How bad can he be?
Christopher Nolan’s rampant new movie Tenet is the blockbuster charged with drawing us back to the cinema, so its spectacular opening carries a bit of an affront. There is an armed assault on the opera house in Kiev just as the audience has settled for a performance; they are quickly knocked out by some sort of nerve agent. It may be that Nolan’s ideal viewer is someone stupefied into passivity while bullets whoosh and thud around. Maybe he worries that that is our culture’s ideal. We had moved stolidly in our masks through the polite new biopolitical arrangements at the little multiplex in Witney, but here was an audience in far worse shape. Our air may have been thick with all sorts of threat over the last few months, but at least we were not actually being raked with bullets. The sound design is scintillating enough to make you feel close to it, though.
Nolan’s film is a brilliant, heavyweight farrago. You end up feeling as if you’ve spent a few hours being punched in the chest by an idiot while he explains how high his IQ is. (Being governed by Dominic Cummings often feels that way too.) The film’s protagonist is known only as the Protagonist, as if in homage to screenwriting how-to guides, and John David Washington plays him with a steely curiosity. After acquitting himself valiantly during the Kiev assault, he is brought into a team investigating a mysterious new threat known only as ‘Tenet’.
Bullets have been found that shoot as if backwards from the target to the gun. The theory is that a technologically advanced civilisation in the future is attacking the present, sending back armaments that reverse time’s arrow. Speeches of exposition whiz past like poorly aimed gunfire; reverential chatter about entropy rumbles through the film. Around the halfway point, the Protagonist discovers a phalanx of rather haggard soldiers assisting him, but he doesn’t have long to be surprised, as he’s soon undergoing – backwards – a high-speed car crash he has already witnessed the other way round. It turns out his future self is responsible for much of what’s been going on. He seems impressed but not entirely pleased.
The film is sure that it is very complex. But in one way it is not complex at all, since much of the apparent complexity is an advanced but lumbering species of MacGuffin, pulling the plot from one high-octane set-piece to the next. A vast passenger plane crashes twice, forwards then backwards, as if the purpose of turning time into a palindrome could be to keep costs down on the action sequences. It all culminates in a remote military-industrial facility with a bomb ticking down underground; the teams of soldiers are moving through time in different directions, but this changes less than you might think.
There is something both touchingly dogged and imperiously loopy about Nolan’s commitment to his own notions. He has been hammering away at versions of them since Memento (2000), his tale of amnesia and homicide told backwards. Maybe the script’s convolutions aren’t there to justify the blasts of the action; perhaps, rather, making a spectacular action movie is Nolan’s way of buttonholing us.
Luckily, the film’s real power doesn’t lie either with its action sequences or its deep thoughts about time. Nolan is a great director of girders and industrial detritus, of metal as it clangs or scrapes or gets torn into by more metal, of road surfaces and warehouses. His high-concept futurist side is less convincing than the part of him whose heart beats for the late modern industrial landscape at its most burly and ragged. He gets blazing performances in his films when the actors can channel these forces, though the blaze is necessarily shadowy. Christian Bale was up to it as Batman, Heath Ledger even more so as the Joker, and so was Marion Cotillard with her exhilaratingly moody turn in Inception.
In Tenet, the great, gnarly turn comes from Kenneth Branagh. He plays the bad guy – who gets a name, of sorts, Andrei Sator – a boilerplate Russian oligarch and arms dealer, and the conduit for the supervillains lurking in the future, though he brings an apocalyptic twist of his own. You can’t miss that it’s a virtuoso performance, but many viewers, apparently distracted by the fact that it’s Branagh giving it, see only a wickedly dazzling hamminess. Yet Branagh quickly exhausts his interest in such tricks, and his uncertainty about what to do instead becomes part of what makes his hunched, crammed presence so unsettling. The film becomes the story of a man who doesn’t know what to do with his own badness, so just adds to it. It also becomes the story of an actor who knows he can do better than the normal show-off routines of cinematic wickedness, but is achingly unclear how far he wants to push it.
Sator, meanwhile, gets his hands on a gadget that will not only destroy the whole world if the bomb goes off, but tear down the reality of everything that has ever happened. It doesn’t, of course. I can’t think of a mainstream film that has seen its apocalyptic logic through since Joss Whedon’s fabulous, macabre and gaudy The Cabin in the Woods (which had its release shelved for years). Tenet isn’t going to begin a rebellion against our culture’s apocalyptic yearnings. But by embracing them with such exuberance and horror, it makes a start on exhuming their power and deadliness, and prodding at the vacuums beneath. ‘To be outside a situation as violent as this is to find it inconceivable,’ Simone Weil wrote during the first year of the Second World War; ‘to be inside it is to be unable to conceive its end.’ Her great essay on the Iliad is trying to grasp the nature of a world ruled by physical violence, but her words resonate with the odd feelings of being both exhilarated and trapped brought on by Nolan’s film. It isn’t the future that’s attacking us but the present, helped by the virulent persistence of the past.
In a bravura sequence just after being turned around in time himself, Washington’s character has to learn to walk in a world that resists his causal processes. His foot touches a puddle with a tenderness richly distinct from the hectic thuds elsewhere. Tenet has echoes of The Manchurian Candidate, in which the protagonist (played by Frank Sinatra in 1962 and Denzel Washington, John David’s father, in 2004) thinks he is investigating something that is really set up to ensure his participation. The difference in Tenet is that the Protagonist himself seems to have been the one to seed the proceedings. Is this a big difference or not? ‘The lure of such generalised disaster as a fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations,’ Susan Sontag wrote in ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, about the apocalypticism of mid-century science fiction movies. Learning to be protagonists again may require us to learn that we are protagonists already, however hard that may be in a world encrusted with disaster. Maybe it will be like relearning how to put one foot in front of the other.