TENET is not the film you want it to be
It was gonna happen sooner or later. I took the dive and went to see TENET, the most anticipated and talked-about movie of this long decade known as 2020. And for a year which seems to be excessively fraught with crisis and existential tragedy, there doesn’t seem to be a more prescient film that one could want to see. Perhaps a better word would be “experience,” for that is what it’s like to watch TENET, or any Nolan film. You can’t merely watch it, you must experience it. Or, as a scientist tells John David Washington’s character in the beginning of the film, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
TENET left me with a pounding headache and a hundred questions. The headache — and here lies my one qualm — I suspect came about because the film was ridiculously loud. I mean LOUD. The explosions, the soundtrack, the crashes, the guns firing: my ears got no rest from start to finish.
Unfortunately, the only thing that wasn’t loud was the dialogue. Spoken lines were trapped underneath the surrounding noise and sometimes completely indiscernible. When TENET’s available on streaming, I’ll definitely give it another go just to watch with captions turned on.
That aside, the film was wonderfully confusing and conceptually heavy. Which, as a sucker for time travel stories, is what I wanted and expected from a Nolan film. And “time travel” is a very basic term for the concepts the film tackles.
Anyway, here are some thoughts.
I’ve seen criticism of the film as lacking because the main character who is quite literally known as “the protagonist” has a very slim backstory and little known motivation beyond “I’m a good guy so I must stop the bad guy.” Incidentally, the film doesn’t have the problem that many superhero films have: an under-developed antagonist. By the end of TENET, we know far more about the antagonist Andrei Sator’s life, backstory, and motivations than we do about either the Protagonist or his sidekick, Neil, played enjoyably by Robert Pattinson. We know almost just as much about the pathos-laden supporting character, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
I guess, for some, this would be a Very Big Problem — a reason to dislike the film, a reason I’d take issue with if this were another story. But TENET isn’t the story we want it to be. The enigma of “the protagonist” works so well because the film is more about the concepts it explores than it is about an individual’s personal story. You might realize, by the end of the film, that the antagonist isn’t anti the protagonist per se. The Protagonist just gets in the antagonist’s way.
***MILD SPOILER BELOW***
The antagonist isn’t really the antagonist at all — but an ally of the story’s real antagonists: our descendants who are trying to destroy us before we ruin the world for them.
“You aren’t shooting the bullet; you’re catching it”
The first trailer revealed that TENET would deal with the idea of “reversing the flow of time.” Inversion. In Nolan’s world, this begins with objects operating in the opposite way we think they should. Like guns “catching” bullets instead of shooting them. (But of course the bullets would have to be shot first, right? Uh, stick a pin in that.) Or characters catching things instead of dropping them. (But of course they’d have to drop it first, right? Like I said, stick a pin in it.)
Ideally, this would mean that the effects inflicted by said objects are then undone, right? The damage inflicted by the bullet is automatically reversed? Not necessarily (at least in the film). Other objects impacted by inverted bullets (or bombs or tools) are reset to the way they were before. If a bullet fired into a window is “caught,” the shattered glass is automatically repaired. But a person shot with an inverted bullet from the future is less likely to survive than a person shot with a regular bullet — even if the bullet is “caught” (or un-shot?)
As the Protagonist and Neil work against Sator, they begin using inversion against him — which leads to the biggest scenes in the film being revisited as they attempt to get ahead of their enemy by going into their past and his past and attempting to change it.
The film doesn’t really pause to address whether the characters are stuck in a time loop, revisiting their past ad infinitum in an attempt to change the future. It dismisses the grandfather paradox — if our heroes go back to change the past how will they see the results in the future that prompt them to go back to change the past? Repeatedly, we hear, “What happened, happened.”
Which, I think, is as it should be. If you or I were able to travel into our past and change it — remove something or someone from the equation — we would just do it, assuming the outcome would be different, at least better than it was. And we would live with the new world that we had made.
As Neil says, “The world will never know what could happen. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Because no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off. Only the one that did.”
Entropy, but in reverse?
Entropy, simply put, is the natural tendency of things to lose order, to spin out into chaos and darkness. Presumably, those who live in the future of TENET exist in a world where entropy is in full effect. They (rightly, I suppose) blame us for ruining the planet for them. Their solution: wage war against us in an effort to stop us from destroying the planet.
But since they are essentially starting what’s termed “World War III” in the present day, aren’t they just pushing entropy backwards along the timeline? Speeding up their own deceleration? If they keep pushing, sending back inverted bullets and bombs and armies, aren’t they burning the bridge before they get to it, ensuring their own decay?
Do they care that they are destroying the world? Do they intend to stop at some point? About which point in history would they say, “Hey, our ancestors were pretty good guys right about here?”
I know this post isn’t saying much, but I needed to dump my thoughts on the film, which I will definitely revisit. But what if I’ve already watched it twice and just don’t remember? What if I keep going back in time, watching TENET hoping to understand it, and coming away as confused as I was the first time.