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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.