Tenet

Tenet ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Tenet review number three, wherein your pal ScreeningNotes contorts himself and jumps through hoops trying to explain why he kinda likes this movie that he only kinda likes.

I feel more torn about Tenet than I can remember being about any other film in recent memory. I absolutely love (some of) it as a piece of pure audio-visual entertainment: the reverse-entropy action scenes (in particular the two-parter at the airport and the finale) are some of the coolest things I've ever seen, and the score is a nonstop banger for me, I love the way it says "fuck you" to the dialogue, the way it tries to walk back the massive amount of exposition by making it inaudible. But I absolutely cannot abide the way it advocates, glorifies, and even romanticizes an international syndicate of super-spy military police running around the world shooting people out of some paranoid delusion that they're preventing wars that aren't even happening. Violence in the name of non-violence doesn't work for me.

This time through the film, however, I felt more appreciation for what I want to call Neil's Comprehensive Theory of Reality, explained most clearly and explicitly in his line at the end of the film, "What's happened, happened. Which is an expression of fate in the mechanics of the world. It's not an excuse to do nothing," but it's also communicated in the mechanics of the film itself, it's spoken by the sound of the plot-gears as they churn and grind, it's realized in the fact that the existence of Neil and the Protagonist in the present attests to their success in the future, because if they failed then they wouldn't exist anymore — which, as Neil points out, paradoxically means they can't be complacent and do nothing, even though from a time-lord Dr.-Manhattan perspective they've "already done" what they need to do.

The first time I watched Tenet, it actually gave me a minor panic attack. I got overwhelmed with the burden of the future; when I watched the Protagonist move backward through time, it was too much for me to think about all the myriad butterfly-effect ways that my actions affect the future. It was too much cowboy shit for fragile little me. But given some time to think about it, I think the final message of the film is entirely the opposite: to the extent that the film has an emotional or psychological purpose, I think that it's to show us that we can content ourselves in the present because the future has "already happened," because if it hadn't then we wouldn't even be here anymore. We can't sit back and do nothing, but we don't need to be overwhelmed with the weight of the future. We're here, and that's what matters.

I just wish that part of the reason — the main reason — that we can content ourselves in the present without worrying about the future weren't because there's a proto-fascist military secret police protecting the world from the paranoid conspiracy theory of reverse-entropy nuclear annihilation. But maybe — and this is where I really go off the rails, so if you thought my previous nonsense was too much then buckle up — maybe if we view this element of the film from the socio-cultural perspective I've been watching my Years of Lead movies from, perhaps I can finagle it into an expression of sympathy with a cultural anxiety similar to what I experienced having a small panic attack watching the film for the first time, rather than experiencing it as an advocacy in favor of establishing a splinter cell of magical time-cops.

Like, some of these Italian films I've been watching occasionally express a strange nostalgia for the old ways of Italian fascism, because at least life made sense then, at least they had a facade of stability, even if it was built on evil foundations. These movies ask, what's the point of agonizing over the presence of evil in the world and in our actions when it's impossible to be good anyway? Maybe what I find compelling about Tenet is the anxiety behind the nostalgic paranoid delusion, the anxiety that produced the fantasy of Russians attacking us from the future in a Cold War–inflected temporal pincer, and the film advocates for a simultaneous past and future surveillance that I can't agree with, but it advocates for it in a way that speaks to something I understand. It justifies its bad politics as a solution to valid cultural psychology.

I might not want the Tenet organization in my life, but maybe I can understand why Christopher Nolan might want it in his.

2020 | Christopher Nolan | Hoyte Van Hoytema | Sci-Fi
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