**_An aesthetic showcase that's completely uninterested in human beings (and for the love of God, what does Christopher Nolan have against decent sound mixing?)_**
> S A T O R
> A R E P O
> T E N E T
> O P E R A
> R O T A S
- Sator square (date unknown)
>_The laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future. More precisely, the laws of science are unchanged under the combination of operations (or symmetries) known as C, P, and T (C means changing particles for antiparticles. P means taking the mirror image, so left and right are interchanged. And T means reversing the direction of motion of all particles: in effect, running the motion backward). The laws of science that govern the behaviour of matter under all normal situations are unchanged under the combination of the two operations C and P on their own. In other words, life would be just the same for the inhabitants of another planet who were both mirror images of us and who were made of antimatter, rather than matter._
>_If the laws of science are unchanged by the combination of operations C and P, and also by the combination C, P, and T, they must also be unchanged under the operation T alone. Yet there is a big difference between the forward and backward directions of real time in ordinary life. Imagine a cup of water falling off a table and breaking into pieces on the floor. If you take a film of this, you can easily tell whether it is being run forward or backward. If you run it backward you will see the pieces suddenly gather themselves together off the floor and jump back to form a whole cup on the table. You can tell that the film is being run backward because this kind of behaviour is never observed in ordinary life._
>_The explanation that is usually given as to why we don't see broken cups gathering themselves together off the floor and jumping back onto the table is that it is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics. This says that in any closed system, disorder, or entropy, always increases with time. In other words, it is a form of Murphy's law: things always tend to go wrong! An intact cup on the table is a state of high order, but a broken cup on the floor is a disordered state. One can go readily from the cup on the table in the past to the broken cup on the floor in the future, but not the other way round._
- Stephen Hawking; _A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes_ (1988)
> _Imagine you and a friend decide to go to Pisa, with one of you standing atop the famous leaning tower and the other located down at the bottom. From the top, whoever throws a ball off the edge can easily predict where it will land down on the bottom. Yet if the person at the bottom were to throw the ball upwards with an equal-and-opposite velocity to the ball that just landed, it would arrive exactly at the location where the person at the top threw their ball from._
> _This is a situation where time-reversal invariance holds: where the T-symmetry is unbroken. Time reversal can be thought of the same way as motion reversal: if the rules are the same whether you run the clock forwards or backwards, there's true T-symmetry. But if the rules are different when the clock runs backwards from when the clock runs forwards, the T-symmetry must be broken._
- Ethan Siegel; "No, The Laws Of Physics Are Not The Same Forwards And Backwards In Time"; _Forbes_ (July 5, 2019)
Watching _Tenet_, the latest film from writer/producer/director Christopher Nolan (_Memento_; _Inception_; _Interstellar_), I was reminded of an apocryphal story about NASA – during the space race, in an attempt to tackle the problem of how to write in zero gravity, NASA poured millions into developing the Fisher Space Pen, whereas the Russians simply gave their cosmonauts pencils. And it seems to me watching this overblown mess of a film that Nolan has become so fixated on the grandiosity of the pen that he has completely overlooked the humble pencil. More so than any of his previous work, _Tenet_ is focused on mixing philosophy and real(ish) science with over-the-top mainstream entertainment to such an extent that he ignores such basic narrative principles as character arcs, empathy, motivation, and interiority. Now, don't get me wrong, I love filmic experimentation (two of my favourite directors are Terrence Malick and David Lynch), but _Tenet_ isn't an especially experimental film – it's a humourless and badly written shambles, convinced of its own portentousness, and created by a man who has achieved such popularity that it seems no one in his circle is willing to tell him when something is a bad idea.
Spending almost ten years working on the story, and five writing the script, in Tenet, Nolan is yet again examining the vagaries of time. It's a theme that's front and centre in _Memento_ (2000), _Inception_ (2010), _Interstellar_ (2014), and _Dunkirk_ (2017), and to a lesser extent in _Following_ (1998) and _The Prestige_ (2006) (I haven't seen any of his _Dark Knight_ trilogy so I can't attest to their thematic concerns, and we shall not speak of his remake of _Insomnia_). It's undeniably fascinating to see a tent pole Hollywood production engaging with issues such as entropy, thermodynamics, reversibility and irreversibility, time's arrow, the grandfather paradox, and T-symmetry, all the while keeping proceedings housed firmly within the spy genre (it's a Bond movie in all but name). Indeed, one of the film's central questions is especially noteworthy – if what and who we remember from our past defines who we are in our present, do things that haven't happened to us yet also speak to our identity? Do our future actions determine who we are as much as our past actions? It's a fascinating question. And one with which Nolan does precisely nothing. However, the film's main problems aren't related to the squandered existential potential, the much-ballyhooed complexity, the puzzle-like structure, the philosophical musing, or the thematic similarity to Nolan's previous work. Rather, they are more fundamental, existing almost entirely at a structural level (although some of the performances don't help matters, nor does the abysmal sound mixing). The film looks incredible, the practical effects in the action scenes are extraordinarily mounted, the cinematography is stunning, and the editing is superb, but there simply isn't anything of note under the shiny veneer. It's a film with virtually no interest in human beings.
The premise of _Tenet_ is straightforward in outline. The film opens as a CIA operative known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) infiltrates a team of bad guys looking to find a spy at the Kiev Opera House. He finds the man before they do, but during their escape, he sees something which should be impossible – a bullet seems to travel backwards in space and a bullet hole is "un-shot", as if time is reversed for that bullet, even though everything else is moving normally. The Protagonist is able to smuggle the spy outside, but their escape goes awry, and to avoid being captured, he swallows a cyanide tablet. Rather than dying, however, he awakens to be told that he has passed the test to join an ultra-secret international espionage squad known as Tenet. His mission is fairly simply – at some point in the future, someone has figured out how to reverse the entropy of objects, effectively being able to send them back along the timeline without having to reverse time itself. The implications of this are catastrophic and have set humanity on course for World War III, and probable extinction, unless The Protagonist can figure out who is doing it and put a stop to their machinations. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of Neil (Robert Pattinson), his infinitely better-informed handler; Andrei Sator (a spectacularly miscast Kenneth Branagh giving new meaning to clichéd villainy), a dangerous Russian oligarch; Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki), Andrei's oppressed and deeply unhappy trophy wife; Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an arms dealer; Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Tenet soldier; Michael Crosby (Michael Caine), a British intelligence bigwig; and Barbara (Clémence Poésy), a scientist specialising in all things temporal.
_Tenet_ is an event movie in every way; this 150-minute, $200m+ original idea (when was the last time a non-franchise, non-comic book original movie got that kind of budget) is a massive studio tent pole written and directed by the most popular filmmaker alive. And I will say this. The budget is on the screen. Oftentimes, you'll see a movie that's cost a ridiculous amount and you'll sit there thinking, "they must have spent a lot on catering." With _Tenet_, however, it's all there, front and centre. No small amount of that money, of course, must have gone on the practical effects (incredibly, the film has only 280 vfx shots) – whether it be our heroes bungie-jumping onto the side of a building, a close-quarters fight where one of the combatants moves in reverse, a Boeing 747 jet crashing into a building (which was shot for real), a highway chase where some of the cars are going forward in time and others are going backwards, or an all-out battle scene where, again, some of the soldiers travel forward whilst others move in reverse. Even Ludwig Göransson's score gets in on the act, employing only melodies which sound the same whether played backwards or forwards.
As cinematic spectacle goes (on a purely visual level), I've never quite seen anything like it. It's one of those films where you'll genuinely be asking yourself, "how the hell did they do that?"; a question that's become increasingly rare in our CGI-reliant times. Tenet looks like it was an exceptionally difficult movie to make. Along the same lines, the cinematography by the great Hoyte van Hoytema (_The Fighter_; _Spectre_; _Ad Astra_) is stunning, with van Hoytema mixing 15-perf 70mm IMAX film (shot at 1.43:1; projected at 1.90:1) with traditional 70mm stock (2.20:1) and a few 35mm sequences in a manner where the shifts in aspect ratio are barely noticeable (although I saw it on an IMAX screen; aspects shifts would be more obvious on a smaller screen). It's the kind of film that could only exist in the medium of cinema – no other artform could even begin to approximate its aesthetic design and splendour, and I admire that a great deal. A celluloid purist, Nolan has always made a big stink about the artistic importance of cinema, and _Tenet_ finds him pushing the aesthetic boundaries of what the artform can accomplish, foregrounding innovation in ways that big budget mainstream studio productions simply don't, and celebrating the possibilities it affords those with sufficient enough imagination.
Unfortunately, no matter how visually unique or aesthetically impressive it may be, no amount of gloss can hide the fact that the screenplay is a turgid mess and suffers from some fundamental problems – most notably, it's bereft of emotion and populated with cardboard cut-outs that are supposed to be characters. The problems start early when The Protagonist is told that the future of humanity depends on his mission. This is precisely when I started to tune out. Any film that declares its story is none-other than saving humanity has gone so big as to render the people who populate its narrative as insignificant. It's also a cliché, it's dull as dishwater, and we've seen it done a million-and-one-times. The idea of saving all mankind simply doesn't pack any kind of emotional punch any more, far better to stay smaller and focus on character.
Which brings me to those characters. Good lord, they're badly written. The Protagonist isn't a person with an interiority; he's a cipher, the audience's surrogate so that Nolan can explain the plot to us. But there's nothing more to him – he's utterly emotionless, seemingly void of any kind of relatable motivation, has no psychological through line, and nothing even resembling a character arc. I'm not a huge fan of Washington in general, who I feel has played every part in the same sombre, disinterested manner, so there could be some prejudice at work, but I am a huge fan of Branagh, and he's even worse. Think of the most clichéd Russian villain you've ever seen. Now square that and you'll be some way towards imagining how ludicrous Sator is. He isn't a person – he's a collection of near-satirical tics, clichés, and elements from other, better films. Maybe with a more menacing actor in the role it might have worked, but all I could think whenever he was on screen was "that accent is hilarious." Pattinson's Neil and Debicki's Kat fair better, but neither set the screen alight. Along the same lines, much of the second half of the film hinges on the fact that The Protagonist and Kat find themselves drawn to one another, yet Washington and Debicki have zero chemistry. At a human level, there's nothing to take a hold of the audience, nothing to make us care about any of these people; they're gears in the machinery of Nolan's plot.
Speaking of Kat, a common criticism of Nolan's filmography as a whole is that his female characters tend to be victims whose deaths motivate men or who need saving by men, and/or women who define themselves almost entirely in terms of their relationship to men. Now, I'm not saying that Nolan is _obliged_ to write more rounded female characters. He isn't. Much like one of his favourite filmmakers, Michael Mann, Nolan's films are androcentric. And there's nothing wrong with that. However, in Mann, there are to be found strong female characters with considerable agency, whereas in _Tenet_, Kat is nothing more than a pawn in a game played by powerful men who effortlessly control her. She defines herself almost entirely in terms of her role as a self-sacrificing mother, and whilst this is an interesting trait the first couple of times it comes up, by the time Nolan is reminding us of how much she has sacrificed for the 237th time, it had become obvious that this was going to be the extent of her characterisation.
At one point early in the film, Barbara tells The Protagonist, "_don't try to understand it, just feel it_", which is advice that Nolan is also offering to his audience. The problem is that there's nothing to feel. _Tenet_ is a puzzle, the impenetrability of which will depend on each individual viewer (and how much of the appallingly poorly-mixed dialogue you can make out), but unlike _Memento_ (which remains Nolan's best by a long way), which packed a seriously emotional gut-punch when we finally learn what was at the heart of the puzzle, _Tenet_ offers us nothing more than the task of deciphering it for its own sake. There's a twist towards the end that I literally saw coming from about 10 minutes in, but aside from that, there's no payoff. There's nothing to make us want to penetrate a story that seems more intent on reminding us how clever it is instead of trying to depict real people or establish real emotional stakes; it's a film more enamoured by the complexity of its own design than by any of the people contained within. It's an emotional void – all technical virtuosity and surface sheen with next to nothing at its core.