Tenet ★★★½

I don't mention it very often on here, but I used to write screenplays. I haven't written anything in (checks files) about three years, but I haven't ruled out a return to the format eventually. I simply became disillusioned with my prospects of "making it", especially after writing a couple of very low budget scripts and attaching producers and *still* failing to get the piddling amount of financing I was after. My bad for insisting that I should be the one to direct, I guess. Maybe I'll write a novel.

One of those very low budget scripts, written in 2014, was called STRANGER AT THE GATE. It's almost 100% dialogue, but was meant to be filmed real time in one shot. The premise concerns a physicist en route from China to Los Angeles, who arrives at the Vancouver airport for a connecting flight. Waiting for her at the gate is a strange boy who proceeds to tell an impossible tale, despite her initial attempts to ignore him. He explains that he experiences time in reverse—her future is his past, so he already knows all of the decisions she's about to make. He informs her that a massive earthquake is about to devastate southern California, causing twin meltdowns at the nuclear power plants in Diablo Canyon and San Onofre. This disaster is the catalyst in a downward spiral—devastated cities, radioactive oceans, civil unrest—that leads to complete societal collapse. And the boy assures her that she is not getting on a doomed flight to see her family, because she has already made that decision, and her family is already most likely dead in his past. Instead, she's getting in a car with him and driving into the wilderness, where they can safely sequester themselves from the already written future. Using all of her logical faculties as a physicist, she attempts to disprove the boy's wild claims, but as the conversation progresses, the prophecy of his words becomes clear.

I did a lot of research into theories of time to prepare for this script (as a layman, I found Sean Carroll's "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time" to be the most useful explainer of the concepts I was working with.) And my conclusion is that time must be considered like an equation that has already been solved, or in other words, that we must consider time officially ended. The human perception of time is of a process that proceeds from beginning to end. But this is just our perception: time already exists in its totality, and humans are simply stuck in a mind and body that experiences time in a linear progression. We're on Letterboxd, so think of it like watching a movie. The movie exists in its totality, but we watch it from beginning to end. Our "present" moves along at a steady pace like the slider in the runtime bar, but the present is just the moment that happens to be on screen, and all the other moments in the movie are still there and unchanged in their own present. If you stop and think about it, this concept has unsettling implications for the nature of free will vs. predestination, but I don't want to get bogged down with metaphysical wankery here. In short, STRANGER AT THE GATE poses a conceptual question—what if there was someone equally stuck in time's perceptual trap, but that trap moved from end to beginning instead of beginning to end?

All of this is preamble meant to emphasize that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the mechanisms of time and specifically what it would be like to experience time in reverse, and yet I was still completely confused by TENET. I don't mean that I was confused by the broad plot outline—I understand that it's about a secret agent plunging into the world of "reverse entropy" and attempting to stop a Ukrainian supervillain from ending the world with an algorithm. Ultimately, the film climaxes when they must stop the supervillain with a "temporal pincer move", cornering him from both the past and the future. Nolan's concept of time involves "time inversion", where discrete individuals can reverse the flow of time *for themselves only* and move backwards through time to impact events for everyone. I think this is a cool concept on paper, even if it doesn’t quite obey the fixed structure of time I laid about above, and it does provide Nolan with the opportunity for some impressive technical bombast. I don't recall ever seeing a fight scene where one guy is moving forward and the other is moving in reverse, for example.

When I say I'm confused, I mean that for 150 minutes, my internal monologue went something like this: who is that? where are they? what is that? why are they doing that? what are they talking about? who are they talking about? what does all this rare artwork have to do with anything? why are they crashing a plane into a hangar? who is that again? what is going on? why did they do that? why are they in this location? where are they going? is everything in the second half of the movie going to reverse everything in the first ha—OK, no it's not truly a narrative palindrome. Now who is that? what did they just say? what did I miss?

Now you may be asking, why am I rating this ★★★½ if I am admitting in this review that I didn't understand what was happening in the movie? And that's a good question. I don't really know how to allocate a rating to TENET. The experience of watching it was a sensory feast, but a borderline unpleasant intellectual exercise. I'm not against a Thomas Pynchon-style smokescreen obscuring the narrative, dashing any attempts to logically follow what's happening in favor of moods and textures. I love INHERENT VICE (which, to be honest, is Pynchon on easy mode... try "V.") But I don't think TENET was trying to do that exactly, otherwise it would not have characters constantly rattling off reams of exposition. I get the feeling that Nolan was trying to tie an elegant double fisherman's knot, and instead ended up tying the Gordian knot. All of this said, despite the convoluted movements and the vexing experience of actually watching the thing, in the days that followed, I found that the narrative kind of rearranged itself in my brain a bit. I jettisoned the details that felt extraneous, and the forward and backward thrust of the story came into sharper relief. I'm not sure if that was intentional on Nolan's part or if I am just deluding myself into remaining a Nolan defender, but the spinning totem has fallen and landed on ★★★½ after all.

I remain a Nolan defender, even though I think this probably joins the weak end of his catalog with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, as a case study in getting far too carried away. I totally get the backlash, but I just don't think there's anyone else working at the Nolan budget level who is really aspiring to, well, much of anything. And I also must say that it was nice to sit in a theatre after 7 months. In retrospect it's kind of a hilarious that Hollywood was banking on this insanely perplexing 150-minute mindfuck to drag their books out of the red, when they could have just released any of the dozens of other servings of pablum they have on deck. WONDER WOMAN 1984 was *right there*. People want to sit in a dark room and indulge in some escapism right now, and Nolan has us solving Fermat's Last Theorum.

"I don't know what happened but it was pretty good" - me

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