“Tenet” (2020): Nolan’s Palindrome (Review)

· Films & Video Games

★★★

Entropic inversion and square symmetry.

I promised to keep this review short, since Tenet did all the talking and far too much of it. So you may not need more from me than just a concept-illustrating phrase.

While the Sator Square is referenced throughout, do not confuse it as the theme of the film. It is a mere representation of symmetry. Tenet is an artfully symmetrical film from front to back, or back to front. That symmetry is not just part of the plot but also the guiding principle of the action. The first and last battles feature large groups of commandos sprinting in and out of a noisy, frenetic environment with the audiences spinning like a rotor trying to keep up. To say more would get into spoilers so let’s just say there’s more where that came from.

As is obvious to anyone with the slightest familiarity with him, this film “came from” the galactic mind of Christopher Nolan – the most original and “conservative” (sort of) filmmaker of this generation. It will be just as obvious, then, to point out that as a fan of Nolan myself I liked Tenet very much. Yet despite being it the most Nolan has ever done, it is, when compared to everything else he has ever made, the film with the fewest ideas.

Other than the idea of matter inversion, the actual spy-movie stuff is so conventional it barely registers. Infiltration, arms dealers, well-dressed meetings, code words, heists, chases, and a dastardly plot; it’s all there. But this time, they seem to be in the service of the concept itself, and the idea that there may be a significance in “saving the world from what might’ve been,” as a character puts it. In his previous films, the concept was the engine powering the race car that led to a fascinating destination for your mind. But what it here lacks for heft in substance, it makes up for it with a style of spectacle that leaves the viewer no doubt as to who it came from.

Tenet is too impatient to explore in depth how the time inversion at the heart of its plot affects its characters. Nolan has never been more obvious as far as outright stating the theme of his cinematic career – that time, while cruel in its randomness as a harbinger of both fortune and misfortune, is the constant fleeting opportunity for happiness and self realization. Time is loss – of love, companionship, family, and the chance to live out your own terms and be your best self. But the movie talks so much and so fast that you’d miss it unless you knew to look for it. Still – there is one notable difference here. Unlike his prior work, no character is motivated by a dead woman.

That all puts this film squarely in the lower-middle of the pack for his career. It is like mainlining Nolan: a plot that bends linearity like Memento, layering of action and story like Inception, humorless and hyper-focused people with stuffy and flat interactions that border on the camp at the heart of The Dark Knight Rises, and a premise grounded in cold science that puts reality at the mercy of the human perspective.

Ironically, despite having no puzzle, Tenet may feel like his most puzzling work at times. As good as John David Washington is, he does not have quite the openness and warmth of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper in Interstellar. The stakes never quite reach the heights of the Fisher revelation in Inception or the ending of Dunkirk. But the action, despite the familiar feeling, is the best of his career. The stunt work looked like it was a blast. It feels as real as its filmmaking made it. A technical marvel; credit is due to Hoyte van Hoytema who is, and has always been, Nolan’s secret weapon.

It is a film written and filmed for repeat viewings on the computer, which is ironic considering the insistence on presenting it in IMAX and theatrical form. But you’ll find no regrets from me whatsoever that I saw it there. However much the wordless action often cries out for some dialogue, and no matter how the verbosity heightens the confusion from there, and however much the film relies on retroactive and reactive explanation, there is nothing this year that rivals the thrill of John David Washington running, jumping, flipping, leap-frogging, shooting, and trading punches with enemies as objects and people speed in reverse, and rubble, debris,  and atomized matter reassembles into the shape of the buildings, cars, and objects it used to be.

The Prestige was a movie about a rivalry among magicians that Nolan created as an elaborate magic trick. Memento is a story of one who cannot make new memories – only manipulate old ones – stitched backwards and forwards in visceral color and documentarian black and white. The Dark Knight is an argument for institutions of order and civilization against anarchy in the form of a destructive cat/mouse chase through the city that puts them to the test. Inception is a movie about what our dreams can do for us, created as a level dream. And Interstellar was the dimensional tesseract that showed how love is the extra-gravitational force that traverses space and time, and defines humanity’s relationship with both. They were films that could change your life in immediate and profound ways – such that a different person would exit the theater just hours after going in. Compared to them, Nolan may have at last reached his limits.

Christopher Nolan’s movies are the things they feature. Tenet features a symmetrical narrative that tests a scientific concept. Is that enough? Of course it is.

Now scroll up and read each paragraph of this review in reverse order. And see if you can spot the palindromes.

– Vivek

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