Seeing Tenet (2020) dir. Christopher Nolan through a lens tinted by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
(A woman survives!)
Chris Nolan is a strong believer in making movies for people who watch movies.
There isn’t much to unpack here. There are people who think cinéphiles are snobs, and more and more people in power are gunning for movies made for the people, following populist norms and themes that encourage brains to be left at home and such.
But Chris Nolan is a believer. I don’t know him personally, but I know that he made his Batman Begins crew watch Blade Runner, and he made his The Dark Knight crew watch Heat. This tells me all that I need to know about what he thinks movies are for.
What I (and everyone else) know is that for the movie-watching universe, no movie is made and experienced in a vacuum. As we progress in the film industry, more and more things become coded and the shorthand dictionary expands. A director who uses this to establish a tone and vibe in their movie is one who knows what they are doing with the material they are filming.
Anyway, none of this is news, and all of this is to say that I think Tenet lacks soul.
“This is Bane’s prison now. He wouldn’t want this story told.”
Just a random line from The Dark Knight Rises, decidedly the worst of the Nolan movies I have seen at this point. This line has more plot connotations than all of Tenet.
It’s not from lack of trying, I suppose. In his seemingly unending wisdom, he thought the whole ‘abused wife trying to find freedom from the clutches of her nuanced monster’ arc of Elizabeth Debicki’s character would bring a little soul into the story. Without her, Tenet is pretty much about a guy who almost dies, wakes up, gets handed a mysterious, new (unpaid?) job, and just shrugs and goes along.
Andbutso I don’t think Chris Nolan could put some soul into Tenet if he wanted to (and I just don’t think he gave enough fucks to want to, but that’s a different post), because there wasn’t enough time.
The Dark Knight trilogy is while being an engaging and fairly populist action series, a story that moves at a glacial pace. That’s because it has the luxury of time, of letting the audience get to know it’s characters and get invested in their lives. Even Interstellar, too, has time for a soul, because it was about space—and space travel is slow. Nothing happens for long stretches of time. Space movies have the reverse issue — they end up having to pad the plot to fill time.
Just ask Stanley Kubrick, he made 2001: A Space Oddessy, and if I describe Nolan’s trilogy as glacial, this bitch was flat out fossilization put on film.
Remember that neither is the bad one.
Stan Kubrick played entire symphonies in 2001 before getting to something as mundane as dialogue. Tenet, chock full of expository sequences and thrilling action, just didn’t have the time to introduce the people that were doing the things. It’s a science-fiction (?) action movie with a concept never before shown in cinematic history, and I guess that is worth sacrificing a good plot for.
I do wonder, however, if things would have been different, had Nolan been given the kind of patience that Kubrick so clearly was.
2001, not unlike Tenet, depended entirely on a viewer’s interest in gleaning information instead of hearing it, was heavy on the subtext. (Allow me to explain this comparison: while 2001 did the subtext thing by being largely non-verbal, Tenet had such horrible sound mixing that, even though the dialogue was present, not a single person I know heard it. So one way or the other, we are sitting with incommunicable bits of info in both cases.) Kubrick want to tell a hundred different stories in this one tale of space and robots, and he had a runtime to justify it.
What I don’t know is whether Nolan cared enough to go the same route, had he been given the luxury of time.
In many interviews during the press “tour” for Tenet, Chris Nolan mentioned that he first got this idea of time inversion while shooting Memento. The concept had trickled out of just one shot of a bullet snapping out of a wall and back into a gun, and it had grown and grown over the decade or so to finally be fleshed out enough to become this feature.
Given this piece of information, I am not at all surprised at the shortcoming in Tenet—I don’t think it was ever supposed to be more. When the mere idea of a movie sprung out of a single shot, you know that the plot and its characters were just dressing and garnish around that concept. Nolan was never going to make it plot-heavy. There were cooler things to be done.
Sobutand it is clear that in our hypothesis, it both was and wasn’t time that held Tenet back form being whole. Even if he had the liberties Kubrick enjoyed with 2001, I don’t think Nolan would have spent any of his energy giving Elizabeth Debicki a third dimension. He probably would have used the added time to make his set-pieces longer and more elaborate.
So all that we can say to that is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯