Director Christopher Nolan has long enjoyed playing with the idea of time, from the reverse chronology of Memento, the different pace of time in various places in both Inception and Interstellar and the different time periods of the three intercutting narratives in Dunkirk. Even his other films often play the more common trick of having moments edited together, like when the description of a mission (or a magic trick) is broken up by seeing how it later plays out. In Tenet though he takes this all a step further having his characters live in a world where time can run forwards and backwards simultaneously.
The film calls this ‘inversion’ and even though this is not what they have chosen for the title, this does feel like the final part of Nolan’s unofficial prepositional prefix trilogy after the aforementioned movies Inception and Interstellar. I know that some reviews have called this central conceit out for being too Christopher Nolany and yes, while the events of the story themselves are impossible to predict the idea of him playing with linear entropy like this is probably not such a surprise anymore. Some people want him to move past this kind of stuff.
To me though it seems with Tenet that he is ready to do just that. This feels like he is very much closing the book on these movies that deal with concepts of time with one last great flourish and it wouldn’t surprise me if he does indeed move right away from this in all his future films. It is a brilliant flourish though; Tenet is superb and while this isn’t my favourite of the director’s films, it is still an incredible show of ingenuity and cinematic spectacle. It doesn’t matter if Christopher Nolan always makes movies like Christopher Nolan always makes movies because no one else is doing it, not even close.
The other criticisms that is being levelled at the film, as it was with Inception, is that the story is too hard to follow. In fact in recognition that this might be the case there are times during the movie when people on screen say things like ‘don’t try to understand it, just feel it’, ‘try to keep up’ or ‘does your head hurt?’. This isn’t quite said straight to camera but it might as well be. The narrative is complicated for sure and you definitely need to concentrate but it does make sense and you can keep up with what is going on if you stick with it. There are parts that demand substantial suspension of disbelief, for example the machine that does the thing in this movie is not as well defined as the machine that does the thing in Inception, and you’ll have an easier time with all of it once you’ve learnt to spot the kind of events that will only have significance later in the running time, but it does hold together. In fact so much of the thrill of the film is in succeeding in staying with it and the reward that this offers. It’s a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit but it provides that same level of satisfaction once it has worked its way through to its resolution. Like The Prestige of all of Nolan’s back catalogue in particular, I am sure a second viewing of this will carry so many more treats and I’m looking forward to doing this in the next few days. So many films barely hold up to a rewatch but this one absolutely demands it.
Interestingly for a film that exhibits staggering original thought and truly does things that have never been done before, there is also quite a lot here that feels very familiar too. The plot closely follows the beats of a James Bond movie and echoes a range of time travel films, deliberately so I am sure. It is fascinating to see a director homaging different genres while also reinventing them. Nolan doesn’t really play with expectations in the way he presents his tropes, other than having a bit of diversity in his cast, but to see them played out alongside such an audacious set up is a thrill. This is a director who reveres what cinema has given us before but is passionate about pushing it forward. I have to love him for that.
I was already a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s and his work has topped my films of the year list on more than one occasion. Dunkirk, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were my favourites in 2017, 2008 and 2012 and Inception was my movie of the decade. Tenet may not figure as high this year because, for all I’ve said, there is a sense that Nolan is parodying himself with this stuff. That doesn’t mean I’m even slightly underwhelmed or disappointed by the movie. I’m not a rabid fan; I did feel that he lost his way a little bit with the ending of Interstellar, but with Tenet he has created another work of genius and I adored it.
The Ripley Factor:
As much as I revel in the cinematic output of this guy, I do have to admit that he doesn’t always present women very well. It should speak to how good he is that with gender equality being one of the main focuses of my blog, I am able to forgive this.
A number of his movies feature wives or girlfriends that die during or before the film and even those that survive, like Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige and Hilary Swank in Insomnia, are really just there to help define the men, even Ellen Paige in Inception is mostly Cob’s protege. There are exceptions to this but if you are a woman in Nolan’s films and you’re not played by Anne Hathaway then your characterisation stands to be improved.
Elizabeth Debicki in this film is not really any different. She is essentially just there to be rescued by and to motivate the male protagonist John David Washington. She has a little more agency toward the end but she’s never really driven by more than hatred of her husband or the love of her son.
This said there is a point in which she takes a drastic course of action about midway through the film only for Washington to correct what she does. If only he’d not interfered though then the mission would have been done right there and then. Should’ve trusted the woman after all.
There are other females in the movie but Clémence Poésy is only really there to offer some explanation of the ‘science’ and Dimple Kapadia (despite a little feminist twist) is all about providing exposition too. If you hold these two characters up against writer Tasha Robinson’s suggestion that a woman should have more purpose in a film than a floor lamp with some information written on it then they don’t pass.
But then look at it this way, ssap t’nod yeht neht it no nettirw noitamrofni emos htiw paml roolf a naht mlif a ni esoprup erom evah dluohs namow a taht noitseggus s’nosniboR ahsaT retirw tsniaga pu sretcarahc owt eseht dloh uoy fI