Oh my god, you guys chose Tenet! What a CRAZY UNFORSEEABLE YET TRÈS FORTUNATE turn of events because I HAVE A LOT TO SAY ABOUT THIS EARSPLATTING MONOCHROME GLUMBEAST.
But first, I’m gonna need you to watch a YouTube video.
This one. Clicky-clicky.
I’m afraid I’m quite serious, and I will wait for you to go watch it and come back. It’s only three minutes and it’s vital that you do this, because I will be structuring this essay around the above-linked 2012 performance of a 2003 Paul F. Tompkins bit, which I think is at least five years older than that because I’m pretty sure I originally saw it on Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Note: if you really, really like jazz, you are probably not going to enjoy that bit, but it’s going to be okay. If you like jazz—as I do!—you know there is a subgenre of jazz you think is trash, so imagine in your mind he’s just talking about that kind, and we can all stay friends. HE’S TALKING ABOUT THE BAD JAZZ.
Yes, I am going to do this, and there’s nothing you can do about it, because I personally find it funny AND APPARENTLY THE CREATOR ENJOYING IT IS ALL THAT MATTERS ANYMORE AND THE REST OF US CAN GO FUCK OURSELVES.
FORWARDS AND BACKWARDS.
WELL, DO YOU?
Goddammit. Here we go. Take it away, Paul.
“A genre of music that is defying you to like it.”
Christopher Nolan, my man, my dude, friendo, chief, champ, tiger, buddy, mate.
The gig is fucking up.
I get it, I really do. You got famous for “mind-blowing” twists and non-traditional structures and suddenly you were the blockbuster filmmaker for smart people, Michael Bay with a pipe and a quill pen, and boy, that is a SWEET street to live on if you can make the payments. But at some point along the way, you got stuck on this idea that a story HAD to be full of said wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey blowy-bendy structural Cirque du Soleil flippity floops in order to be worth telling, or at least, worth telling by you. And you pretty much literally lost the plot.
So now, like David Lynch, you can never make a bad movie. Only a movie us dumb-dumbs didn’t understand because of how we have Instagram and penguin-hork for brains instead of the rarefied angelic pure untroubled intellect of Hollywood, CA. But don’t worry, we’ll all definitely be enlightened by thousands of internet posts breathlessly reporting on how once they watched it FIVE times, it was TOTALLY brilliant.
Christopher Nolan films have become the kind of jazz whose main benefit to the world is giving a Certain Kind of Human a ledge from which to look down on the writhing masses of idiots who aren’t as good as them and sneer “Such fools not to realize, as I have, that the word tenet is spelled the same forwards AND backwards!” and then disappear in a puff of farts.
But unfortunately, or fortunately, or whatever, Interstellar and Tenet came out back to back, and both of them topped out as “okay, I guess” as far as critical response, which is just not enough when you are The Guy everyone points to to carry the torch for movies you can pretend are high-brow cinema while still revolving around chisel-jawed men punching things a lot of times and big jumbo popcorn-with-extra-dopamine explosions. And WAAAY more unfortunately than fortunately, Nolan and then everyone else started huffing whipped cream canisters and bloviating in public about how Tenet was SO AMAZING that it was going to save physical movie theaters because people were going to go see it ZOMG SO MANY TIMES and by the time early 2020 rolled around this poor fucking dumbass movie that just wanted to premiere in peace and be that asshole at the party that has to “subtly” let slip that he went to an Ivy League school in every conversation was going to save all of cinema and fund Hollywood for the foreseeable future.
Then COVID dropped in and belched: WELP.
Thing is, even if the global pandemic that specifically forbade us from gathering in close, dark rooms together hadn’t happened, Tenet wasn’t going to save so much as 15% on car insurance, let alone the entire medium of film.
And it’s BECAUSE of all that that I find it so fascinating. Because Tenet is in many ways the peak of Nolan’s career. It is the time-traveling eardrum-humping structurally unsound shark over which the great man shall jumpeth, yea verily, and on water skiis.
Tenet the ultimate Christopher Nolan film, in both marketing, script, and direction.
And it sucks.
Seriously, what the fuck, fuck this movie, what the fuck does it have to say for itself? Other than “LOL I’m actually just Primer with more money. Yep. Don’t mind me. Gonna save da movies. Here I go, savin’ em! Gonna do it any minute! Look (MERCEDES) at (LAND ROVER) these (JAGUAR) cars I got, don’t you think you want to buy one? I sure am a towering intellectual giant of ineffable genius and serious artistic integrity hey do you guys want a Samsung TV? I kinda want a Samsung TV. BUY THESE FUCKIN MAN WATCHES OR HOLLYWOOD GETS IT. You only didn’t like me because you couldn’t possibly understand me, you fucking loser, now tell Reddit I’m underrated.”
“Maybe you’re just too dumb, dummy!”
Yeah, so, the thing is? I’m actually not.
I am a pretty fucking canny moviegoer. One might even say film buff. And when I said way up there that I get what happened to Nolan, or what he did to himself, I mean it. The pressure must be unbelievable (though, he does put a lot of it on himself) and the need to produce something not only good, but with a TWIST that GETS EVERYONE TALKING has broken a LOT of artists. I just think somewhere in there, Nolan forgot how to just tell a story. That people like. On its own merits. Not just because of the twist or because they felt smart for a minute after watching it. Just a story that's big and beautiful and makes you feel something.
It's...pretty easy to forget that, actually.
And, not for nothing, but while I am not getting paid millions to flex on Peoria with my big fat edgelord brain of brains, I did make a career on the back of books people said were too complicated and structurally weird and did words wrong or at least too big and took more than one read to understand. (I am not going to point out that when women do that art, they rarely get praised for it the way men do, but you know it’s a whole thing.) So I am, in fact, quite possibly the most perfect audience for this highly intellectual mind-bending science fiction flick. That’s my WHOLE ENTIRE WHEELHOUSE, HOLMES. I am here for it! I am ready! I paid 7.99 to rent it because apparently it’s too special not to pay twice as much as other movies for!
Yeah, it still sucks.
And 1000 words in, I’m going to tell you why in one line.
Tenet. Means. Nothing.
I promise you, I understand the script. I watched it with subtitles. I rewound scenes. I rewatched parts when the dialogue was so aggressively mumbled and the music was so belligerently cranked up that it sounded like a Reaper from Mass Effect blowing the entire galaxy out of its cloaca after a bad space-taco, and/or that someone specifically didn’t want me to hear the precious few words explaining precious little plot.
The movie is a palindrome that runs one way for the first half then the other way for the second half. No, yeah, I got it. Felix Sator is named after the Sator square. Yep, literally have a whole-ass degree in Latin, got that too. Fetch quest to collect the nine parts of “the Algorithm” (which is an object WE NEVER SEE and patently not an algorithm) so a future full of dick-corsages can *checks notes* blow up the past? Indeed, I do play the most basic of video games! It was Kat jumping off the boat the whole time! Thumbs up, kiddo. Denzel’s kid set it all up all along and the beginning was the end was the beginning and Gilderoy Lockhart is a suckass husband at minimum and Edward Cullen was inverted for most of the runtime. Sure, it’s not…it’s not that deep. It’s curvy, but not deep.
Because it doesn’t mean anything.
The entire plot of this movie can be summed up thusly: Time travel exists now. Also the future is an asshole.
And that’s…pretty much it. The end implies a whole world of buddy cop adventures in time travel we are explicitly NOT going to see for reasons. In order to give us…time travel exists, it makes stuff like battles complicated, the future wants to kill the past and if you got that it’s because of climate change you have THE HEARING OF A GIFTED AND ADVANCED GERMAN SHEPHERD because it’s one half of one line, on a big gross 1% boat, with lots of waves, engine sounds, and Reaper farts in the background, mumbled by a guy “doing” a “Russian” “accent” that should probably qualify as NATO aggression, who we don’t even know if we’re supposed to believe because he lies like, just all the time. When he’s on a ciggy break from beating his wife, just so there’s ABSOLUTELY ZERO emotional complexity in this allegedly complex film.
But it all means…what? The movie is a palindrome. Okay. Why is the movie a palindrome? That’s actually a pretty linear way of expressing anything to do with time travel. What is the resonance of this format that another structure wouldn’t access? Shrug emoji. Why is the mysterious organization called Tenet, other than that it’s a palindrome? Shrug emoji. Is it good or bad? Probably good but mostly shrug emoji? Why doesn’t the Protagonist have a name (and it does seem that he doesn’t have one rather than just not mentioning it since HE CALLS HIMSELF “THE PROTAGONIST” WHAT A VAST AND LIMITLESS DOUCHE can you imagine meeting a guy in real life who wears those watches and those suits and refers to himself as “the Protagonist” IN THE THIRD PERSON? Swipe left FOREVER.) when everyone else has either super meaningful names or random white nonsense like Neil and Kat? Shrug emoji says what? Why are the future people, who again we never meet or hear from, so confident that their plan won’t run into BIG problems with paradox? The movie literally has a character say not to think about it too hard which is French for shrug emoji. Why is the Sator square, which is sort of mostly pretty much famous specifically because nobody knows what the point of it ever was, so important that multiple characters are named after words in it? I SAID SHRUG EMOJI, SIR.
The imagery here is about a hangnail deep. The palindromes are there because time travel moves forwards and backwards. Can something be the opposite of a metaphor? Well, either way, it’s about as clever as a Laffy Taffy joke. There’s nothing more to it. It is, in fact, almost the exact plot and structure —and time travel mechanism!—of an independent movie called Primer, except that Primer cost $18,000 and Tenet cost $200 million (lookit me, ma, I’m savin’ Hollywoodz!), so instead of a shitty house party, a garage, and someone’s uncle’s pick-up trucks we have scenes on a giant yacht…and a lot of warehouses. And shiny grey cars from a variety of luxury brands. A huge part of the reason I was in no way thrown by the WACKY TIME HIJINKS of Tenet is that I’ve fucking seen Primer like nine times so nothing can touch me, or make me feel human emotion, now. (Warning: apparently Shane Carruth is horrible so I’m torn about recommending Primer, but it is everything Tenet wants to be). Except that Primer truly doesn't give a fuck if you understand it. Get on its level or go home. Tenet desperately wants you to want to understand it. It wants you to think it's pretty and smart. It tries so hard.
It is possible for something to be complicated AND bad. I should know, accordingly to some folks on goodreads, I do it on the daily.
Tenet is complicated by choice, not necessity. Tenet is also bad. It’s not that it’s impossible for mere mortals to stand in the glare of its genius and survive, it’s just…not good. And frankly, I’m fucking offended that a plot that revolves around a video game fetch quest to get all the parts to assemble the magic machine is supposed to be so mind-blowing I need to see it twice. THANKS, I’VE PLAYED CURSE OF MONKEY ISLAND I’M FINE.
“It’s the notes we’re NOT playing.”
Get in loser, we’re going shopping.
AND WE ARE NOT GOING TO FIND ANY.
Tenet doesn’t do feelings. It’s very proud of that. It’s wearing VERY serious Big Boy Pants so it doesn’t have time for childish, icky, girly things like names and sound mixing and an emotional connection to any character onscreen.
The fact is, ask anyone what their favorite part of Tenet is and they’re ALL going to say “the car chase.”
What fucking damning praise is that for the savior of serious cinema and master of all storytelling? Everyone liked the car chase. COOL. Well, the reason it’s the car chase is because it is impossible to form any kind of interest or connection with the Protagonist because he’s a cipher who just clenches his jaw and HAS to DO things RIGHT NOW. He doesn’t have a name, which is fine, whatever, but he also doesn’t have a backstory or a motivation or any…like…traits. Of any kind. He has a nice beard and looks fit in a suit. THAT’S IT. You’re like okay I guess this is the guy he seems to be the one things are happening to and that is a completely on-point reading of the text. And I know summer blockbusters aren’t generally HUGE on deep character studies but shit, man, I know what John McClane’s name is. I know who his wife and kids are. I have a basic idea of what he wants in life and why he doesn’t have it. (Hint: hubris, it’s always hubris. Talk to the Greeks if you don’t like it.) I even remember, without looking it up, that the main character in Transformers, an actual Michael Bay movie with the IQ of windshield wiper fluid, is not called Shia LeBoeuf but Sam Witwicky and I dimly recall he had trouble with girls and liked cars.
Hear that? Michael Thrice-Cursed Bay did a more complex character than you did, Mr. Nolan YOU NEED TO SEE ME AFTER CLASS. YOU NEED TO SEE US ALL AFTER CLASS.
It’s a BAFFLING choice and as far as I can tell the answer to hey, Chris, what up, why did you just belligerently refuse to write a character for this movie is I didn’t wanna and you can’t make me.
FUCKING WHY? Why not give us SOMETHING to like or dislike or anything? Especially when, in the second half of the movie, pretty much every action is going to hang on the Protagonist’s attachment to this off-the-rack Natasha Richardson named Kat (of whom more anon, god help us) who he has spent virtually zero time with, had no conversations with about anything other than “What is the DEAL with time travel?” and has absolutely no reason to continually risk his life for. It honestly REALLY feels like there’s a sex scene that was cut out, because all of the sudden he’s acting like she’s the love of his life and it comes out of nowhere. But it has nowhere to come out of because the Protagonist is not a person, he’s a plot driver, and tbh he’s not even very good at that.
YOU HAVE A REAL GODDAMNED PROBLEM WHEN ROBERT PATTINSON’S HAIR IS THE EMOTIONAL CORE OF YOUR MOVIE.
Robert Pattinson is legitimately the only one who conveys any feeling or organic sense of actually EXISTING AS A HUMAN, so much so that the internet is full of fan theories trying to tie him to Kat so that he’s her time traveling son or whatever, just desperately spelunking in this bottomless hole of a script so that any of it makes emotional sense. Again, why would you do this? Why would you spend $200 million doing this? Telling a story about no one, who understands nothing, doing very little beyond driving backwards, that ends with a laugh about all the cool shit he’s going to do that we aren’t going to see?
It is simply shocking that an auteur with a reputation like Nolan’s would deliberately and with malice aforethought create a movie and claim it was going to SAVE MOTION PICTURES the whole time knowing good and goddamned well that what you’ve got in the can is nothing but cardboard cutouts, stereotypes from B-movies, a protagonist who is the definition of an empty suit, just a TON of watches and cars, and Robert Pattinson.
The whole back half of the movie revolves around Felix and Kat, both of whom suck, and the entire feel is shit we forgot to make a feeling scrape something up off the bathroom floor. Kids, right, women like their kids? And men don’t like women? GOLD, JERRY, GOLD. (PS good god, Nolan, women are motivated by things that did not come out of or go into their turnstiles, okay? Get a new riff, man.)
Kat is absolutely nothing but a damsel in distress, being beaten by her husband and fighting for her son and it’s so boring and cliche I was CONVINCED she was behind it all but HA HA. In a Nolan flick? NO NO THAT’S NOT FOR LADIES. She really was just a B-movie MacGuffin yelling her son’s name for 90 (180?) minutes so the hero has something to care about so and be motivated to get off his ass and do the plot…only they forgot to create any kind of connection between these two people so it lands like a wet sandwich. Oh but don’t worry! Her complete uncomplicated caricature of an evil, mustache-twirling, wife-beating, son-stealing, Russian arms-dealing husband is here to chew scenery and be offensive to, I don’t know, everyone, men, Russians, mustaches. And he’s all out of scenery. And the thing is, he’s not even really the villain! The mysterious future buttwads are the villains. It’s their whole plan. Felix is just a sad asshole who wants to kill himself because hey funny story, turns out if you abuse someone they don’t love you anymore.
Super glad we got Kenneth Branaugh to do this, surely no one but the King of Shakespeare could do it justice. BUT HE’S NAMED AFTER A ROMAN CROSSWORD PUZZLE WHAT’S THE MATTER DON’T YOU LIKE OUR SMART PEOPLE MUSIC?
“A bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time.”
Every, and I cannot stress this enough, every actor in this movie thinks they’re in a different movie.
It is WILDLY discordant.
Branaugh thinks he parachuted in from a Bond flick, Washington is in a car commercial, Kat took an Uber from a Lifetime channel NOT WITHOUT MY LABRADOODLE thriller (she actually really tries hard with what she’s given and does the absolute best that anyone could with the material), Pattinson thinks he’s in a good movie full of deep meaning and wry humor so you just stare at him like a weirdo being all I wanna go where you are, and everyone else is window dressing, no matter how important you think their character might be for a minute.
Then the sound mix thinks if anyone gets to talk its mother won’t love it anymore so it just CONSTANTLY SCREAMS IN YOUR FACE for three hours but loudest whenever anyone talks. It’s so utterly bizarre—the soundtrack is full of Reaper farts and high strings and it sounds like it should be the War of the Worlds score but it usually just…plays over people in suits talking. Quietly. About secrets. Again I must ask, hey Chris, me again, why would you choose to do this, why do you not like people anymore, why are you so mad at their ears? I’ve read the justifications for the sound mix and they are, politely, wharrgarbl. There is no reason to not let people hear your high-concept dialogue unless this really was just a ploy to get people to see it more than once because they couldn’t fucking hear it the first time.
The runtime thinks it’s a WWII epic, the set design thinks it’s a low-budget independent film (seriously what in the name of Al Capone’s bespectacled accountant did they spend $200 mil on? The “time machine” is a storage container you just…walk in one end of and walk out the other. Running the film backwards hasn’t been expensive since before Clara Bow plucked her eyebrows. WHAT DID YOU BUY, MR. NOLAN?) and the editing thinks if it runs fast enough you can’t catch it.
I have gone around and around in circles. Why would you make these choices? If the villains are these people from the future, why wouldn’t you…show one…sometime? Why do I have to hear third-hand that oh they want to blow up the past and that won’t blow them up as well because reasons (they ask this very obvious question, and shrug). Why would you set up a MacGuffin as obvious as T H E A L G O R I T H M 2/3 of the way through, then get bored, not show the acquisition of several of its pieces, and then spend the entire last act with a camera shoved up Kenneth Branaugh’s nose letting him TALK about it instead of SHOWING anything? Why is the world so empty? There is NEVER anyone else around! Even in the car chase, the other cars vanish very considerately so everyone can floor it down the highway backwards. Why has nothing else ever really seemed amiss when time travel has presumably been around in the future for long enough for nine pieces of bullshit to get hidden? Why does any of this seemingly only show itself to rich people and/or one scientist? Why would you laboriously set up time traveling battle tactics and then put all the extras in the same camo outfits with no differentiating marks so you can’t tell what’s happening EVER? Why would you, in the very first scene, fire off a bunch of machine guns in a theater and then show everyone in their seats patently not hit by the million stray bullets? Why choose these things, when your WHOLE STATED GOAL was to bring people back to theaters, to a feeling of collective experience of art, not empty, sterile, slick meaninglessness that is just going to make them go Man, Memento was pretty good though, right?
Did Christopher Nolan forget what humans are like? Non-rich, non-detached, non-cool regular humans?
“You can’t relate this to someone else, even if you understood it.”
Oh at least it looks good NO IT FUCKING DOESN’T.
I swear to you, when I went looking for images from this movie, it was ALL that shit you see up there, these two dudes standing around talking and looking confused, or walking looking confused, or staring angrily, but also confusedly, at a bullet hole. I scrolled and scrolled looking for something interesting to put on top of this review and like...the Protagonist looking mad at a boat was pretty much as good as it got.
The MOST arresting visual of the movie of 2020 is A CAR DRIVING IN REVERSE.
BEEP BEEP BEEP.
And that's in the trailer! The super secret trailer that we weren't ever supposed to guess was a movie about time travel which was clearly a movie about time travel.
It looks exactly like a car commercial. Or a watch commercial. Eventually like a yacht commercial. It’s exactly what I pointed out in the Interstellar review is all Nolan has in the visual storytelling tank: desaturated monochrome cool guy new corporate headquarters aesthetic. There’s not even the crazy vistas of Inception or Interstellar. It just looks like a series of Asshole Lifestyle Brochures. Visit beautiful…warehouse interiors! Long hallways! Some water in Greece probably! H I G H W A Y S! Now we’re in Mumbai I guess! Now Estonia allegedly! Now Ukraine or something! Don’t worry we are still mostly inside in all those places so enjoy Estonian radio if you’re into that NOW PUT A RED FILTER ON IT SO NO ONE KNOWS IT’S THE SAME SOUNDSTAGE. NOW BLUE! NOW YELLLLOOOOOOW!
Truly, what did they spend $200 million on?
And no, they don’t get credit for the SUPER COOL MIND BENDING scene where the Protagonist fights DUN DUN DUN HIMSELF. It’s a time travel action movie, we all…we all go here, we know what to expect.
It is, ultimately, the Bad Jazz. The kind that plays the same note for thirty five minutes and then twangs one and waits for everyone to sigh in rapture. And how DARE you not like jazz? How dare you NOT SIGH IN RAPTURE? You must be stupid. You must not Understand Real Art. You must be a bad person if you don’t love this. It’s QUITE a gig if you can get it. It means you will always have an army defending your work, even if it fails, maybe especially if it fails, because they’ve defined themselves as being the type of person who loves Christopher Nolan/David Lynch/mind-bending movies. And so it has to be good. It just has to be. Lookin’ at you, third season of Twin Peaks. DON’T @ ME.
They marketed this thing as The Movie. They guarded the plot like a state secret. They told everyone who would listen that it would change everything. You can’t talk that talk when your walk is tripping and falling face first on a hopscotch square. Which you then refused to let anyone hear because ART, MAN. It was always way too much to live up to, long before COVID. And then Nolan insisted on releasing it in theaters anyway fully implying this empty white box of a film is worth risking your only life on this planet to not hear very well. And I guarantee you people are even tonight wondering why it fizzled, beyond being a summer blockbuster with no summer and no block.
Because it has no heart. None at all. It is not relatable. Not even #relatable. No one acts like a person would act. No one has a moment of genuine human feeling or connection until the VERY end and it’s still ONLY ROBERT PATTINSON DOING IT WITH BASICALLY HIMSELF. It has nothing to say about the human condition. It has nothing in particular to say period, over and above time = wow. It never even tries to communicate the utter ache at the center of most time travel stories: that every single one of us wishes we could turn the clock back on something, just once, and we never can. It spends its entire length spinning its wheels about how time travel works mechanically without bothering to give us a reason to care beyond ooh funky car chase.
It is just a summer blockbuster. Explosions, cool cars, cool men, screaming helpless women in hot bathing suits, violence, and inner ear damage. It is one of the most soulless things I have ever seen committed to film. But it’s Nolan, so it’s not allowed to be a shitty soulless smear of a blockbuster. It has to be DEEP. It has to save cinema. It has to be smart for smart people.
But it’s not.
It’s Transformers with the scenes out of order. Inasmuch as the scenes in Transformers were in any kind of order to begin with.
And not even any robots.
“Last night we saw the funniest Jazz Fellow! At one point, instead of going *bowrnt* he went *bwang*!”
So ultimately, Tenet, like the cheeky little trash palindrome it is, answers its own question.
It thought the question it was asking was: ARE YOU READY TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN BY THE MASTER OF FILM?
But really, it was: can you make a film with no characters, no emotions, no memorable lines, no women (but one walking, screaming uterus who exists only to be harmed), no unique aesthetic, 40 minutes of plot spread generously over 150 minutes of jumbled-up screentime, 85% of which takes place in a series of interchangeable rooms with different colored filters on them, but lots and lots of palindromes and men with helmets and visors completely covering their faces, you know, the part humans use to communicate how they’re feeling, using the final five minutes to imply all the awesome stories beyond the explication of the premise we were promised will now take place offscreen because fuck you that’s why, all of which the human ear cannot hear?
And the answer was: well, yeah, you can.
But it won’t save cinema.