Nolan and Nolan

This has the potential to be short since it doesn’t feel that I have that much to say, but I did want to record a few thoughts. I have neither rant nor rave — just some heavy disappointment in one case. In the other case, for me, it’s more a sense of, “Well, what did you expect from a time-travel movie? Time travel is utterly absurd and inherently contradictory.”

The post’s title may have clued you in. This post is about Tenet (2020), the most recent Christopher Nolan movie, plus the most recent effort by his brother, Jonathan Nolan (and wife Lisa Joy), Westworld, season three (also 2020). I’m a little late to the party seeing both of these, but I was so disappointed in season two of Westworld, that I didn’t much care about season three (and nothing I heard encouraged me).

Last night (and into this morning) I binged on all that Nolan.

Which, for the record, is a two-and-a-half-hour movie followed by all eight episodes of a one-hour TV series. I had to switch to my other pair of wireless headphones for the last for episodes. And, yes, I am a bit punchy.

This came about because YouTube TV is offering free HBO this weekend, and I haven’t had access to HBO since I cut the cable at the beginning of 2019. I can’t say I’ve really missed having it, but of all the stations I had on cable, it is one I watched regularly, and every once in a while I find myself wishing I had it still.

I’m not sure when the free HBO thing started (it ends as of Monday), but I only noticed it late Friday. When I checked it out, I saw Tenet was available and decided to watch it the next night. It was only after watching it that the light bulb went off about watching Westworld. The offer was until 6/20, and I wasn’t sure if that meant Sunday was included. On many calendars, Sunday begins a new week, and if it was a weekly offer, I could see it ending Saturday night.

So I figured I’d better try to watch Westworld and hope I could keep watching past midnight. (At which point I would only have been an episode or so into it and wouldn’t be too crushed if access suddenly ended.) Even if access did end at midnight, I’ve seen systems that checked authorization at the beginning, and maybe as long as I kept watching I’d get through them all.

Which is why I stayed up until just after 7:00 AM watching. (It wasn’t until I woke up after crashing for a few hours that I realized the coincidence of having binged on the most recent efforts of two Nolan brothers.)

I can’t say I’m sorry I did, and Tenet was quite a ride. I just wish Westworld had been better. I’ll come back to that.

§ §

Tenet, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, is a time-travel story with a twist involving being “inverted” — reversing your direction through time, so you appear to be moving backwards to everyone else. From your point of view, the world seems to be moving backwards.

I might mention here that every filmmaker ever (including yours truly) at some point early in their career, has some camera fun with both stop motion and time reversal tricks.

(One of my favorites was a simple one: Take single frames of someone who is jumping up and down with their arms extended out to their sides. You take a frame each time the jumper is at the top of their leap. When played back, the person appears to be flying — their feet are constantly off the ground, and their arms are out there flapping away. Very amusing. One can even do it with a video camera that can do single frames.)

Digital makes effects very easy, but back in the day we did time reversal by turning the camera upside down. Then, when the film is also turned upside down and then sent through the printer tail first — voilà, time reversal.


Juice: Sator Square, a 2D five-word palindrome. Note that all five names appear prominently in the film with the title central and the villain around the edges.

I’m not going to explore the plot. It’s well-discussed on the Wikipedia page, in many articles and reviews, and in countless YouTube videos seeking to explain WTF is going on in this complicated movie.

That right there is problem one with Tenet. It’s a bit too smart to just be enjoyed, and it actually makes watching the movie something of a chore. (If one wants to understand it, that is. One can always just enjoy the ride without question.) A storyteller has to be careful with stories that require outside explanation to fully appreciate. It’s easy to lose an audience that way.

That said, there is a niche of those who do appreciate a complex puzzle they must solve, and nothing wrong with making content for that niche. Such viewers thrive on needing to watch carefully and repeatedly to squeeze out all the juice that storytellers like the Nolans definitely do pack into their work.

At the same time, such analysis can jump the shark a bit. One YouTuber is convinced that Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki) is actually the founder of the Tenet organization and that The Protagonist (John David Washington) is just the “male front”  — as is the husband for Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia).


The other problem with Tenet is that it’s a time travel story, and time travel is an absurdity.

Firstly, it presents the same problem Superman does: it’s too powerful and solves too many problems. Most time travel stories contain by-fiat restrictions to limit this power.

Secondly, since time travel is inherently contradictory, plots invariably either contain holes or absurdities. Very few time travel stories bear any close examination. (Which is why the better ones, such as Primer (2004) or Looper (2012), stand out so much.)

Thirdly, in particular to Tenet, the notion of inverting is problematic. Makes for some very cool visuals, and it’s a very cool idea, but any real thought about it raises all sorts of questions.

How long has that bullet hole been there?

Two easy examples from early in the film:

In the opera house sequence, we see backwards bullets for the first time. An existing bullet hole suddenly vanishes as the bullet goes backwards into the gun.

But hang on,… was that bullet hole always there? Since the place was built? If not, when did it first appear? This basic question applies to many of the effects we see throughout the film. When did the effects from an inverted cause first show up? Logically, they had to have always been there until they are “uncreated.”

When The Protagonist meets the scientist who explains inverting, she has him un-fire a gun. The bullet leaps from the wall (which is filled with bullets) back to the gun, and a shell casing from a nearby bin leaps into the gun to join with the bullet to form a complete round.

But hang on,… where did those shell casings come from?

Where did the shell casings come from?

That wall section is thought to be from the battle at the end of the film. Is the brass also from that battle? The time travel stuff just does not bear examination.

(Speaking of fan theories, many think that female scientist is the one who goes on to invent the inverting process, which invokes yet another famous time travel contradiction. Imagine you get plans from the future for a time travel machine. These plans come from yourself in the future. You just send back the plans you received in the past.)


Did you notice that the title, Tenet, has “ten” from both ends? Ten minutes is the time of that final battle, and ten minutes is mentioned at least one other time.

Just little Easter eggs. They’re fine until someone loses an eye.

(I wonder, too, if they can make some feel a bit excluded from the fun. One just doesn’t always want to put that much effort into watching a movie or TV show sometimes.)

§ §

I really liked the first season of Westworld. I posted about it a lot, including posts detailing each episode.

The second season, especially after waiting two years for a measly 10 episodes, was a huge disappointment. (See: Westworld: Yeah, But! and Westworld: Final Reflections)

I said in my first post about the show that, “Bottom line for me, if it’s not obvious, very much thumbs up on the show. I’m giving it a high Ah! rating, but if the following seasons live up to the first one, I may very well bump that to a Wow! rating.”

The second season (and the third was worse) definitely did not raise the overall rating of the show. In retrospect, especially after the deep dives into the episodes of the first season, I’m now inclined to give season one a Wow! rating.

The best I can give season two is an Eh! rating, and I’m leaning towards a Meh! rating for the third season. If I had to sum up this last season with a single word, that word might be “boring” (other possibilities are “dumb” and “misguided”).


I suspect that one problem is that central figure Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), isn’t a particularly likeable or engaging villain, something that’s bothered me since season two.

The other main figure, Maeve Millay (Thandiwe Newton), clearly meant as the Yang to Dolores’s Yin, is much more appealing, but as in season two the story doesn’t seem to do her justice.

We also have the rather unlikely (and rather pointless) return of Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) along with a very brief (and even more unlikely and pointless) return of Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan). They even found a way to bring back young William (Jimmi Simpson).

Top this off with Dolores’s belief that ‘if you want something done, do it yourself’ which ends up making Dolores more annoyingly present than scene-shifts would suggest. I also find it hard to believe that an obsessed hard-case like Dolores would be so psychologically fragile inhabiting the Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) host.

Especially disappointing was the largely separate thread involving old William (Ed Harris, the Man in Black). The teaser at the end of season two seemed to promise a lot more. Instead we got a rather tawdry story about William’s psychological issues.

Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) are running around, too.


All the host minds beamed off into space at the end of season two are apparently somewhere. One of the MacGuffins is the key that would provide access. As I pointed out in blog posts, that whole thing is problematic.

Maeve gets roped in on the side of the supposed villain, Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) (but, hey, he’s just trying to make the world better) because, as in season two, the primary goal is being with her daughter. (Which she knows is a robot she was programmed to love, so that goal never made much sense. Her main motivation in these later seasons is problematic to me.)

And then this worn out trope about a super AI running the world. Both Nolans are, in these pieces, sneaking a bit more propaganda into the story than I like.

Bottom line, while I’m not sorry I finally saw it, I don’t have much good to say about it. It’s especially disappointing in light of how good season one was.

I do almost wonder if the fan scrutiny and acclaim damaged the show. The fails of the later seasons might come from trying too hard.

§ §

I still haven’t seen Interstellar (2014), but nothing I’ve heard or seen about it encourages me that I’ll like it much. Nolan is honest about not putting excessive effort into the science (especially with Tenet), and my threshold with him varies a lot.

Lastly, I’ll mention that the Summer Solstice is on June 21st at 03:32 GMT, which means it’ll happen late tonight for those of us in the USA. Always a bummer to me, since it means we’re heading for shorter days and winter. As I wrote about recently, at least there’s a pause before the downward slide.

Stay uninverted, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “Nolan and Nolan

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Heh! As usual, not so short after all.

    Last night, before the lightbulb about Westworld went on, I was considering Wonder Woman 1984, but I never saw the first one, and what I’ve heard about the second one hasn’t grabbed me (and, as I’ve said, I’m kinda over the whole superhero thing).

    I wish I had time to binge the Watchmen series, but maybe I’ll use the last of the free access this evening to check out an episode of the new Perry Mason series. I understand it’s nothing like the old TV series, which I loved, but does sound more like the books.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I checked out the first episode of the new Perry Mason series, but turned it off less then halfway through. The show is its own thing, no connection I can see with either the books or the old TV show. It’s more of a PI thing with Mason as a down-on-his-luck semi-bum who does PI work for John Lithgow’s lawyer character. (I suppose at some point the Lithgow character will inspire the Mason character to become a lawyer or some such bullshit.)

      Suffice to say I’m thumbs down on the show.

      Fortunately, I checked out Avenue 5 which is one of the shows that’s made me wish I had HBO again. I binged all nine half-hour episodes last night, and it’s pretty funny. I laughed a lot. (And I really do enjoy Hugh Laurie. I’ve missed him since House, MD.) The show is a comedy that manages not to be too stoopid to watch. While the characters are comically dumb, they’re not complete blithering morons mouthing jokes.

      I also learned that the authorization system may work only when one actually starts up the Hulu app, since the free HBO supposedly only lasted through Sunday, but I was watching Avenue 5 episodes until about 2:30 AM without problem. (I didn’t try shutting down the app and re-launching it, but I might double-check that HBO really is no longer available this evening.)

      But anyway, a definite thumbs up on Avenue 5. Given what a wasteland TV sitcoms can be, I think I’d have to give the series an Ah! rating, albeit perhaps not a super strong one. Better than an Eh! rating, though!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    As I’ve mentioned, I’ve gotten kind of fed up with the Wisecrack channel, but some of their stuff is still worthwhile. I think this analysis hits the mark:

    The truth is, there’s a lot wrong with the movie.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This guy’s videos are really helpful:

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I keep forgetting about Tenet. Another movie I keep meaning to watch.

    My take on Westworld is more compressed than yours. I enjoyed the first season, but not as much as you did. Even then I had issues with aspects of the show. I enjoyed the second and third seasons less, but it wasn’t nearly as much of a fall since the first season never reached those heights for me.

    Overall, I find the series moderately entertaining, but it’s ponderings of consciousness and AI have never been particularly insightful for me. But that’s true of most sci-fi, so I don’t hold it against it. What I do hold against it, is that most of the suspense comes from simply keeping the audience in the dark, which I find annoying when the reveals come.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Tenet has a lot of complex ideas packed into it and probably benefits from either the repeat-viewing analysis of others and/or repeat viewings on one’s own, depending on how deep one wants to dive. The Nolans are like that; lots of texture and depth; often very referential. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos the next day, and that made the movie much richer in retrospect. (Some of those videos benefit from their creator having read or watched interviews with Nolan, the cast, or the crew. I just don’t have that kind of time, so I appreciate the distillate.)

      Westworld, certainly season one, is similar in that my appreciation for it grew the more I re-watched and studied the episodes. I give a lot of points for storytelling with so much juice packed into it. Call it respect for the multiple-level efforts put into the world-building. That, for me, bought season one a lot of credit against its cons. I fault that effort in later seasons, especially three (it almost feels like Nolan and Joy got bored and are phoning it in). Without the credit for that effort, the flaws of the later seasons matter more.

      There is also that I think the storytelling went seriously downhill from one to two and again from two to three. It really does give me the sense Nolan and Joy aren’t that interested anymore. The story seems aimless.

      It’s good stuff on the small scale. The acting, the directing, the scenes and production design, the editing and music, that stuff is as good as it gets. But when I look at the big picture, the ship drifts with no captain. It’s not uncommon for there to be some manner of slip after an initial success, the slip often matching the success in proportion. WWS1 is a very hard act to follow, especially given the critical and popular praise.

      I’m not bothered by being kept in the dark. In some ways, that’s a canonical mode in science fiction. Short stories often try to do that until the last sentence that explains it all (“Oh, he was a dog the whole time!”) I’m a fan of mysteries, where it doesn’t so much go with the territory as much as actually being the territory. But as I said in the post, it can definitely make these kinds of stories more niche. Not everyone likes that sort of thing. Even those who do or don’t have different thresholds for what’s tolerable.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I do like mysteries, but when they only exist for the audience (or reader in literature), it feels like cheap low effort mystery, lazy storytelling. But then I’ve always had the same reaction for the type of short stories you described. For me, a satisfying mystery is when it’s a mystery for the protagonist(s), they make efforts to solve it, and we feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally do. (Or even if they fail, when at least we the audience learn the answer, as in Citizen Kane.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It sounds to me that you enjoy watching the characters be challenged but don’t want to be challenged as a reader or viewer? A mystery is fine, but not a puzzle? (Did you ever play Myst or any of those puzzle games? My buddy, his wife, and I, were into those for a while, especially Myst. Really loved the first couple of versions, and it’s easier with several of you playing together.)

        Your mention of Citizen Kane (a favorite of any film student) reiterates something I think we’ve touched on before, that you’re not fond of stories that lack clear resolution?

        Tenet might tweak you a bit that way, and both Nolans do love a good puzzle. (Did the ambiguity of the ending of Inception bother you?)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I don’t mind being challenged, but as you note in the post, that can be taken too far, making a story or show more trouble than it’s worth. What I don’t care for is cheap mystery, which is what I felt from the later seasons of Westworld. You probably want details, but it’s been a while since I watched it. It just remember being aggravated with the “reveals”. They seemed like just information that had simply been denied to the audience.

        There’s a distinction between that and incluing, which, as I’m sure you know, is used heavily in science fiction. Part of the art of incluing is first generating interest in the audience before dropping the clues. But the thrill for the audience / reader is in figuring it out themselves. You want to challenge them somewhat, so they feel good when they do figure it out, but not challenge them so much they can’t, and then get frustrated. Doing it in a manner they can’t figure it out until the reveal is what feels cheap.

        On not having a clear resolution, it depends on the story. Inception (another Nolan film) had an ambiguous ending, but the ending still felt satisfying. I feel robbed when the central question of the story doesn’t get answered. If that central question is answered, but maybe the answer generates a new mystery, it feels like less of a cheat.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If you were fine with Inception, and IIRC you were fine with Interstellar (in terms of plot hand-waving), then you’ll probably be fine with Tenet. At the very least, one can just enjoy the ride.

        What I’m getting from what you say about Westworld seems like a matter of personal taste, and taste is what it is. As you say, it’s been a while, and you don’t watch things more than once, so trying to get into details would be futile. I’m struck, though, by what you said before, calling it “cheap low effort mystery, lazy storytelling”. It is not without flaws, but I don’t think that description does it service. Quite to the contrary, a great amount of effort when into it at multiple levels (script, production design, etc). Certainly none of it was literally cheap, but I’m assuming you mean “cheap” as a synonym for lazy. I also take it that, ultimately, “lazy” is code for “I didn’t like it.”

        Which is fine; taste is taste. Funny thing is (maybe I shouldn’t say this), my mental model of you, which I’ve been building for, what, eight years or so, is apparently accurate enough that I’m not surprised. I can see it not grabbing you. For one thing, the music was a significant fraction of what was interesting, but you’re not into music. I can see other aspects you might not connect with.

        I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction you’re making between what Nolan and Joy did in Westworld versus what you describe as incluing (which, yes, I agree is a huge aspect of SF). It seems subjective to me. Some people really thrived on it. I’d have to say it was almost the classical slow reveal of incluing and quite engaging. But that, too, is subjective. (I’m talking season one here. One difference I see between it and the later seasons is indeed an increasing “cheapness” so to speak. Season two was better than three, which felt like no one was home. It’s why I say it feels like Nolan and Joy lost interest.)

        It seems, again, a matter of taste whether one likes the mystery, the puzzle, or not. A truth about critiquing something is that it reflects the critic as much as the subject. That applies to everyone, and it’s not good or bad; it just reveals us more than we might realize.

        One thing about WWS1. They played fair enough that lots of fans figured out key points before they were revealed on the show. The bar was awfully high, and it took a lot of effort, but as I said, some thrived on it. Tenet is fertilizing that same flowerbed. There are YouTube channels with dozens of videos getting into aspects of the film. That’s some serious dedication!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Saying I was fine with Interstellar’s finale is a bit too strong. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t good with the whole black hole sequence. It struck me as a giant deus ex machina.

        But it’s worth noting again that I basically find Westworld entertaining. Remember, my take on it is compressed compared to yours. To me, its technique for generating mystery is flawed, but not a fatal flaw. I think I simply expect less of entertainment, or maybe it’s just that I’m more able to be entertained even when I see the flaws.

        All that said, definitely when it comes to fiction, it’s all a matter of personal taste. No rule in storytelling is inviolable if violating it ends up working for most of the audience.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, yeah, there’s a reason I haven’t made an effort to see Interstellar. As I think I said somewhere along the way, I’m iffy on (Christopher) Nolan. Some of his films rate really high with me; others not so much.

        I expect I do take storytelling more seriously. It was my intended profession at one point. The computer science and technology stuff was my fallback!

        Kind of funny, isn’t it, that in most professions it’s best to play by the rules, but in art success comes from breaking them. (Or at least from breaking them in the right way.)

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