by Alex Khlopenko
Every single time I join any community there comes a strange moment when I first begin to cringe at the community and the object of its admiration (mobile phones in the mid-2000s, MMORPG’s in 2010s, film bros, and fantasy literature these days) later to despise it and everything associated with it. Cringe passes and you get used to people fixated on one thing (limiting exposure to both the object and the community are key to a healthy relationship with them). One such cringe-worthy community is the Nolan fanboys, the people who unironically quoted Heath Ledger’s Joker and in all seriousness still think that Inception is a good movie in the year of our lord 2020. These people are snobbish. They are annoying. But above all – they are loyal. Their loyalty to the genius of Christopher Nolan has withstood the tests of time (Dunkirk? The Dark Knight Rises?) only to face another challenge in the toughest of times.
Christopher Nolan’s latest feature “Tenet” has everything that you would expect from a Nolan film – a mind-bending, time-shattering puzzle at its core, visual minimalism paired with the extravagance of set pieces, unimaginative dialogues with the off-beat genius of Jon David Washington’s and Robert Pattinson’s humor, and the spiritual successor to Hans Zimmer – Ludwig Göransson making the soundtrack go brrr (in cinemas more like – BRRR). Despite the delayed release, it was primed to be the savior of both the quarantined cinematic experience and the fuel to the fire of “Ending Explained” videos on YouTube and whole subreddits cracking their heads over another clue. But commerce aside, did it actually have anything to say? Yes, and a lot, but the language tools necessary to convey it all once again escaped the studio machine’s grasp.
Time is the dominating leitmotif of Nolan’s body of work – it fascinated it from the start, and the older he gets the more he dreads it (don’t we all?). This dread before the future is the heart of the plot and the time travel concept of Tenet. Inversion may be his ultimate dream – a tool from the people of the future that helps you reverse the entropy of the object/person and go back in time. How many regrets a man should have eating at him to make so much art about changing the past?
In Tenet, time (or “inversion” of it) became a weapon in the hands of a Russian oligarch who want to use it to rain down his wrath on this unjust “twilight” world. Of our twilight world – in Tenet, Climate change is destroying the world and was the reason for the creation of inversion to reverse it. As usual, it takes a significant portion of the first act to establish and explain the mechanics of it all, but the explanations looked cool and for once it was not Michael Cain but Clemence Poesy doing the explaining. Though never do they question the nature of the battle and its rules, the greater effect it might have on the people, or the nature of inversion itself. The people do not interest Nolan, concepts do.
The concept of inversion serves another master too – as a tool from the future meant to battle climate change, it is undoubtfully vilified and, coupled with the unambiguous ending, sends a double, self-contradictory meaning: 1) any change, especially from the future generations, is destructive as it aims to upend our “twilight world”, so don’t try it 2) even if you try to change things – they don’t change, everything will stay the same no matter what you do. Hollywood couldn’t come up with a more reactionary message even if all the executives tried to do it together.
Obviously, even the most mind-boggling concepts serve the Hollywood formula. Beats don’t care about time inversion, or climate change, or human drama, and like the eponymous Sator Square that gave names to the concepts and characters in Tenet, the film is bound to repeat the same beats, for the same reasons, for eternity – no matter how you look at it.
Comparison to Inception was unavoidable, more so here. Tenet’s toolbox of the visual language is indeed ascetic to the point of simply being poor, yet it is miles ahead of the grey blandness of Inception. Nolan is learning from his mistakes and at least tries to push the imagery further than a bunch of men shooting at each other, even though at the end that is all there is.
Whereas Inception grabbed the lowest hanging fruit, Tenet plays with the same tools but at least tries to do something new in the middle of all the men in masks shooting at each other. This poses a two-tiered question: 1) Is that – a grey, unimpressive film where men shoot men and discuss high concepts in barrages of exposition, the limit to Christopher Nolan’s imagination; and 2) If it isn’t – would the studio allow him to do anything else.
I’d dare say that no, that is not the limit of his creativity, but then I remembered the majority of his works. And even if he dared to try a different thing, to truly experiment, the studio wouldn’t allow escaping that golden cage.
This grey, bland, “studio-approved” decisions seep into everything and painfully remind of pre-James Gunn/Taika Waititi MCU. Be it opera, Vietnam shores, India, or United Kingdom – they look like anything else, impersonal, inoffensive, nothing too detailed to be specific.
Stylistic coldness and corporate indifference poison otherwise stunning cinematography – Hoyte van Hoytema could film a pile of trash rotting on IMAX and it would still be astonishingly beautiful. Yet the tangible lack of courage in the subject matter makes even the most otherwise daring shots look safe and calculated. This is the cinematic language of a too-rich-for-his own good 17-year-old filmmaker from Reddit.
The choice of locations tells the same story – just like the script and the cinematography, they are too general, too bland. They could be anywhere and belong in any film. I knew about the trouble Nolan went through with the Ukrainian government when they declined to give Syncopy and WB a 99% tax break on the production the “Ukrainian” bit of Tenet in Ukraine back during production when local intelligentsia bemoaned the missed chance to be annoying for the rest of their lives because they’ve seen Nolan in Kyiv. Nolan filmed Ukraine in Estonia. I guess the real national opera didn’t fit with the visual ascetism of the picture.
The Protagonist and the Damsel in Distress
American film critics, definitely salty about the lack of US-wide release, bemoaned the lack of emotional connection with the characters. Thing is – Nolan has never been interested in characters (with the sole exception of “Interstellar”). He makes high concept films that require double-digit percentages of runtime to explain them, he can’t afford to make films any longer.
The star-studded cast – from the perfect leading man in John David Washington to Pattinson who is here just to have fun, to the graceful and comparatively underutilized Elizabeth Debicki (she had a moment during the car chase where no other actress could handle the task – reaching from the back seat with her feet to the front door), and even the awful caricature of a villain that Kenneth Branagh plays channeling his best impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red October (is this man hell-bent on ruining all the accents in the world? First Poirot, now this?) – they are not people, they are not designed as people. They are nothing but vessels for the research into the concept interesting to Nolan. In a sort of meta-commentary, the main character doesn’t even deserve a name – he is The Protagonist.
And this profound lack of interest in the people, in the humane, shows in all of Nolan’s works. That is why the heroes of Tenet (or Inception, or Prestige, or The Dark Knight) never look for human connection, never form any meaningful relationships or look for camaraderie. They are all informed by American individualism and exceptionalism – lone geniuses, spies and astronauts, scientists, and soldiers – they don’t question authority, they don’t question the structure they are stuck in. They are on their quest to uphold the status quo, to right the wrongs that would change anything.
Christopher Nolan is the dreamer who locks his characters within weird but sterile dreams where, by his own dream logic, they never question how they got there.
Is Tenet worth seeing? Unapologetically yes. Preferably in IMAX (if it is safe because your country dealt with COVID19).
Nolan used to supply us puzzles when the world was not as connected in a hivemind as it is now when there were no Twin Peaks: The Return, The OA, when there was no Mr. Robot, and myriad of other shows and films who did puzzles, clues, mind-bending and challenging stuff way better than he did. And instead of catching up, he brought more of the same to the table. The loyalty of a fan base has never been tested like that before. And it is not about fan service or pleasing the community, its about stagnation, corporately induced stagnation in this case. A community, be it MMORPGs or Nolan fanboys, if the stagnation arrives sooner rather than later it will begin devouring itself until there will be only irrelevance left.
It pains me to imagine the films that an auteur of Nolan’s level could dream up in a place where he could create without the constraints of the studio system, how and where he could push the boundaries of imagination. Until then we are stuck with movies about CIA spies and a Russian oligarch with funny accents.
We definitely live in a twilight world and with each next film, Christopher Nolan has fewer and fewer friends at dusk.