Tenet Christopher Nolan (USA; 2020) John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki; Robert Patterson
viewed: 17 Sept 2020 Cineworld Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne; Ticket: £12.75
The Twilight zone of Junk food and Junk ideas
Christopher Nolan is making something of a speciality writing scenarios based on junk ideas. Inception dealt rather lamely with the ideas spectrum that it was possible to steal and enter people’s dreams, to use cog’ tech to gain friends and influence people. Tenet does a mash up script job with ‘the big one’: the Time thing.
You need a dramatist to do justice to these ideas but this is movieland, so it’s digits and particles and Nolan is a proven SFX guy employing thousands of squaddie compositors to fill out the action scenario with all that big bang effects stuff. It is what it is, it’s what the customers want, and it goes well with the popcorn. Viewing Inception after the release hype had abated I found the development of its ‘ideas core’, about which the action was scripted, like a Christmas tree decoratively arrayed with lights and baubles. There was little substance to the neurological, the script simply followed its own logic, with the add on science mainly contributing to the ‘one liners’ dimension that made up most of the dialogue.
Tenet (Latin for it holds, it holds, it persists) takes on much the same relationship to its base idea as Inception. As in Inception the grounding proposition of ‘Tenet’ is a big scientific idea, with time- flow and time inversion replacing dream tech, and both productions thereby licensed to use digital effects sequences to bulk up. In Tenet with a knowing nod to cinematic provenance, Nolan simply calls his protagonist, played by John David Washington, the Protagonist. We are in post-modernist land where any mix and match cocktail of originary and legacy material goes; and the generic nomenclature helps to cue sequels. A movie headed up by somebody called the Protagonist, can be played by anyone: male female tranie, black white Hispanic Asian etc. With scripting based on time and the movie within a movie working a multidimensional trope we are in Fanchiseland.
In form and structure ‘Tenet’ is James Bond territory, re-dimensioned but recognisable in form. At the centre the cool male presence, capable of emerging from some serious fisticuffs with three goons with little more than the casual gesture of adjusting his immaculately knotted tie. The structure is familiar: the Bond girl, now capable of more or less attending her own business and the villain, a sadist with a Russian accent. The structure is more or less classic Quest: the high octave opening sequence; the what’s going on puzzler; the training; trips round the world, exotic unusual locations; the Protagonist’s capture and escape. Then the car chase and the set piece destruction (or partial destruction of ) a actual Boeing Jumbo. There is of course the Last Battle and finally the end of the Quest: the Protagonist gets his hands on the Holy Grail, the cosmic ‘the Algorithm’. Curiously this looks like a section of an ornate Victorian drain pipe (I expected something more abstract, but they went for chunky).
As in Inception, the ground rules in Tenet allow for much po-faced delivery of gnomic one liners between the characters, ‘We live in a twilight world…’ followed by ‘the knowing look with the eyes’ . The look is very important in this type of film, asserting a superior insight on the part of the interlocutor as to what is going on. Which in ‘Tenet’ is some claim.
To wit as we watch one thing happen after another, with Nolan playing the part of a megalomaniac ring master, the interesting point about the film is its incoherence. As temporal indicators, inversion, reversion and subversion arbitrarily contort the script, leading the players on a sort of filmic St Vitus’ dance.
‘Tenet’ has the feel of being an analogous take on our contemporary situation. That the flaky logic of Tenet escapes us is of no concern, most of us don’t even try to understand the systems that mediate how we live. We accept that the way our tech works is opaque, there are no direct connections only the finger to key commands. We don’t expect to understand anything we just want it to work. As for time, time, it’s accelerated out of our control. We are a society addicted to the amphetamine rush of our digital systems where we are overwhelmed by information, the particles of digital tech that have multiplied beyond our emotional and intellectual capabilities.
We are now victims of time, powerless in the face of the temporal vortices we have unleashed but don’t understand. As we view ‘Tenet’ we see the glimmer of ourselves reflected back to us from the screen. In a dumb sort of way we see everything and know nothing and in our know nothing we can take comfort and distracted for a moment check the mirror and see what’s happening on our phone.
Nolan warns we are in the Twilight zone. But its not the inverted ordinance of the battle scene that will kill us (inverted ordinance does seem a strange ineffectual sort of weapon), rather ignorance. And in giving us comfort in our ignorance, ‘Tenet’ , in its own small and modest way, is a product of the times.