I greatly wanted to enjoy this movie. Not only have I admired—if not adored—almost every other film in Christopher Nolan’s canon, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this flick’s cryptic marketing and mystifying summaries. Time travel is a tough theme for any thriller filmmaker to pull off, but if anyone could, I was pretty confident it would be Nolan.
Alas, my hopes were dashed. “Tenet” is a muddled mess shot through with flashes of genius, a visual spectacle badly hamstrung by atrocious sound mixing and choppy exposition dumps—to say nothing of its patchy narrative.
“Tenet” opens with its star (John David Washington, who goes perpetually unnamed) surviving a desperate gunfight at a Ukrainian opera—and subsequently being kidnapped. Following a near-death experience, our hero awakens in the custody of a mysterious organization known as “Tenet,” where he is informed that he has been selected for a special mission. Mysterious bullets moving backwards in time have been turning up around the globe, and it appears that these “inverted” weapons are being trafficked by malicious forces from the future. And so, with the help of the enigmatic—if affable—Neil (Robert Pattinson), our hero sets off on a globe- and time-spanning odyssey that connects them with the ethereal Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), her evil mobster husband Anton (Kenneth Branagh), and a whole host of others given to gnomic pronunciations about the nature of reality.
If asked to generate a logline for this film, I’d describe it as “Terminator” meets “Tomorrow Never Dies.” That’s a promising start, no doubt, and “Tenet” has its share of heart-stopping action sequences. But unfortunately, “Tenet” lacks the internal coherence—and basic cinematic competence—of either of those predecessors. At virtually every turn, critical plot points are buried under avalanches of barely audible exposition, whether shouted over the roar of engines or muttered under the clatter of gunfire. (You’d think, after all the controversy surrounding Bane’s role in “The Dark Knight Rises,” that Nolan would’ve learned not to encourage his actors to mumble their lines into gas masks, but perhaps I presume too much.) And that’s saying nothing of the numerous plot holes that turn up after just a few minutes of reflection while the credits roll. Time-travel flicks are given to this (even the best of the genre, “Looper,” had its share of head-scratchers) but this one really stretches the bounds of credulity. Early on, a characters advises “Don’t think too much. Feel,” and maybe that’s the best approach—but it’s a step down from the taut pacing and tight plotting of Nolan’s prior oeuvre.
But maybe there’s more to “Tenet” beneath the surface, for those who’re willing to look. Any film centered on time travel and the threat of annihilation raises a number of rich questions about free will and determinism. So what, after all, is the fundamental metaphysical vision underlying “Tenet”—and, for that matter, the rest of Nolan’s films more broadly?
The answer, I think, is found in a throwaway line by Neil toward the end of “Tenet”: Neil attributes the events that have unfolded to “fate”—or, if one prefers, merely “reality.” The order of things, if not set in stone, is nevertheless somewhat fixed: all our protagonists are playing out a grant cosmic script of sorts, pawns in a kind of ontological chess game without a player. Such a vision closely resembles the pantheism (or, perhaps, panentheism) of Baruch Spinoza, who famously argued that all things—as aspects of the unconscious infinite substance that is “God”—were deterministically foreordained; to latter-day Spinozists such as Yale’s Anthony Kronman, such a theology is the necessary prerequisite of the world’s infinite intelligibility within a scientific register, which Kronman understands to be the case.
The comparison works here, because that “presumption of total intelligibility” is an assumption that Nolan invites us to make, not just in “Tenet” but in all of his movies. One exits “Tenet” troubled by the suspicion that the film will somehow reward repeat viewings, and that its labyrinthine mysteries will become clear upon just a few minutes of deeper reflection. The same can be said for “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “Inception, “Interstellar, “Dunkirk,” and so forth: in every case, the audience knows, in their bones, that there’s a coherent interpretation of the cinematic data they’re confronted with.
But in “Tenet,” I think Nolan ultimately betrays that faith. Here, there are plot threads that, on any conceivable logic, cannot resolve satisfactorily (in particular, those centered on Pattinson’s character) apart from one’s willingness to lean hard into the willing suspension of disbelief. And this means that, at the end of the day, the story isn’t infinitely intelligible: no number of repeat viewings, I think, will clear up some of these discontinuities. (And that’s saying nothing of the question of “parallel universes” or “parallel timelines” that these sorts of narratives pose: “Tenet” runs very fast and very far away from that issue.)
The great achievement of critics of Spinozism—and its intellectual heirs—has been their exposure of the pretenses of any totalizing “neutral” narrative that claims to be free of subjective influence. In so doing, they force “storytellers” to admit the influence of those inarticulable priors that all people carry with them. And that insight is germane here: no doubt there is some version of “Tenet” that makes some sense in Nolan’s head, just as there is an interpretation of the film that (sort of) makes sense to me—notwithstanding the fact that the images and words onscreen admit of multiple, inconsistent interpretations, and do not themselves arrange themselves into a perfect system. Yet in universal terms, the Spinozistic criterion of infinite narrative intelligibility, unfiltered by human beings’ attempts to “patch up” the story for themselves, remains a distant and inaccessible ideal. Individuated, autonomous rationality, in the end, cannot accomplish what many modern people (including, perhaps, Nolan) seek: there is no “neutral” interpretation of phenomena.
I wish Nolan had invited us into his own understanding of the meaning of his film. For better or worse, the climax of “Interstellar”—with its vision of fatherly love spanning light-years and dimensions—did just that. And so the greatest sin of “Tenet,” ultimately, may not be the fact that it’s choppy and incoherent, but that it’s sterile and impersonal; we’re left, in the end, with a great sound and fury, signifying nothing.
And that’s a line I never wanted to write about any Nolan film.