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If I were to live my life backwards in time,
Would it be hellish or sublime?
I’d walk and babble in reverse
And watch my history recurse.
To see the end before the start
To know both part and counterpart,
Is it a blessing or a curse,
Upstream against the universe?
Is it a blessing or a curse,
To know both part and counterpart,
To see the end before the start
And watch my history recurse.
I’d walk and babble in reverse.
Would it be hellish or sublime
If I were to live my life backwards in time?
_______________________

MPA rating:  PG-13

Tenet was an interesting theater-going experience, mainly because it looks like it will be the only 2020 film I actually get to see in a theater. (I did see Weathering with You and Ride Your Wave pre-pandemic, but those were both from 2019.) I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned that the local theater where I watched Tenet planned to shut down the very next day. The theater was completely empty, so it was like a private screening. There were hopes that Tenet might kick off a resurgence of theater-going, which sadly didn’t happen, but it’s the kind of film that could have under different circumstances. Action films get labelled “dumb” more often than not, but Christopher Nolan once more proves that the genre can reward and require intelligence, sometimes more than the audience wants to spare.

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Nolan specializes in bending time, expanding it across nested dreamscapes, jumping around between different perspectives of Dunkirk, and now reversing it entirely. John David Washington plays a man with no name, labeled the Protagonist but never actually referenced in the film, a CIA agent who sees a bullet seem to move in reverse during a thrilling extraction at an opera house. After proving his loyalty, he is initiated into the organization called Tenet, which seeks to prevent a coming catastrophe evidenced by the existence of objects moving backwards in time, such as the reversing bullet. From there, it’s a globe-hopping spy caper as the Protagonist makes allies to take down a Russian oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who has knowledge of the future.

I loved Inception and still think that it is Nolan’s best film; with his latest film’s incoming hype as a mind-bender, I was hoping for lightning to strike again. While I still enjoyed Tenet, it’s more like thunder. Tenet is a puzzle for puzzle-lovers, thriving on unique backwards action and a purposefully constant pace that encourages viewers to accept what’s going on whether they understand it or not. And that’s where Tenet struggles. No matter how much Nolan or the film’s characters believe that the reversed time concept makes sense, I remain unconvinced. It makes for some utterly cool and compelling visuals, but there’s always a nagging feeling of doubt about how items/characters moving backwards in time actually interact with forward-moving items/characters. In that opening opera house scene, an “inverted” bullet goes from a bullet hole in the wall backwards into someone’s gun, but I’m left with the question of how it got into the wall in the first place. The idea is fascinating in short bursts, but over longer stretches of interaction, a disconnect grows between how inverted characters experience time forward (from their perspective) while the non-inverted characters observe them as “reactions.” If that doesn’t make sense, I don’t blame you. I’m sure someone could try to explain these apparent inconsistencies, and it would make some semblance of sense, but the effort to understand dwarfs what Inception required.

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Washington’s Protagonist doesn’t have an abundance of personality, but he has just enough swagger and uber-competence to be an engaging audience surrogate thrust into an even stranger spy life than he led before. The rest of the cast always live up to their talent, from Robert Pattinson’s secretive ally to Branagh’s brutal Russian villain, who might as well be his character from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. However, Nolan’s best films also have an underlying heart to complement the mind-twisting, typically in the form of parental love for children, like in The Prestige and Inception. Tenet tries similarly with the excellent Elizabeth Debicki as Branagh’s long-suffering hostage/wife, but, with the plot being the real focus, the attempted emotional beats were overshadowed by the cold big-concept narrative.

Ultimately, Tenet revels in its high-minded theories and spy antics punctuated by sci-fi coolness, but casual viewers shouldn’t expect a straightforward James Bond-style story. I appreciate Inception the more I think about it; with Tenet, I get more confused, though I’m sure it will reward repeat viewings. I admire Tenet in many ways, from the audacity of its concept to the Easter eggs sprinkled throughout (look up the Sator square), but maybe turning your brain off for an action movie isn’t such a bad thing.

Best line: (Andrei Sator) “How would you like to die?”   (The Protagonist) “Old.”   (Sator) “You chose the wrong profession.”

Rank:  List Runner-Up

© 2020 S.G. Liput
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