Nolan, Time, and Tenet

Christopher Nolan is obsessed with time.

Of the ten theatrically released films he has made, six revolve around one or several main gimmicks:

  1. Time itself is the major driving factor in the plot of the film.
  2. The structure of the film is presented in a nonlinear way.
  3. Time is a heavily focused upon element within the larger framework of the plot.

Here are the six films:

  • Tenet revolves around spies and mercenaries fighting against a villain who is not constrained by linear time (1,2,3).
  • Interstellar focuses heavily on the race against time and the impact of extreme gravity on the passage and perception of time (1,2,3).
  • Inception is about dreams, but one of the major plot points of the film is that time is perceived differently while in the dream world and this can have negative effects on people who spend too long there (3).
  • Momento deals with a man who has short term memory loss, and its structure is presented in essentially TWO chronological orders – one side of the story is moving backward in time, and another part moves forward (though we as an audience don’t realize that towards the end). The movie essentially ends at the beginning (2).
  • Dunkirk tells the relatively simple story of the great escape of the British Army at the Battle of Dunkirk in WW2, but it does so by showing three different elements of the battle and each element is different chronologically (one lasting days, another lasting mere minutes), and he cuts independently between them (2,3).
  • The Prestige heavily relies on the use of flashbacks to tell the story by cutting between the reading of two men’s journals, with events happening in multiple places chronologically (2).

To put it simply, Christopher Nolan is a slave to time.

I like pretty much all of Nolan’s films for the same reasons that many film fans like him. He makes movies that have become outliers in the last 10-15 years: largely original stories, an emphasis on practical effects and impressive set pieces, beautiful visuals on large scales, and stuffed with high concepts and big ideas that invite audiences to use their heads while they watch. The word you often see associated with Nolan is cerebral, and it is an accurate description. Almost all of his movies deal with heavy concepts or ideas that invite discussion and thought. As a film buff, I deeply enjoy the things that Nolan is making. In a world full of superheroes (a genre he revolutionized for the modern world with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, considered by many still to be the best superhero film ever made), it is refreshing to see original stories and heady concepts backed with big money, and I would consider some of his films to be my favorites of the last 10-15 years (The Prestige being my favorite).

However…

I saw Tenet earlier this week, and it has all the hallmarks of the things we love about Nolan: visually stunning on a large scale, creative action scenes unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and a deeply inventive plot involving the reversal of time that concept-wise is an incredibly dense and fun idea. I walked away from it amazed by the things listed above and it was fun to FINALLY be back in a movie theater.

But, the movie has its problems, the largest being the audio mix. There were entire scenes where it was almost impossible to fully understand what was being said over the sound effects and the music, and this made me feel lost for segments of the movie. I didn’t fully understand why the characters were going to X place to accomplish Y task, and when sometimes when they accomplished Y task I didn’t fully understand why it was important. I would consider myself to be a pretty sharp viewer and I still am having issues unpacking what exactly happened in the plot, which leads me to my second problem, the script.

Tenet is by all intents and purposes a spy thriller, and one of the most important elements of a good spy thriller movie is a tight script, and I feel Tenet fails in this respect. As I thought about the movie after seeing it, I kept falling back to comparing it to Ronin, the 1998 spy/crime thriller written by David Mamet (under a pseudonym). Ronin tells the story of a group of hired mercenaries working together to try to steal a mysterious case that is being fought over by both the Russian and Irish criminal underworlds. The plot unfolds through a lot of half-statements, lingo, and somewhat cryptic conversations between the characters, all of which further immerse you in the world and clearly illustrate the fact that nearly all of them have backgrounds in government intelligence and that all of them are not entirely clear about who they are or their motivations. Through all of these things, you are able to piece together the plot, and when a big reveal happens later in the film by the main character, suddenly everything you had seen him do previously is cast in a new light, completely reframing the entire story in a new way. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, immersing audiences in a spy world without spoonfeeding them information and yet also not leaving them completely in the dark, and Mamet’s script in Ronin is an excellent example of how it’s done right. Tenet is not. A movie as cerebral as Tenet, where time travel and its mechanics are the central focus to the plot, needs clarity in its script. You cannot feed me a bunch of half-statements, lingo, and metaphors (at least the ones I was able to understand clearly) and expect me to fully understand how the plot is unfolding and why I should care. Having a high concept is only as good as being able to adequately present the concept in a digestible way. If I’m having to do research online to understand what exactly happened in the plot, it doesn’t make for the most enjoyable movie experience, and based on what I’ve been reading, I am not alone in this (For what its worth, my final score of it would be a 7/10, largely based on the novelty of the concept, the music, Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh’s performances, the visuals, and creativity of the set pieces).

I believe Tenet represents a fork in the road for Nolan.

Tenet will make its money (a further testament to Nolan’s “juice” considering he’s releasing this in a pandemic), but I feel this puts Nolan in a strange position: where does he go from here if he wants to continue with his obsession with time? Tenet is as high of a high concept movie as I’ve seen in my lifetime, and one has to wonder what direction he takes after this. Will he try to top it? Will he continue with these big, time-heavy ideas, or will he move in the opposite direction?

I for one would like Nolan to go the opposite direction. Focus on smaller stories, tell things in a more straightforward way, and focus on having really well-written and digestible scripts. The idea of Nolan doing a straight-up spy or crime thriller without any time gimmicks intrigues me, and I wonder if that’s where he will head next. He could surprise everyone and say that he’s developing a Downton Abbey-style period drama next. Who knows?

I know I have no say in what he should do next, nor does my opinion really matter. He’s Christopher Nolan and I’m a moderately educated film nut, who cares what I think?

I just worry that time will eventually run out for Christopher Nolan and he may look up one day and see that he was a one-trick pony, and I would hate for that to be his legacy. Or anyone’s legacy for that matter.

Time will tell

(I bet Nolan loves that expression)

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