Time-traveler or time-waster? Review of Nolan’s ‘Tenet’

Scott Powell

At the beginning of “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s latest high-concept, high-speed, high-brow techno-time-travel thriller, there’s a line spoken to John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist as he is being introduced to the radioactive, temporally-inverted metal that makes up the base of the film’s plot. 

“Wait, wait, wait,” you might ask, “the tin-parelly invested whatsamahoo?”

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Precisely.

“I don’t understand,” Washington says, after being delivered a very long and drawn-out explanation of how the metal moves backward in time through forward-moving space — a speech jam-packed with all sorts of science-y sounding phrases like “entropy” and “quasmadic reduction” and “bippity-boppity-butilline,” so you know that the screenwriters have really taken the time to educate themselves on this topic.

“Don’t try to understand it,” the lab technician responds. “Feel it.”

“It’s Nolan’s ability to tell multi-layered, intricate stories that, despite their complexity, are still easily digestible, and can convey deep, philosophical concepts simply and effectively, that makes his work so brilliant”

I suppose this is what Nolan is hoping “Tenet” will be: a movie that can be felt without having to understand its twisted, looping, spaghetti bowl of a plotline. He’s done it before.

It’s Nolan’s ability to tell multi-layered, intricate stories that, despite their complexity, are still easily digestible and can convey deep, philosophical concepts simply and effectively that makes his work so brilliant. This has skyrocketed him to his place as the most powerful director in Hollywood.

“Tenet,” however, while not necessarily failing at this, nonetheless does not strike the balance between complexity of plot and graspability of underlying themes quite as effectively as the director’s previous films.

The story follows Washington, working alongside Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki’s characters, as they travel backward and forward through time in an attempt to prevent the past incarnation of an Anglo-Russian oligarch, played by Kenneth Branagh, from prompting a future world war which will lead to humanity’s extinction — a setup which follows faithfully in the Nolanic tradition of plotlines that are the cinematic equivalent of a 3,000-by-3,000-by-3,000 Rubik’s Cube.

“(Nolan) does not focus on the complexities and intricacies of the film’s concept but rather on the very human and philosophical questions that such a concept inspires, which all people wrestle with and can relate to.”

Even trying to follow along with the condensed synopsis on Wikipedia — which I, admittedly, had to do after my first viewing in order to make sense of what I’d just seen — was like twisting my brain into a lemon juicer.

However, typically in Nolan films, these complex plotlines are mere accessories to a much simpler, though nonetheless deep, archetypal story at the film’s center. He does not focus on the complexities and intricacies of the film’s concept, but rather on the very human and philosophical questions that those concepts inspire, which all people wrestle with and can relate to.

“Inception” is about dream-hacking, complex, but only insofar as that dream-hacking explores the contrast between reality as it actually is and reality as we as humans must interpret, re-conceptualize and warp for the sake of our own sanity — simple and universal. “Interstellar” is about complex wormholes, but those wormholes are merely a symbolic means of illustrating Matthew McConaughey’s desire to reconnect with the defining moments in his life — simple and universal.

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“Tenet” is no different. Here, time travel — also complex — is the vehicle for the simpler, more universal question: is a doomed future worth our struggling to preserve? It’s perhaps the most ambitious ontological query that Nolan has attempted to tackle. And he tackles it well enough, but not with the same power that his previous films have.

Here, the balance between explanation of the film’s concept and exploration of its characters’ desires is tilted heavily toward the former. Nearly every scene for the first three quarters of the movie tacks on some form of new information about the intricacies of the movie’s time travel methodology — how it functions, the various problems that have to be overcome when using it, etc. It’s nearly all exposition up until the climax.

Meanwhile, the underlying needs of the characters — their core beliefs and how those core beliefs have driven them to desire this precious, radioactive metallic substance — are only mentioned in passing. They are only said, not actually shown.

“Inception” dedicates a hefty amount of screen time to showing Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard’s relationship, the significant impact that has had on DiCaprio’s life and how that relationship directly ties into his profession as a dream-hacker.

“Time only moves forward. Time travel negates this reality and thus eliminates our need to make sense of it. It turns life into something that can be twisted and altered entirely on our own whims and not something that we have to accept and wrestle with as it unfolds.”

However, here we are only given a few brief monologues about the film’s underlying narrative arc, which focuses on Branagh and Debicki’s debate over whether it is worth saving the world for the sake of their son who will have to deal with the equally dire consequences of either their allowance or prevention of a nuclear holocaust.

We are never actually shown what the couples’ child means to either of them. We only ever see Debicki interacting with him from a distance. Thus, we don’t feel their sense of longing as deeply as we do that of characters in Nolan’s better known films, and their mission does not resonate as strongly with us.

The scarcity of character development here seems to be a byproduct of the plot’s central concept of time travel. It’s the same problem that Nolan ran into with “Interstellar,” one of the director’s lowest rated films on Rotten Tomatoes — namely, that time travel is not well suited as the vehicle for traditional narratives.

Traditional narratives rely on cause-and-effect sequences of events to propel them forward, and time travel inevitably interferes with this since it makes causes and effects malleable. It gives characters power to change previous actions they may have carried out which led to undesirable effects.

Stories are our means of understanding how we can cope with a world that is constantly changing and that is constantly moving forward because that is the nature of our existence: constant forward motion.

Time travel negates this reality and thus eliminates our need to make sense of it through narratives. It turns life into something that can be twisted and altered entirely on our own whims and not something that we have to accept and wrestle with as it unfolds. Thus, trying to fit a cause-and-effect narrative into a temporally unhindered setting is tricky.

It can be done, and it has been done effectively in films like “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future” and “The Time Machine,” but only because these films do not attempt to make the methods they develop for time travel believable. They don’t present or even attempt to present time travel as it actually would work in real life. They take a single element of the complexities of time travel and they focus their story around it, not paying mind to the logical contradictions and loopholes it might create and trusting that their audiences will be willing to accept these inconsistencies — which audiences usually are.

Nolan, however, is a director who has made a name for himself by depicting far-out concepts in realistic terms. He is the Michael Crichton of the silver screen — taking fantastical, genre-film scenarios and turning them into realistic, or at least quasi-realistic, think pieces, so his audiences expect scientific accuracy. He can imagine all he wants, so long as what he is imagining is still theoretically possible.

The theoretical possibilities of time travel, though, present a rabbit hole of contradictions which are well-known to audiences and cannot be ignored if one is hoping to tell a realistic story. It has to have limitations if it is going to work as a narrative device, but it cannot have limitations if it is going to be portrayed accurately.

Thus, “Tenet’s” ambitious thematic center gets overshadowed by its futile attempts to rationalize its inherently irrational plot concept and is not given the attention necessary for its impact to be felt as deeply as it ought to be. This causes the piece to come off as a well-conceived but unimpactful, run-of-the-mill action flick that doesn’t quite live up to its director’s standards of excellence.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.