TENET Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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TENET Review

Alexander Wallace catches-up with the future.
Christopher Nolan is very good at just straight-up screwing with your mind. He did so with the dream-hopping shenanigans in Inception. He did so with the stage magic of The Prestige. And he did so by deciding to release Tenet in theaters in the middle of a raging pandemic. Such a decision may be his most mind-bending act yet.

I think it is fair to say that such a release in such circumstances was ill-advised. However, this has no bearing whatsoever on whether the movie is good or not. Being paranoid about my health and somewhat stingy, I did not see Tenet in theaters when it first rolled around. Rather, I watched it on my HBO subscription on Amazon.

The end result was certainly … something. I don’t mean that in a bad way; indeed I quite enjoyed it overall. But Christopher Nolan’s work, especially when he wants to just straight-up mess with you, often has that quality of being … something. I may well have to watch this again at some point; this film will doubtlessly reward that.

Tenet combines two genres of film with a deftness that is enviable. Nolan incorporates your science fiction blockbuster with that grittier sort of espionage film and melds them into something that reminded me of the novels of Blake Crouch or Tom Sweterlitsch. There’s technology, and human beings use it, but we are still in utter awe and terror at what nightmares our species has created.

Much like Crouch or Sweterlitsch, Nolan has given us a very fresh take on time travel. Older time travel works, dating back even to H. G. Wells, have posited that one can just pluck an individual out of the stream of time and plop them back in at another point, where the stream of time will bring them along like a leaf in a forest river. Not so with Tenet; here, to time travel you have to go in a stream in the opposite direction that flows along the same path of the original in reverse. In one of most memorable scenes in the film, this involves the Protagonist pulling a trigger on a pistol at a bullet impacted in a wall, upon which the bullet zips into the gun’s chamber. It’s explained as reversed entropy, and it is bizarre but compelling.

This central conceit enables a number of strange things. You see wrecked cars on a Tallinn highway zoom into the air and become active again, driving hectically down the road in reverse. As science fiction, this is interesting; it invokes the ‘sense of wonder’ that much science fiction does, but in a darker way. Imagine the book or movie (for me, it was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and the original Star Wars, respectively) that made you fall in love with science fiction when you were about twelve years old. You were in utter awe of what the writers came up with on a pure conceptual level. Take what David Hartwell said:
“Any child who has looked up at the stars at night and thought about how far away they are, how there is no end or outer edge to this place, this universe—any child who has felt the thrill of fear and excitement at such thoughts stands a very good chance of becoming a science fiction reader.”
Tenet evokes a similar emotion with a much darker, convoluted twist. The sensation is more like “how could anyone come up with this and make it make sense? And what other implications are there?”

That is what kept me watching and that is doubtlessly the movie’s strength, as complicated as the plot is. Unfortunately, the characters are somewhat bland, all well-motivated but none having that je ne sais quoi that makes them truly memorable. The Protagonist, the unnamed hero of this entire story, is played competently by John David Washington (son of Denzel), but he is somewhat bland and generic, possibly by design (his lack of name perhaps demonstrating that). Otherwise, the most interesting character is the enigmatic Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, with secrets to his name.

Overall, Tenet is one of those science fiction works where the concept is the most enthralling thing, with other aspects taking a backseat. Does this make Tenet worth watching? If you’re into high-concept science fiction, like I am, sure. Otherwise? It could go either way. It definitely works as an action movie, but the central concept is mind-screwy. Those who want something straightforward may want to go elsewhere.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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