Tenet ★★★★

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

This review may contain spoilers.

If his movies were dream layers, Tenet would be a definite step towards Nolan's subconscious, where he further refines his interrogation of how our memories and relationships flower tentatively under the indifferent, insistent pressure of time. These delicate, all-too temporary formations (we never know, in Nolan's films or in our own lives, when a memory or person will betray or affirm us) reach out weakly to grasp at identity and meaning, and the results are all the more beautiful for their fragility.

But the same complaints that have crystallized around Nolan's movies are here in full, rigid formation: Tenet is sexless (characters represent ideas more than they ever have), Tenet is overwrought (the talents of venerable actors are relegated to exposition dumps), Tenet is under-dramatized (characters' motivations and objectives remain superficial), and Tenet is overbearingly masculine (the one woman character is defined as a distraught mother and estranged wife).

And all of these things are true, but...they're boring. While time's pressure, so tensely layered in Dunkirk, and memory's potency, so poignantly interwoven in Inception, are more unevenly and less forcefully applied here, Tenet is a fascinating step forward for Nolan precisely because of these 'lacks'.

At the end of the film, we find out that Robert Pattinson's character (whose name I can't even recall) has been more involved throughout the intricate plot than we realized: in disguise, he saves John David Washington's 'Protagonist' (the literal name of this character) multiple times, and it's revealed that the Protagonist himself has sent Pattinson back through time (along with a private army) to perform the chronological pincer move that defeats the Kenneth Branagh-in-a-hilarious-Russian-accent villain, an shell of a man (and character) who has been working for the 'future' to reverse time and thereby reverse climate-induced apocalypse.

In what is the film's most (maybe only) touching moment, Pattinson tells the Protagonist that they are actually close friends, and that the Protagonist is 'going to love' what they get up to. And that was when the movie made sense to me: this is a film whose narrative happens on the periphery, outside of the film itself - this meaningful friendship, the mother-son relationship we barely witness throughout the film, and the Protagonist's 'future' realized self are all existing off-screen.

And yeah, that can be a problem, but it's also a way in which this film ensures that it is a film about storytelling itself, the same way that Inception is a film about filmmaking itself. In Inception, we follow craftsmen who build narrative meaning for their mark, and in the process we realize how meaning itself is as personal as it is ephemeral, contingent on our limited experiences and the structures of epistemology built by others. And it's all tenuous - one shift, one off-balance experience or mistimed moment in the 'plan', and what we believe about who we are all comes tumbling down. We must, in the end, be contented with the fractured fragments of memory and meaning, grasping what we can to make sense of a fundamentally nonsensical, brutal existence. It's this tenuousness, this persistent fragility, that lends Nolan's films their most powerful moments.

Tenet follows through on this trajectory: there is a 'death of the author' reading here, where the Protagonist, using the time loop at the center of the plot, is revealed to be its author. His fate is finally in his own hands...but the pieces of the algorithm that make time-inversion possible are out there, in the world, always threatening to loosen his grasp.

Similarly, we can only watch this film 'forward' once: the first viewing is a final, irretrievable experience. If we ever watch the film again, we are watching it in reverse order, as we know the Protagonist is the author of this story. That means Nolan has achieved something I haven't quite seen in a film (and I would love to hear if anyone has seen something like this before): our perspective is completely wedded not just to the Protagonist, but versions of the Protagonist differentiated by time.

Never before have I been so aware that my first viewing is an irreplaceable experience, now forever lost. In Tenet, the beautifully-fragile flowering of meaning, relationship and identity at the root of Nolan's films takes place fully within ourselves as the audience. All of these missing narrative elements (the relationships between characters, the characters senses of their own selves, etc.) serve to foreground our own relationship with the film, and with films as a medium. Yes, we get a lot of exposition, a lot of scattered and thin characterization, but the narrative here is on the outside - we are left alone at this chaotic center of events, searching with the Protagonist of where to even begin the process of tenuously building a life (or an 'interpretation'), a delicate edifice of meaning and love to weather the storm of the inexplicable.

In the end, we are trapped with the Protagonist in that indeterminate, dangerous yet potential-rich perspective: we will now always be looking back, building ourselves anew out of fast-fading memories.

And honestly, I can't think of a better way to capture the experience of moviegoing itself.


After sitting with this movie another day, I realized that Mark Fisher's critique of Inception could work here as well. Fisher argues that Inception's dreamscapes demonstrate an invasion of the neoliberal order into our very psyches, asphyxiating our aspirations in their subconscious infancy. This explains why Inception's dreams are so pedestrian and take the shape of genre movies rather than anything truly oneiric.

In Tenet, we have that same neoliberal order: the entire plot revolves around an apocalyptic future that is inverting time in order to re-colonize the past. I can't think of a better encapsulation of Fisher's idea of 'capitalist realism' - we can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and in a future where resources are depleted and there are no more spaces to colonize, we are forced to turn back to cannibalize the past. Pattinson's character even mentions this when the Protagonist brings up the 'grandfather paradox' and wonders why the future would put itself at risk by colonizing the past: "all that matters is that they believe it will work" and are acting on it. Even if doomed to failure, doomed to ultimately eat itself, the ouroboros must continue to revolve. Neoliberalism itself is corrosive self-consumption that spreads across time, now, as well as space.

This adds another interesting layer to the Protagonist's struggle in that his 'present' self (which we follow in our first viewing of the film) exists within this order, working for/with a military apparatus that is reenacting a Cold War drama. We find, however, that he is ultimately working for a future version of himself, a version that is ceaselessly struggling to keep the algorithm that makes inversion (i.e. chronological colonization) possible hidden from neoliberalism's forces. Thus the Protagonist's struggle is not just to take control of his own authorship, but to do so in constant resistance to the global death cult of ceaseless production and consumption. Thus it also becomes a struggle to author a story that does not have to take part in this militarized, scarcity-scarred neoliberal order - a story that allows for other ways of relating to yourself and others.

Ultimately, our Protagonist labours to keep the space of imagination open, to ensure that a gap remains between capitalism and realism so that our imaginations, along with time itself, are not flattened.

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