I saw Tenet in a theater in Toronto with fancy seats that vibrate and tilt along with the action. I don’t think the seat’s enthusiasm contributed much, but I did enjoy the show. I went to see it for two reasons: One is that science fiction films flood the cultural discourse and change narratives, and this one is playing partly in what I consider my space, so I felt like I needed to know what is in it. The second is that I just finished writing something long and my brain needs a break from rehearsing and reworking my own prose; it helped to clear my head.
Before I went, I read reviews and internet takes. Most people who had seen it were concerned with trying to figure out what is going on in the film, because it has scenes in which time flows both forwards and backwards. After reading the article in the Washington Post about their decision not to review the film because Christopher Nolan gave reviewers no choice except to see it in a theater with other people, I considered whether to skip it. But in the end, I went. I would not make the same decision two weeks from now, because I expect the incidence of the virus to spike up once schools are open. Having seen it as the director intended, unless you are really excited by watching stuff blow up, there is no particular reason to see it in a theater. Inasmuch as the film is good, it won’t lose much if seen instead on a big screen TV.
My impression, from seeing Tenet once through, is that its construction of Time is three dimensional. In the film, the future already exists. The characters wouldn’t be trying so hard if time were just an arrow, because everything would be predestined. It is clear to me that Nolan has some kind of model of timelines in order to decide how to spend all that money. My recollection is that somewhere in the script there is an explicit denial of the model of branching universes, which could be charted with 2D-time. And with all those timeline loopty-loops, and lot of soldiers going backwards in time, their model has to be at least 3D. A move to 4D time would make it a lot harder to chart the course of a film budget and to plan the film because humans think better in 3D than 4D. Ergo, I conclude that Tenet is working with a 3D model of time. This was interesting, and curiosity about the sequence of events will, no doubt, stimulate a segment of the film’s audience to see it many times in hopes of fully understanding it.
There are a few transgressive elements. The heroine is allowed to be tall. An arms dealer is allowed to be female. The Protagonist is allowed to be black. And I do love all that playing with time that has audiences so confused.
My sense, as a science fiction editor, is that there is essential information, unrelated to the time sequence, that did not make it to the final cut. The film has two halves. In the first half, what is primarily at issue is the strangeness of the situation in which a war in the future is propagating backwards in time. The Protagonist (as the character played by John David Washington is called) gets artifacts from the future tested so he can track their precise provenance to understand what is happening, and then follows up on this information, conducting dangerous interviews to learn the truth.
In the second half, the film loses interest in this kind of truth and becomes politically incurious. Instead, the fate of the world hangs on the dynamic of one bad marriage, a marvelously tall and very beautiful woman, Kat, married to a beast of a man who says that if he can’t have Kat, no one can. The film trades on that sentiment as though it is rare and exotic, rather than a banal patriarchal sentiment that One Has Heard Before. (I certainly have; I have is a poem somewhere in a drawer on this theme that was written to me.)
My sense is that they probably wrote or even filmed scenes that continued the ratiocination about the nature of the future war, but in the second half that plot stream is reduced to a trickle. Russians are still bad guys, and although the villain is an oligarch, the way in which the Protagonist, a CIA operative, interacts with the various Russian henchmen seems innocent of American political developments of the past 4 years. Dropping an understanding of the future war in favor of structuring the second half round the dynamics of Kat’s bad marriage allows our understanding to of the future war devolve to one famous line from Pogo, whether or not that was what was intended in the film treatment.
So, what does Tenet mean? Or rather, in the cut delivered to the theaters, mean? It is a weirdly apolitical film about politics, released into a political disaster so urgent that reviewers have had to take into account whether they will risk catching the virus to review the film. I was watching for political symbolism. There is a moment in which dividing people into red and blue comes into play, seeming to reference both The Matrix’s red pill/blue pill thing and also red and blue states. The working out of that subtext is an untenably centrist message about America’s political polarizations. But also, it seems an invitation for the type of conspiracy theorist already using the Red Pill concept to graft Tenet onto their film pantheon.* There is also a violent schtick with a grater in a kitchen fight scene, which seems purpose built for MAGA memes.
In the vacuum left by the dropping of the epistemological plotlines present in the first half, Kat becomes a Melania Trump figure, her husband, the beastly oligarch Andrei Sator, a Trump figure; their fleetingly visible son seemingly a stand-in for the youngest Trump child. And as with news coverage of the Trump presidency, ideas about the details of the destructiveness of the underlying situation are subordinated to stories of palace intrigue. We are too smart to believe that Melania will save us, but the film symbolically floats that fantasy.
Overall, Tenet is an expression of utopian longing for normalcy of the recently past status quo, a desire for us to just stop fighting among ourselves, tinged with a nostalgia for the moral clarity of the Cold War. Its manner of release, in theaters at a time when that is dicey from a public health standpoint, a further expression of a reactionary aversion to change. The disorienting experience of time seems an expression of the auteur’s disorientation in our own time.
* An online exegesis I read claims the red/blue thematics is from the Doppler effect. Okay...