On Sunday night, I was sitting in my living room watching television when I heard what I assume must’ve been some fireworks going off nearby. At least, under normal circumstances I would’ve assumed they were fireworks. This time my first thought was, “Oh no, has the civil war started already?”
That’s what this election cycle has done to me in a nutshell. No matter what your politics (and I promise this is the last time I’ll do a “both sides” type thing), you’ve no doubt spent the last six months to four years being bombarded with information attempting to convince you that your way of life is in peril and that the end times are here. Every time I see a pick-up truck flying a giant Trump flag desperately trying to get people to notice (and lately I’ve seen quite a few, some with people sitting in the beds) I think “Is this finally it? Is this the preamble to some Q-Anon Krystallnacht ushering in a Mad Max dystopia where I’m forced to huff chrome and stockpile guzzoline?”
The worst part is that I honestly don’t know whether this is a sane reaction or a completely paranoid one. This is what living through 2020 has been like, never knowing whether we should settle down and relax or load the guns and lock the doors. Is this the moment we choose democracy or fascism? Or is it just nothing? Who the f*ck can really say anymore.
With the supposedly most consequential moment in human history almost upon us, I found myself unable to concentrate on just about anything else. I desperately needed to unplug until some of this uncertainty blew over. And so I chose the next best thing to a sensory deprivation tank: going to a movie theater.
I had’t been to a theater since this pandemic began — for good reason, obviously — and theaters in my county only just opened back up a few weeks ago. Nonetheless, I figured a movie theater in the middle of an afternoon would be basically empty, and thus fairly low risk, and with only one other seat in a massive auditorium showing up as taken 15 minutes before show time, I felt okay about it. I’ve seen every Christopher Nolan movie (save his first) in a theater. Now it was time to finally strap in and see Tenet!
Having now seen it, Christopher Nolan may have dodged a bullet releasing this film in the midst of a pandemic. Otherwise, there would be a lot more people discussing what a completely incomprehensible pile of gibberish it is. If you want to recreate the experience of watching Tenet in a theater, have someone speed read you the instructions to an IKEA dresser in a foreign language while lighting off firecrackers and blasting boomy club music in the next room. Nolan has always been slightly too fixated on keeping his audience disoriented, but in Tenet he jumps straight into relentless subterfuge with no foreplay and a plot conceit that’s essentially a non-starter.
Ah, the plot. The normal snide film critic thing to say would be “the plot, such as is it is…” as a way to poo-poo a dearth of story. Tenet has the opposite problem. It has far too much plot. Tenet is the plot equivalent of a monolithic wall of ever-scrolling text that eventually ends mid-sentence when the narrator dies, like a Nikolai Gogol parody of a Steven Spielberg movie. John David Washington (Denzel’s kid, previously seen in BlacKkKlansman) plays the main guy, known to IMDB and to posterity only as “Protagonist.” In the first scene, he’s part of a team of commandos who seem to be trying to thwart a terrorist attack at a massive European opera house (Nolan’s penchant for grandiose settings has always been his saving grace and is easily the most entertaining aspect again here).
The gas mask-clad commandos drop sleepy gas down the opera tubes, and soon the entire audience, save the commandos, are asleep. Protagonists’ isn’t the only commando team in the opera house, however, and it quickly becomes difficult to tell which detachment is shooting at which, let alone what either of them want. Even weirder, some of the bullets flying around the massive auditorium seem to be traveling… backward. That is, backward in time. As if the tape of reality is being rewound. It’s just one of many Tenet scenes in which an unforgettable setting is the backdrop for utterly incomprehensible action in a film that will drag on for two and a half ear-splitting hours.
Protag is eventually captured by some Russian-sounding dudes and taken to be interrogated on a railroad track. Rather than give up his presumably many secrets, he swallows a cyanide capsule. He blacks out, only to wake up on a giant boat traveling somewhere on a grey sea, where a handsome older man tells him he’s passed the test. Because he passed this test, he has been recruited to save the world. Save the world from what? Nuclear holocaust? “Much worse,” Protagonist is told. The only thing the man tells him about his mission is a word, “tenet,” and a gang sign-like hand signal mimicking a palindrome.
It turns out, some future scientists, or bad people, have figured out a way to reverse the polarity of time. Or as a Tenet science person explains it, “reverse the entropy,” of objects and people, so that they travel in reverse. It’s a bit like the conceit of Memento, only much, much dumber.
You may have noticed John David Washington wearing an oxygen mask in many of the promo images for Tenet. That’s because, we are told, reverse-entropy lungs can’t breathe regular oxygen, what with the lung cilia going backwards and the oxygen moving normally forward in time. For me, this was the biggest laugh line in the film.
Tenet‘s entire reason for being is a climactic action sequence in which one team of commandos is traveling forward through time while the other is Benjamin Button-ing (it’s actually incredible that not a single character in Tenet uses the phrase “Benjamin Button”). It’s a logistical marvel that Nolan manages to pull it off and impressive as spectacle. Yet like almost every other scene in Tenet it’s hard to care much beyond the initial wonder because what each team of commandos is actually trying to do or why they’re there is entirely impenetrable. There’s a scene in which a British commando played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson tries to explain this with a whiteboard, but between the general unfathomability of Tenet‘s plot and the fact that, in classic Nolan fashion, character dialogue is never allowed to travel directly to our ears unencumbered by a deafening bombastic score (this time by Ludwig Göransson rather than Hans Zimmer, though equally grandiose and overbearing), it’s impossible to understand what the hell he’s explaining.
Along the way to this obvious centerpiece, there are side quests, most of which involve Protagonist getting mixed up with a ruthless Russian arms dealer named Sator (played deliciously by Kenneth Branagh) and his abusive marriage to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Like many Nolan movies but much worse here, Nolan uses emotions (“love,” “anger,” “despair”) as mere prods, explaining why this characters goes here or that goes there without setup, evolution, or chemistry. “Love” or “anger” between characters are simply states of matter, things that exist, like trees or oxygen masks.
One side quest involves a yacht traveling through the Alps. Another involves John David Washington and Robert Pattinson crashing a 747 into a “free port.” That’s where rich people store expensive art as assets in technically stateless warehouses to keep from paying duties on them (these are real things, and if you want to know more about them I would suggest the book Moneyland). They’re crashing the plane into the free port to trigger the fire-prevention system, which floods the free port’s storage areas (but not its corridors, importantly!) with fire-dousing (but, importantly, unbreathable) halide gas. In order to get away with crashing this 747 into the free port to trigger the alarm and set off the gas, they first have to sneak onto the plane and blow out the rear and dump pallets of gold bars onto the runway. Then, once the gold is on the runway and the plane hits the free port and the alarm triggers the gas…
Honestly, I’m not sure what they were supposed to do after that. Michael Caine showed up at one point and I literally don’t remember who his character was or what he said or why he was there. Almost the entire running time of Tenet consists of characters trying to talk their way around the central paradox of time travel — the grandfather paradox, as Pattinson’s character explains it. Rian Johnson wisely waved this away in Looper — “you really want to get into this? we’d be here all day, making diagrams with straws!” — but Nolan instead has his characters repeatedly try to logic their way through the illogical, using nonsense and cryptitudes. It’s as tedious as it is thankless, or at least the part you can actually understand between the boomy score and explosions is.
All in all, I highly recommend Tenet as a cure for election and post-election anxiety. I left the auditorium feeling like I’d once again re-entered a sane and ordered universe, where time moves linearly and people often speak in lucid sentences. Tenet, surely one of the most incomprehensible big-budget movies ever filmed, even more than being a sumptuous visual feast, has a way of making one yearn for the relative sanity of Election Day politics. I needed that.