Red Dwarf and the Horcrux of Backwards

On Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’

This, admittedly, is a very silly title for an article but then Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s newest ‘high concept’ thriller, is a very silly film. This is not how it has been presented of course: in fact Tenet has traded on its complexity (always a questionable criterion of artistic merit: as though bloatedness were somehow concomitant with intelligence). Indeed, the film takes itself very seriously. Perhaps in our world of completed nihilism, where every enjoyment is filtered through the sedimented strata of irony, confusion is the only genuine emotion left to our decaying minds, a last ditch attempt to re-enchant the world by revelling in the failure to comprehend it.[1]

However, Tenet is not a film that deals with complexity so much as one that writes the word ‘complex’ in brightly-coloured crayon across a bit of wood and then bludgeons you over the head with it. Everywhere and at all times Tenet is desperate for you not to get it. Who would have thought that a film where the main character’s name is ‘ The Protagonist’ would be so lacking in subtlety and depth?

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in ‘Tenet’ (Christopher Nolan, 2020)

It is difficult to know where to begin but, to borrow an inverted line from Alfred Hitchcock, let’s start with ‘a bad script, a bad script, and a bad script.’ The script for Tenet is poor in the extreme, over-stuffed with swathes of exposition that any film student would be embarrassed of and conversations where characters are not so much talking as forcefully making declarative statements at one another’s faces trying to get the last word.

The lines in the film run the full gamut of bad, from excruciating clichés:

There’s a cold war. Cold as ice. To even know its true nature is to lose.

blubbering paeans to those in power working behind the scenes:

You don’t appreciate the bombs that don’t go off.

several moments when the characters baldly state that:

we’re the ones saving the world.

and macho exchanges that would be cringe-worthy even if Roger Moore was delivering them and winking slyly toward the camera:

Andrei Sator: How would you like to die?

The Protagonist: Old.

Andrei Sator: You chose the wrong profession.

The words forced into the mouths of the women in the film deserve their own special mention (to put it any other way would give the women a degree of agency which Tenet scrupulously denies them). You can almost hear Nolan whispering, ‘Boom, feminism!’ as Priya, the wife of supposed arms dealer Sanjay Singh, reveals herself to be the brains of the operation with, ‘A masculine front in a man’s world has its uses.’ Add to this all the bad science-telling and exposition and it becomes hard to see what combination of filmic elements could have salvaged something from such wreckage.

Because of the script the acting inevitably suffers. It is a huge testament to Robert Pattinson’s abilities that he manages to inject a degree of charm both into his character, Neil, and the film against all the odds, even when he has to deliver (shudder) an inverted line from Casablanca or mansplain physics to a woman bleeding out from a gunshot wound (I’m not kidding). John David Washington is passable as The Protagonist, and comes up with the only one or two moments of genuine humour or lightness in the whole film, but struggles under the lead weight of the material. It would be unfair to critique Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as Kat, a character so thinly drawn as to be some kind of ur-white woman whose pathological love for her own son is so strong that she is unable to care about anything that happens, including the annihilation of the world and everyone in it, unless it directly involves him. In order to maintain her interest in Tenet she therefore has to mention him (though usually as ‘my son’ rather than by his actual name) in almost every single scene. The one who suffers most from the flimsy material is Kenneth Branagh as the villain Andrei Sator. Cut from the same kind of ham as Albert Finney at the best of times, Branagh needs good dialogue to shine. However, with Nolan’s words to deal with he becomes positively ludicrous. Forced to utter lines like ‘If I can’t have you, no one can’ whilst moping around on his billionaire’s yacht with his diabolical Brosnan-era Bond plot to end the world because he himself is dying, Sator ends up seeming like Lex Luthor played by Tommy Wiseau.

Again, the plot about a war being fought temporally founders despite the intrigue inherent in the concept in general.[2] Any genuine complexity proves unable to reveal itself when every moment is so overly-telegraphed and scripted into oblivion. Trying to cover up this storytelling in the most pejorative sense with flashes of special effects and attempts at mystification via characters saying different versions of ‘this is complex, so complex’ to one another as though they were desperate to believe it themselves does not complexity make. This feature is so prevalent one wonders if even Nolan has any confidence in the world he has created (in this regard at least, who can blame him?). In Christopher Walken’s immortal words from True Romance: ‘You don’t wanna show me nothin’, but you’re tellin’ me everything.’ This story arc is then under-laid with a romantic element that is less like a love story and more like The Protagonist becoming randomly obsessed with the first woman he encounters: a kind of incel voyeurism reconfigured into courage.

Tenet asks for faith: to invest faith in a world that appears to be strange and complex because those who have a vested interest in maintaining power over it say that it is so. This is the problem with the sub-frat boy basement STEM-fetish complexity which Tenet tries to peddle: you cannot understand the world, but trust that almost no one can (beyond the militarised shadow agency apparatus and nefarious super-villains controlling the very flow of time) as a way to act. There is a point here perhaps about Nolan’s work as giving credence to the fractured and alienating temporalities of capitalism, that Tenet in fact mirrors the kind of buy-in required by the rhythms of electoral politics and work (perhaps the only two things in the real world today which might manage to be as ludicrous and enervating as Tenet). Change is not something that can be just done. What we need to do is crudely conflate fate and reality and make the best of it: falling into that always amusing combination of personal responsibility and limitless subjection to systemic power that the undead corpse of neoliberal capitalism ask of us. But this might be better mounted against one of Nolan’s better efforts more worthy of such a critique.

Ultimately then Tenet is a useful title for the film because the word itself is a form without content. This single word’s vacuity may, in Nolan’s eyes, make it the perfect codeword as a mode of self-referentiality: ‘the Tenet is empty, it is up to you to fill it with meaning’ or some such nonsense but in fact it is nothing but an empty signifier, a void with enough Biblical and archaic connotation to make it appear profound. The idea that Tenet could be used to start a conversation about whether ‘you have to understand a work of art to like it’ is, quite frankly, laughable. However, in order for that question to even be asked, the object question has to actually be a work of art: Tenet may have a few billion dollars worth of pictures in its vaults, but it is no oil painting.

[1] This would in part explain our increasing love of conspiracy theories.

[2] The film also manages to sandwich in Russia-phobia, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Manhattan project in a kind of nuclear holocaust smash and grab. But then this nuclear threat is largely only there as a kind of prop for the characters to use as a comparison when emphasising that this temporal war is ‘so much worse’. The crassness of this appropriation is difficult to comprehend.