Cinematic Underdogs’s review published on Letterboxd:
Ten spoiler-saturated takeaways from Christopher Nolan’s ultra polarizing Tenet:
1. If I’m being frank, all of Nolan’s films are a bit too convoluted for my riddle-averse brain. Subsequently, in many ways, the overdue pushback against Tenet for being impossibly labyrinthine is a welcoming trend.
Whereas the sycophantic pandering to Nolan after Interstellar and Inception bloated his ego, the feedback here will potentially deflate it just a bit.
Now, I do not wish for Nolan to become cowardly—not by any means. But I don’t think that will ever happen anyways: he seems far too aesthetically bombastic to ever turn milquetoast.
Therefore, I think it is safe to say that by reckoning with his inaccessibility, Nolan will hopefully be forced to work twice as hard to make his next project a bit more tangible and coherent to the ‘everyman’.
And clarity—when interwoven with Nolan’s more esoteric instincts—is something to relish.
2. I assume that Nolan’s initial pitch to the studio execs was pretty cogent: beneath the temporal pincers, convoluted syndicates, and inverted explosions, this film is nothing more than a mash-up of some wildly abstract / vanguard scientific conundrums sugar-coated in the popcorn frills of classic spy & thriller genre tropes.
3. The sprawling philosophical, geopolitical, and temporal scope of this film is quite impressive. I could only imagine how good it would have been if Nolan and his team had the leisure of stretching the narrative out over a Netflix miniseries instead of squeezing everything into two and a half hour feature film.
4. Remember the debate about whether we should have a ‘Black’ James Bond—specifically, whether or not Idris Elba should be cast in the iconic role?
It seems as if Nolan took that silly debate (silly only in that there should absolutely be a ‘Black’ Bond: why the hell not!?) to heart in casting John David Washington as The Protagonist. JDW perfectly helms the film as the stoic albeit badass secret agent; and the color of his skin is, as it should be, totally irrelevant.
Secondly—to the critics that say JDW played the part with a too muted and laconic demeanor, I wholeheartedly disagree. The best versions of Bond know the power of reticence, and JDW’s aplomb and suavity as The Protagonist remained elegantly understated from the first to last shot.
And while on the topic of reprising roles, Michael Caine’s brief cameo as Crosby (an obscure intelligence superior) was a thoroughly enjoyable nod to his role as Alfred in Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.
Even more enjoyable: John David Washington’s symbolically snappy and seditious quip—“Brits don’t have a monopoly on snobbery”—when parting ways with Caine at the stuffy, five-star restaurant. That single line said multitudes about old-fashioned presumptions of power, ethnicity, and cultural superciliousness, dismantling how the three categories have traditionally intertwined.
5. There are a ton of postmodern elements at work in the dialogue here. The screenplay is veritably Nabokovian: flaunting a trickster smirk that constantly flirts with unreliable / meta contextualizations, narrative duplicities, and palindromic involutions of the plot.
The film knows it is pure fiction and never forgets this fact. This is why the lead is named The Protagonist for fu#$’s sake! And this is why many key plot-points cleverly pivot on subtle semantics, such as when Priya dismissively reduces The Protagonist’s role by placing an indefinite article before his title: “you’re A protagonist […] you thought you were THE only person capable of saving the world?”
Consequently, when The Protagonist refutes this diss—“No, but I am THE Protagonist”—Tenet reaches the definitive archetypal moment where its lead spy / double agent self-identifies with the magnitude of his singular and heroic calling.
The quick verbal exchange therefore becomes genuinely Cartesian in scope—as philosophically multilayered as Descartes’s famous “I think, therefore I am” aphorism—and yet, the climactic enormity of The Protagonist’s retort relies upon such a minor grammatical shift that I fear many missed its triumphant assertiveness altogether.
6. Many fans of the film seem to enjoy giddily quoting Barbara’s directive to The Protagonist—“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”—online, as if they are taunting all those who didn’t ‘get it’ because they couldn’t switch of the analytic half of their brain.
The quote—taken from a scene where Barbara reveals the quantum mechanical weaponry & detritus of a future war—is definitely cheeky and brazen on Nolan’s part. And by this point in the film, I found myself ambivalent to it at best: nothing had been earned or developed enough for me to buy into its persuasive appeal to fundamentally “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Suffice to say, I found a similar third-act directive—a military officer (i.e. Nolan) commanding his underlings (i.e. us, the viewer) to “not get on the helicopter if your thinking is only linear”—to be a considerably more compelling rhetorical appeal, yet many apprehensions I have toward this authorial posturing lingered.
In both occasions, Nolan and his team of screenwriters implicitly goad the audience with the words onscreen. By conspicuously rupturing the fourth wall, they condescendingly demand that we surrender our primitive / rigid preconceptions of temporal continuity in order to reap enlightenment.
And while acknowledging these glaring recommendations wasn't difficult, I remained quite wary toward Nolan’s candid suggestions on how to interact with Tenet: especially given that the fiats were so blatantly peppered throughout the screenplay.
It seemed particularly circumspect that a piece of art which inarguably aspired to be hyper-intellectual & heady was importuning me to turn off my cognitive apparatus. Clearly, the overarching intentions of the films (to be byzantine yet brilliant) and the underlying intentions of the injunctions (to switch off the instinct to mentally untangle complexity) seemed to be counterintuitive. If Nolan was more confident about his narrative, why would he ever offer up such pointed prevarications?
Now, the real question we must ask ourselves in such a situation is whether or not this type of unabashed prodding from an author of a work of art is warranted. Does it merit our respect or our hostility?
In other words, does Nolan and his team earn the respect of mental acquiescence (even if we are utterly dumbfounded / stupefied on a cognitive level) merely by virtue of the evocative thrill of the narrative dexterity and theoretical hijinks taking place onscreen? Or are they equivocating and treating us in an unduly officious manner—preemptively denigrating audience members who don’t subscribe to the film’s nuttiness as being too obdurate / ossified / conservative / dense / stupid?
This rift caused an internal dilemma as I reached the final act of the film. I tend to be quite icy when an artist requests passive idolatry via meta-textual provocations; but at the same time, I was so sincerely amused and entertained by each successive scene that I found myself becoming surprisingly lenient and charitable.
The reason for my ultimate generosity toward Tenet is fairly rudimentary: despite the off-putting moments of verbal deflection—in which characters seemed to make excuses for the overly elaborate / baffling dynamics of the content—I never felt as if I was merely being played by Nolan for superficial ends.
In other words, despite creating a messy story and then preaching about how to view / feel the film in fear that he had alienated his audience, Nolan's efforts here do not feel the least bit lazy. If anything, Tenet just feels slightly too ambitious. And as conceptually farfetched as it is, I wouldn’t be shocked if the philosophical puzzles depicted in this film are beautifully deconstructed and crystallized over the decades to come.
Either way, even if Tenet failed to leave any ripples on the zeitgeist, I tend not to fault art for being overly-ambitious. Therefore, despite Nolan’s narcissistic demands / moments of self-doubt, and some klutzy genre cliches (See: #7 & #8), I was ultimately more bemused than disgruntled by the film; and I count that a win.
7. The biggest weakness of this film is the flat emotional backstory of Kat’s son. How are we supposed to care for a boy we never see or hear or meet up close? Why does The Protagonist care so much about this ghost of a character? Hell, why does he care ‘so much’ Kat, for that matter?
The melodramatic tone surrounding Kat’s hapless son enters preposterously laughable territory late in the film. I literally busted up laughing after Robert Pattinson’s Neil informs Kat about the consequences of a pending armageddon—“Our present wiped out, our past obliterated. Everyone and everything who ever lived destroyed instantly”—and just in case the audience didn’t fully register that this sweeping statement included her poor hapless boy as well, Kat gasps and mourns, “Including my son!”
Besides sounding selfish and hysterical, the line is arrantly tone-deaf as well: utterly out of touch with the concerns of the viewer. We don’t care for the boy! We really don’t.
If Nolan had the audacity to salvage such syrupy fluff—ostensibly included by studio execs yearning for vapid emotional beats—with a smart-aleck rejoinder from Neil, and delete all the maudlin nonsense of the third act altogether, Tenet would have become a much more elevated work of art. Instead, the corny moments make it a weird hybrid of high and low art; and in a way, that is exactly where Nolan’s films have always subsisted.
8. The whole reveal that there were nine algorithms hidden amongst the nine nuclear superpowers—and that by combining each of the algorithms one could obliterate the world / time itself—felt both much too rushed and much too similar to Thanos’s Infinity Rings; both a cheap and easy McGuffin and a fairly hackneyed moral predicament (utilitarianism vs. humanism), the exposition-heavy unveiling of this development sucked life out of the plot.
Ironically enough, if Nolan had eliminated this gimmicky twist, and left this element of the narrative as ambiguous as so many of the other strands were, Tenet would have been much more satisfying. This is kind of a shame, because I’m sure the algorithm / nuclear superpower plot development took a ton of time and mental energy to fabricate.
9. For some reason, I kept thinking that Thomas Pynchon would dig this. Then, I added William Gibson to the list. Then I added Phillip K. Dick and Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson too. Then, the names of other postmodern thinkers / artists just kept on popping up and I stopped keeping count altogether; just going with the flow felt pretty apropos, I figured.
In addition to enumerating notable minds that I felt would dig Tenet, I also found myself reciting quotes I’d long stored to memory: reciting Adorno’s famous aphorism—“the splinter in the eye is the best magnifying glass”—during the first half of the film, before echoing the narrator of Sans Soleil—“he said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time”—throughout the second half.
The Sans Soleil quote really swept me up in a whirlwind of metaphysical reflections, and I came to wonder how that quote—coined sometime before the 1983 release of Chris Marker’s seminal documentary—might be updated to include the prevailing conceptual parameters of the 21st century.
If the 19th century was preoccupied with space, and the 20th with myriad temporal schemas, what is the prevailing metaphysical project before us today? Are we still working on the projects of the previous century—unweaving the temporal strands of our ontological condition? Are we now trying to reintegrate novel temporal notions into the spatial domain? Or are we reaching a point where both elements—space and time—are becoming so hyperreal and ‘virtual’ and polyvalent that everything is relative, and thus everything is fair game.
If this last question is at all indicative of the time we are living in, then I’d say Tenet is a fitting mainstream representation of where we currently exist on the theoretical spectrum: untethered from traditional convictions, and highly unfaithful to classical science, we are lurching headstrong into a world where conjectural impressions become the paramount force: transubstantiating thought into the very infrastructure of reality.
And if this is true, Tenet’s myriad hypotheticals—spuriously invented or not—may gradually materialize into newfangled truths—cinematic and beyond; and this might transpire even if its narrative indeed originated out of nothing more than Nolan’s nascent impulse to create a trippy piece of Hollywood escapism.
10. Ultimately, and to be totally forthright, a part of me really doesn’t care if the chiastic plot antics of Tenet make any actual sense in the realm of mathematics, physics, or beyond; in terms of cinematic titillation, Nolan concocts a steady stream of pretty brilliant conceits that bend the mind in creatively playful ways. And sometimes there is nothing more enjoyable than submitting oneself to some good fun simulacra as it percolates the imagination.