolan's handling of exposition today. Because of Nolan's pairing down of how much expositional information is imparted to the viewer (and partly because of the accelerated pacing as well) we as the viewer can intuitively understand how the film works by watching those mechanics in action, rather than having them too blatantly spelled out for us - I gasped when the car flipped in the inverted Oslo chase, because it's the moment the movie finally clicks. It feels unseemly to refer to the concepts of time inversion and time looping as a theme - frankly it remains unclear if there even is one here other than in the broadest sense - rather it seems more fitting to say that Nolan has at last mastered the process of turning a concept into a mechanic. It's not just theoretical clarity, it's also precision in execution: that's why even with the glaring plot hole of Washington's arrival back to wherever Pattinson and Debecki are doesn't fully register initially - because Pattinson's claim that excessive heat would have caused hypothermia rather than burns in a state of inversion distracts us. Tenet is tantamount to an experience of not being given the rules prior to seeing how dynamics play out as mentioned earlier, but rather passing you the tools to examine a sequence while heightening the subjective experience of the material itself - in other words, it's manages one of the most challenging things to achieve in a film, which is to manage both subjectivity and objectivity at the same time. This is where repeat viewings come in, because once the time inversions become more clearly established I could already see my initial misgivings about the films first half dissipating - though naturally I should have expected this to be more than a goofy 60s Bond knockoff. The ending for me is Nolan's finest, with Pattinson basically standing for Nolan himself, succinctly summing up not just the film but Nolan's entire career with the discussion of free will, mechanics and reality - brief and succinctly, Dunkirk style: again, the contextualization is just enough for the viewer to make the connection immediately. But there's more: with knowledge of the ending, we become aware that Pattinson is aware of the whole thing, and on a revisit, that would re-contextualize the entire first half if not the entire film. This is to say, the film itself becomes the same time loop that is being explored through its mechanics, as well as being expressly about it. I saw a charming review earlier today: "Nolan is a genius because his business plan is making films so complicated that you have to see them twice." They're not wrong. Obviously there's more I could go on and on about - I can't believe I got this far and didn't once bring up the crosscutting in the films finale: an Inversion war, where one group moves forward in time to the blast zone and another group moves backwards, essentially making the cross-cut have physical properties since they are functioning in different, shall we say, "crunches" of time (at last we've moved on from Griffith!) cut together with Debicki and Branagh on the yacht, both moving in inverted time but neither aware that the other is, and trying to one up each other - so while we see only two spaces, we essentially get four "sequences". This is obviously jaw-dropping to watch on IMAX because we get the films biggest set-piece intercut with basically a chamber drama though I suspect it will hold up on a smaller screen as well. Loads and loads I can go on about though I'd better save it for the actual second viewing, like the character dynamics themselves - far more detailed than Nolan usually is - Branagh's Russian oligarch is actually the most interesting character here, which is not atypical for Nolan's villains, and that Debecki is ultimately the hero of the film is interesting in that she is the one that ends up not following the plan and gives in to personal feelings. In the end - for today at least - it's hard not to want to continue playing with the ideas in your head: this isn't because of any misstep but rather because, again, these mechanics work so precisely. How could one not linger on the image in the last third of Washington doing pull-ups on the inverted boat (you can see this shot briefly in the trailer) - a simple, perfectly precise summation of the film as mere optical illusion: by doing pull-ups, one would be making the same motion whether by linear or inverted time.

Random Note: I thought it was neat how tall Elizabeth Debicki was in comparison to her co-stars. Not that there's anything exceptional in merely being tall, but it served to remind me of how rarely we see a woman in a secondary role (much less semi-love interest) tower over the male leads.

Other random note: Tenet I think gave me a bit more insight into Nolan's own process, in that he basically takes concepts he's interested in from within philosophy or physics and simply places them in a genre framework and develops them from there. One can say this is just so Nolan can play with his ideas and still make money, but it also shows us just how malleable genre can be, and also how to translate difficult concepts to a broad audience.

Neil liked these reviews

All