I don’t mean ugly as in problematic or controversial. There’s nothing jagged or worth “canceling” (so take that Hollywood — you don’t need to be provocative to catch attention).
I love most Christopher Nolan movies. I loved the Dark Knight trilogy and The Prestige and Memento and Inception. But I was tepid on Interstellar and Man of Steel and didn’t see Dunkirk. But after the word-of-mouth reaction, I was dreading when Netflix would deliver that DVD. But it was the biggest movie of the year, so I had to watch it. Find out what everyone was talking about.
I didn’t… I didn’t like it.
And here are my thoughts on why. (Flexing my criticism muscles helps me become a better writer, doesn’t it?) A lot of people complained about the booming score, the infodump scenes, and the gas mask-muffled dialogue. I don’t think those are as significant as two fundamentals–character and plot.
The ultimate goal of art is to make you feel something. And when I was done with Tenet, I felt nothing (except confused). No catharsis, no Satisfying Viewer Experience, no emotional core, no sense of who this was meant for. Tenet feels like an NFT – a dead, trendy expensive piece of art, lacking humanity, that appeals to a wealthy few, but no one understands.
I don’t like stories that are puzzles. I don’t like it when the narrator hides information other characters have but the reader/viewer doesn’t to make it “intriguing”. Just yesterday, I was trying to read the Hugo-nominated short story “A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
It’s not a hard story by any means, not cerebral or complex. Just a tech support chat log between two entities. But the problem is these entities are never named. The story appears in an anthology about robots, so are these robots? Humans? One of each? Cyborgs? And all the other stuff–why does Entity A not want to see dogs? What does Entity B having a “killstreak” mean? Is that a video game thing or a real-life thing? Why does Entity A need assistance in the first place–what is he/she struggling with?
So I spend more brainpower figuring out the story’s context–the world-building, the setup–than the actual story. Like a game where the rules are so complex (or absent) you have to constantly look them up instead of playing the game.
For example, the fight in the airport. The first time, it’s a normal fight, but you can tell the guy in black is moving a little weird. I figure he must be a timecop or something. (BTW, it’s obvious this is the Protagonist from some other time, because Neil rips off his mask then lets him go.) The second time you’re struggling to process what you’re looking at. How is he fighting a guy whose movements are reversed? Every shot should be a backhand and easily telegraphed. Punches accelerate, which makes them hard to gauge due to the doppler effect. But in reverse, they decelerate and stop farther away.
To put it bluntly, they’re a bunch of snobs. Everyone’s got fancy suits, fancy cars, fancy houses. They meet in fancy restaurants in fancy exotic locations all around the world like Denmark, India, Italy, Russia, Norway, and Swedish opera houses.
Part of the story is set in an art freeport. I know what these are from a Planet Money podcast, not the half-second of exposition. Did you ever wonder what rich people do with all that expensive art they buy? Are they displaying it in their home? Loaning it to a museum for others to enjoy? No, they keep it in storage. The owners wait for the art to appreciate in value, then sell it. Probably to another guy who stores it. And that storage is on the airport grounds so it can’t be taxed.
If you can’t tell, I don’t have a lot of empathy for the wealthy. And when they’re all the characters in your story, I don’t know how you’re going to hook me. Unless your rich person gets some kind of comeuppance, like in Citizen Kane or Pretty Woman, I’m not getting on board. In Inception, they were upper class, but they were thieves working underground. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a disgraced corporate spy in exile who needs this job so his slate can get wiped clean. High risk, high stakes.
But in Inception, everyone had a personality. Here, the characters are so blase and stoic and sensible. It all evokes James Bond, who I hate. They don’t even name the protagonist, like in Fight Club where Edward Norton is “The Narrator”. You don’t do that unless you’re rolling out some pretentious metafictional bullshit. You don’t do that unless you want people to focus on everything BUT the characters. And people come to stories for characters.
Every book on writing says characters are the most important part of books. Make your stories character-driven, not plot-driven. Characters should have the agency to make decisions that impact the plot. Characters first, everything else second. This is “big idea” first, characters second.
The Protagonist (whose name is literally “The Protagonist”) is essentially an android moving around a game board. He’s not making his own decisions, he’s guided by Neil, by General Imes, by Kat, by the Tenet team. He fishes out a little information from various contacts, and then an action sequence happens. Nothing about him is intriguing, convincing, or sympathizing. He’s a blank slate. (Kicking ass is not a character trait).
So my question is–why? The reason to make a protagonist identity-less is to either make him or her mysterious (as in The Road, Snow Crash, A Fistful of Dollars) or have the viewer/reader project themselves into the character (as in Fight Club or any video game).
So the question is, why do it in Tenet? Does Nolan want us to project ourselves into the main character? Like all those guys who want to be James Bond? At least James Bond got girls and fun inventions. This guy, I don’t want to be with him and I don’t want to be friends with him.
Bad guys can make or break a story. So what’s this guy’s plan? It takes forever to find out. Apparently, he’s an arms dealer selling reversible bullets. This means you shoot the bullet, then go back and hold your gun out. The bullet whips back into the gun, kills the guy, and there’s no trace. Okay, so that’s pretty cool. But what’s he really want?
He wants the end of the world.
There is some sort of “algorithm” (more on that later) sent back from the future because it could collapse time. (Imagine if Robert J. Oppenheimer said “no” to the Atom Bomb, then sent the plans back through time so no one could get hold of it). Somehow our bad guy got hold of it and (this is the kicker) hooked it up to his body with a dead man’s switch. So that when he dies, the algorithm is triggered and we all die too. You can call it “undo humanity with mass-inversion via the algorithm”, but that’s just calling a rabbit a “smeerp“.
How comic booky. I know Nolan’s famous for turning comic books into legitimate cinema, but this is cinema turned comic booky. Even Marvel’s not that dumb. All Thanos was going to do was decrease the population to increase resources. Then, when he found the plan wasn’t going to work, switched to recreating the universe from scratch.
It also doesn’t make sense. Why would he want to do this? Oh, because he has terminal pancreatic cancer… except he looks completely healthy. He even keeps bragging about his pulse rate. And he’s a criminal mastermind with access to time travel. He’s got all the money in the world, a yacht, fine art, servants, a hot wife, enough thugs to form an army (with magic reversing bullets), mansions on various continents, and you’re going to kill yourself in your prime? World-enders don’t act like this guy does. They are loners who think they’re gods. The only people close to them are minions who work for him because either A) he pays them well (like the Joker) or B) are zealots for his philosophy (like Thanos). This guy’s behavior does not match his goals.
Villains only work if they have motivations the audience can understand. No viewer would understand this. Villains who act chaotically or nihilistically (like Loki or Lotso from Toy Story 3), it’s not so much about the chaos but about the power. About regaining the agency they didn’t have earlier in life. They want to matter. They’re motivated by hurt. Others want order, to shape the world into what they want it to be.
Ending the world is a very stupid end goal for a villain. It’s like saying your protagonist’s main goal is to “survive”. What does destroying the world get you? The only types of people this works for are nihilists and mentally damaged people. Sator doesn’t seem like either. He’s a control freak. What’s there to control when the world ends?
Sator made a deal with the devil–he started life as a plutonium scavenger in Russia, knowing the job would kill him eventually. That led to him being contacted by the future to find the “algorithm” and led to all his success. You’d think he’d want to destroy the oligarchs who ruined his home country and ruined him. But no, he just wants to end it all. He has a temper, he has control issues, but I never saw him as suicidal or existential. When the villain doesn’t care about anything, that’s a problem.
But the worst is the feminist angle. This movie fails the Bechdel Test hard. I hate this character. I hate every time she’s on screen. She’s the eldest niece of an aristocrat, an art appraiser, and wife of an arms dealer/Russian oligarch. But all she cares about is her son. “Where is my son?” “Is my son safe?” “Not unless you can guarantee the safety of my son”? She sounds like Daenerys in Game of Thrones–“Where are my dragons?”
Her relationship with her husband is dead. He’s emotionally and physically abusive but she has to stay because he has a single piece of blackmail on her, where she certified some fake piece of art as authentic. Is that the only thing stopping her? The problem with blackmail is that it doesn’t work if the victim doesn’t pay, and it seems she only cares about her son. Putting her career under a guillotine isn’t an issue.
But the biggest thing is at the end. Sator’s returned to his happiest moment before he swallows a cyanide pill, which would activate the dead man’s switch and end the world. Meanwhile, two armies on the other side of the world (one moving forward in time, one moving backward) are working together to find this maguffin before it’s buried under a thousand feet of earth and inaccessible. Her only job is to keep him distracted so the armies have time to deactivate it. But what does she do? She shoots him before they’re ready because she doesn’t want him to die thinking he’s won. She can’t control her emotions so she almost compromises the mission. I’m sure all the yahoos who think women can’t serve in congress must love that.
But more likely, I think Nolan just doesn’t like women. He kills Rachel in The Dark Knight. In Inception, one woman purely exists for Cobb to give exposition to and the other is the primary antagonist. The same actress is the antagonist in The Dark Knight Rises (who also kills herself to end the world). It’s not a great track record.
Neil is fine. I like Neil. I didn’t think I’d like Robert Pattinson in anything, but he seemed cool. Good actor, good character. Makes me a little more confident about him as Batman.
On paper, you can follow Tenet just fine. The Wikipedia plot is deceptively short for such a dense story. It may be why the cast members were so delighted when they first read it (in a secure vault so no secrets would leak). The problem is in the execution–you can’t process what your eyes and brain are telling you.
Nolan is a very visual storyteller. He doesn’t rely much on dialogue. There are so many “blink and you’ll miss it” moments where characters drop some tidbit that’s crucial to understanding a “why” or “what”. He futzes with sequential storytelling (especially in Inception and Interstellar). He doesn’t always follow a three-act structure or develop solid characters.
Right from the start, I was confused. Some kind of terrorist act is happening at an opera, and Protagonist is going in with other troops to stop them. At least, I think, because I see him put on a white patch of some kind. Is he part of the terrorists and disguising himself? If so, why is he doing it in the truck in front of everyone?
It takes a long time to understand what Protagonist’s goal is. Every time he tries to learn it, he gets some bullshit cliche like “that is the question, isn’t it?” or “something that could change the world as we know it”.
Now let’s talk about “The Algorithm”. Christopher Nolan must think “algorithm” is one of those technobabble words that mean anything, like “tachyon dispersal unit” or “vibranium”. It’s not. I work with algorithms. My third class in Computer Science was called “Algorithms”. They’re not special. They’re just sets of computer instructions. Formulas to do steps efficiently, like calculate the shortest route between two points on a map. It’s not a bunch of fucked up legos that make Picasso’s wizard staff.
And where is this dead man’s switch? For a story that’s so visually oriented, we never see it. How are they connected? There’s no wire, no remote frequency. If I didn’t read about it on the wiki, I wouldn’t have known about it.
This is supposed to be the big hook of the movie. The big idea. But like a lot of innovative science fiction concepts, one little poke lets out all the air. I’m sure Christopher Nolan understands his story, but either he doesn’t let us in on it or is terrible at getting it across. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Okay, so at one point, Kat gets shot in the stomach. There’s not enough time to get her to a hospital before she could die. So they send her back through inversed time so her wound can heal. Many questions spring to mind. If her body is dealing with wounds backward, does this mean her heart is pumping in reverse? Are cells putting oxygen into the blood? Is she breathing CO2? Does this mean she’s thinking in reverse? If she died in normal time, could she come back to life if they put her in inverse time? If you eat an inverse apple, do you have to shove it up your ass? And then you cough out poop?
In that same vein, how is the conversation Sator has with Protagonist in the purple divided room supposed to work? One of them would have to know the other’s responses beforehand.
They say that if the same matter touches, it’s annihilated, just like in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s masterpiece Timecop. But Protagonist fights himself and nothing happens. Is it because they didn’t touch through the fabric? Also, this plot thread never comes up (except maybe as an excuse to never have two of the same people in the same room).
If fire/heat works in reverse, shouldn’t everyone be frozen, since your body generates heat? Or would the sun freeze you first?
In the opera house, an inverse bullet causes damage to a human. But then later, an inverse bullet “heals” a window when it’s fired. Which is it? Either the guy should have had a bullet wound beforehand that sews up when the gun fires or the glass has been shattered since the building was constructed.
Time travel is a sticky subject, but plenty of good stories use it. However, they don’t go complex or use 100% visual information to communicate it. They use the ears, the context, foreground, and background clues. Half-explanations don’t cut it.
Example: The Time Traveler’s Wife. Similar concept to Tenet–there’s a man who can’t control when he jumps back in time, but he usually ends up seeing his future wife at some point during her childhood. This is difficult to wrap the head around, because the first time she meets him is not the first time he meets her. That violates a pretty fundamental understanding about what happens when two people meet, that they’re each meeting each other for the first time.
Another example: Alice Through the Looking Glass. In Chapter 5: Wool and Water, Alice meets the White Queen, who lives backward. In her world, a man is being punished for a crime he won’t commit until after next Wednesday. Then the queen screams and her finger starts spontaneously bleeding. She hasn’t pricked it, but knows she will, when she fastens her shawl and the brooch pops off. Then it happens. She catches the brooch, gets poked, but stops screaming.
Then she turns into a sheep.
Anyway, my point is, Tenet is an idea better in short form. Can you imagine a seventy-minute symphony based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star? The central motif would become unrecognizable. Getting a mass audience to follow non-linear stories is harder than hell. When the effect comes before the cause, it doesn’t feel satisfying. And that’s what the creator should be doing — creating a satisfying experience for the consumer.
Despite everything I’ve said, I do think that the movie scene is richer for having Tenet in it than not. I think I actually like it better than Interstellar, but that could be because I tend to like time travel stories more than space stories. I’ve seen other reviews that said Tenet’s legacy is to be a heady cult film–watched fifty times by as many people.
You might ask why have I dedicated 3,200 words to this movie most people have already forgotten about. Because I get sick of seeing Hollywood, a mega-giant god of storytellers, wasting so much of its time, money, and resources on movies that clearly have problems on the page. As a writer, I know that the core of any movie is the script. That’s where the creation process starts and anything you see on screen can be traced back to it in some way. That’s why it’s so important that the script is strong.
A good producer should be able to sniff a script and detect a solid story or not. A good producer should have noticed that this script doesn’t follow a three-act structure and lacks a solid main character (not having a name should have been a clue). But someone saw the words “Christopher Nolan” and said “give him a billion kajillion dollars”.
But hey, maybe I would have made the same mistake. Like I said, Tenet looks good on paper. And if someone didn’t take a risk on non-linear movies, we wouldn’t have Pulp Fiction or Memento. Such is life in the crazy world of Tinseltown. You may be the sweetest peach on the tree, but not everyone likes peaches.
But the music definitely sucks.