*. There’s a scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me where Basil (Michael York) tells Austin not to bother worrying about the mechanics of time travel. “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself,” he says, before turning to the camera and saying to the audience “That goes for you all, too.”
*. Advice worth heeding when watching any time-travel movie. Despite that warning though, and despite writer-director Christopher Nolan’s admission that he wasn’t making any case for scientific accuracy in this film, and despite the scientist who just shows up to give us the basics before telling the Protagonist “Don’t try to understand it,” plenty of people have approached Tenet as a problem to be solved, a puzzle to be decoded.
*. Making sense of Tenet is impossible, but I don’t want to suggest that the people who put so much effort into mapping it out are idiots. Trying to figure things out is one of the big attractions of movies like this. Personally, I felt lost from the start. I didn’t understand how objects could be inverted within a universe where the laws of physics were all going the other way. I didn’t understand why anyone who’d been inverted would experience some things going backward but not others. I mean, the whole universe would be going in reverse, the whole film playing back. Depending, that is, on one’s frame of reference, if there is a frame of reference. I didn’t understand the logistics of the “temporal pincer” at all. And while I accept that the Algorithm was a Macguffin, I couldn’t see why it had to take such an industrial form. Aside from turning it into the kind of thing you could carry around, which it needs to be in order to make the plot work.
*. That said, I was on board for Tenet, at least for the first little bit. We start off with Nolan in full James Bond mode. A terrorist attack on the Kiev Opera House. An attempted break-in to a high-security storage facility in Oslo, achieved by piloting a jet into its back wall. A fight in half-backward motion. I was grooving to the concept, even if I didn’t understand a lick of it, and was suitably slack-jawed at all the money dripping off the production.
*. But Tenet is a movie that gets smaller as it goes along. We hit the first slowdown with the introduction of the Bond villain, a Russian oligarch named Sator played by Kenneth Branagh. Sator is, I’m afraid, an almost unimaginably dull character, made even more dour by Branagh’s ridiculous performance. I don’t know if his Russian accent was made worse by his determination not to move his lips when he’s talking. I have to think Nolan told him to play the part restrained, but the bottom line is that he’s a total bore. He sails around the world in a giant yacht. He does stupid rich-person things like race catamarans. He says stupid rich-person things to his wife like “If I can’t have you, no one can!” This movie needed a good villain and they really struck out here.
*. Even his nefarious plot has become a cliché. Sator is only the latest in a long, long line of bad guys looking to destroy the world in order to save it from environmental catastrophe (though the motivation here actually comes from people in the future and Sator is only their tool). I guess Nolan had to come up with some threat to life as we know it and this is what first came to hand. Apparently saving the planet has become firmly established in Hollywood’s mind as equivalent to mad schemes to exterminate the human race. Think Zobrist in Inferno, Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Dr. Isaacs in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. I can’t say I like the politics here.
*. Then there’s the action. I mean, this is a Bond movie in all but name. But despite the resources behind it I found the action and stunts inferior to the latest entries in the Bond, Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, and John Wick franchises. Basically Tenet only has one new thing to show us, the forward-backward business, and once we get used to that after the first fight then it’s shot its bolt. That’s the only card they have to play. I didn’t find cars flipping back onto the road or explosions playing in reverse to be all that interesting, or even interesting at all.
*. Characters? The name of the Protagonist tells you all you need to know there. He’s a blank. I like John David Washington here, but he doesn’t have any particular identity. There’s a Bond girl played by Elizabeth Debicki who he has even less chemistry with than Bond has with his pick-ups, so the plot seems totally unmotivated. The Protagonist is trying to save the world and he lets himself get sidetracked saving the life of a woman he barely knows. Robert Pattinson is a bright spot, but as he remains a mysterious figure until the end we can’t invest that much in him. Sator, as I’ve said, is a total bore. Michael Caine shows up to . . . well, he shows up.
*. Actually, Caine’s unnecessary appearance underlines a problem I had with the movie, and with Nolan more generally. If I were a producer or head of a studio this is a guy I would run away from. Yes, he makes movies that are very successful, but he’s got a real problem with spending money. The problem being that he likes to spend it. He likes to spend a lot of it, and for no other purpose but to spend a lot of money. I mentioned the racing catamarans. Why is there a scene with racing catamarans? I don’t know. The whole scene had no purpose at all. But it’s the kind of thing you get in a Bond movie so they threw it in.
*. Put another way, this movie had a budget of $200 million and I think it would have been better with a budget of $20 million. There’s a whole lot of expensive stuff going on here that it doesn’t need, where what it’s really lacking is more intensity and a clearer sense of what’s going on. As I’ve said, there are people who like to explain, or try to explain, the ending. But the fact is that when you’re watching the ending I don’t think it’s possible to have any clear idea of what is happening. This makes it very hard to care, beyond being basically cognizant of the fact that there’s a bomb and a countdown and they have to grab the Macguffin before time’s up. It would have been a lot more compelling if we’d known what the hell any of it meant, or if any of it mattered. Because given the way the time-travel stuff is presented I wasn’t sure any of it did matter, either at the end or the beginning.
*. Christopher Nolan is considered to be one of the most talented directors working today. I think Memento may be his best movie so far. This helps underline what I mean by more not always being more. I mean, Inception was bloated and overrated, but it had its impressive moments and at times became sort of interesting. But did Nolan really need to spend this much money, not to mention five, or in some reports 20 years working on the screenplay here? For some bog-standard Bond shenanigans implanted with a bit of time-flipping nonsense? What was he spending all that time thinking about? Or was he just scouting locations and imagining yachts, and wind farms, and catamarans?