TENET, review of Christopher Nolan's 2020 (pandemic-delayed) film

“TENET”: A palindrome indeed, but it can’t cancel out bad behavior; Christopher Nolan notices us content creators

I saw “TENET” this morning, at a 9:50 AM show at the Fairfax VA Cinema Arts.  It was “safer”, and there was only one other person in the audience (a senior).  Theaters could consider doing “seniors only” weekday mornings for popular movies until we get to a vaccine.  The print was the regular 2.39:1;  in more normal times I would have gone to a larger theater to see Imax.

The title of the movie is a palindrome, like the finale of Paul Hindemith’s Horn Concerto (which Angel had recorded with Dennis Brain before he died in a car wreck). I even remember that this work was a favorite of a high school chum in the Science Honor Society.

In fact, early in the script, there is mention of another concept, a (or “the”) Gesture, which might have come from me (check it in my DADT-1 book chapter 2).  Christopher Nolan seems to like to refer to oddities in the output of various online content creators.

The music score, by Ludwig Goransson, is not quite as hypnotic as had been Hans Zimmer’s for “Inception”, but it is interesting at times with its rapid triplets and glissandi that involve microtones.

Nolan, in this film, uses rather familiar visual settings around the world (rather than something that looks interplanetary) but he has a way of making familiar objects – like a tall apartment building in Mumbai, or a yellow trawler boat, or windmills, or indoor gunnery practice range look menacing.

The film opens with a slaughter in an opera house in Kiev (or Kyiv: as I revise this in 2022, that scene seems oddly prophetic).  Instruments are smashed, as are performers, and the audience is gassed.  Something like this did happen in Russia some time after 9/11.

We are quickly introduced to The Protagonist, played by John David Washington.  He plays the “James Bond-like” role with charisma, as if race did not matter at all. (So this is not quite the same effect as “Black Panther”). It's interesting to professional screenwriters that Nolan actually names a character just that (something to know for pitchfests). 

There is some jerkiness in the exposition of the Protagonist’s situation, as a CIA agent, who had been given a fake suicide pill (unlikely in practice). He is captured by the Russians (maybe) and finds himself “conscripted” into a save-the-world effort.  (Does he teach AP history as a day job?  That’s my novel.)  He is briefed on the idea of “time inversion” by Laura (Clemence Poesy).  Essentially, it uses unusual isotopes to reverse entropy and allow tentative time-travel back and forth.  It  is a kind of alternating current idea. To prevent an incident, you set it up in reverse time so you can expose it.  You (as a soldier) travel forward and back in time, and experience 2 times the amount of time elapsed.  It’s like retracing your steps in a physical dimension.  Since an incident is prevented, the idea of causality in physics is not violated. I doubt Arvin Ash on YouTube would agree.  One could interpret this innovation as giving humans "4th dimension access" which might have implications for future space travel. 

He meets his sidekick or “handler” Neil (Robert Pattinson) who comes across as a pretty wholesome guy to be in this business.  It’s as if you had John Fish (does his Harvard “growth book” get mentioned?) play a part like this.  Soon you come to the villain, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, producer of Shakespeare movies), the equivalent of Smersh in Ian Flemming.  He happened to grow up in a Siberian town that housed the Soviet’s (now just Putin's) time travel experiments and found the artefacts of “The Algorithm” in a permafrost sinkhole or mine.   Michael Caine makes at least one brief cameo from Bond-era British intelligence.

Anyway, activists in the future want to erase the past (sound familiar? The Left??) to stop climate change.  That takes more than gluing yourself to a boat on K St in Washington (like the Extinction Rebellion, whose pre-Covid rallies last year attracted some rather interesting people after all), for Ford Fischer and News2Share to make films of.

No, you can’t undo wrong deeds, like causing a wreck out of a compulsion or impulse, to see what a destructive reality would "feel" like.  I don’t think you can just go into an alternate simulation (or universe) where it didn’t happen.   But the rules of the movie guarantee you come completely out so the entire walkabout in a sense is canceled and didn’t “happen”.

We can’t forget to mention a major mover of plot – the breakdown of Sator’s marriage or relationship with Kat (Elizaneth Debicki).  “If I can’t have you, nobody else can”.  I have to recommend that visitors and prospective moviegoers visit Wikipedia’s spoiler synopsis, because the details will be hard to follow.  Eventually, you’ll make sense of the car chase scene (shot in Estonia?  Italy?)  It reminds you of The Matrix, and is still pre-pandemic (although when you are “inverted” you have to wear a respirator mask, or you die of radiation, a crude but accidental pun on Covid).

Jennifer Basset explains some plot points in CNET.

Name:  “TENET”

Director, writer:          Christopher Nolan

Released:         2020/8

Format:            2.39:1 or Imax

When and how viewed:          Cinema Arts Fairfax VA 2020/9/8

Length:            150

Rating: PG-13

Companies:     Warner Brothers, Syncopy

Link:    official

Stars:   ****_

(Posted: Tuesday, September 8, 2020 at 5 PM EDT)