Christopher Nolan tries very hard to blow our minds over and over again in Tenet, often by refusing to explain things that he has just totally made up. It’s sort of the “Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?” of directorial tactics. How does reverse entropy work? “Don’t try to understand, just feel it.” What is a temporal pincer? “You have to stop thinking in a linear fashion.” What’s the bad thing we’re trying to prevent? “Something worse than the nuclear holocaust.” Why is this algorithm … made of metal … and not a theoretical construct, as is the understood definition of the word “algorithm”? “Any more stupid questions?”
Eventually, Tenet’s pseudoscience begins to feel like a very long, exhausting troll: At one point, Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat demands to know what exactly the fuck is going on in this movie, and Robert Pattinson’s Neil pulls up a chair and says, “Every law of physics …” and then the scene ends. In one scene, one character yells to another, in an accusatory fashion, “To you, it’s all about plutonium!” I personally began to check out on an intellectual level when The Protagonist asks Neil something along the lines of, “Well, if we’re alive now, doesn’t that mean our mission ultimately succeeded in the future?” And Neil is like, “In a parallel universe, you can’t know the difference between consciousness and multiple realities,” and then just looks smugly out the window.
But the most nonsensical portion of the movie is its, uh, entire central conceit. The whole reason the Tenet temporal pincer has to go down in the first place is because Kenneth Branagh’s psychotic, abusive Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator, has decided to blow up the past from the future. The Protagonist, played by John David Washington, struggles mightily to understand this concept — namely, how a future would even exist if the past that came before it was destroyed. Each time, Neil replies with some version of, “Well, you see, it’s the grandfather paradox” — the theory that it would be impossible for a person to travel back in time, kill their own grandfather, and still exist in the first place. Neil does not offer this as an explanation, but rather, an explanation as to why there is no explanation. When The Protagonist presses Neil on this, he “explains” that the people in the future just “figured out” some way that blowing up the past makes sense and it’s fine, don’t worry about it, it’s something to do with an algorithm made of big chunks of metal and nuclear fission and inversion, stop asking me!!!
But it’s only near the end of the film that we discover why the future has decided to blow up the past — and this just might be the only part of the movie that makes any sense. Sator, sitting on his yacht, planning to kill himself in order to activate the algorithmic bomb (?) that will obliterate space-time, calls up John David Washington to explain himself, in the grand tradition of all cackling movie villains before him. Unfortunately, it is impossible to hear this part of the movie; Branagh mumbles Russian-ly beneath a violently booming soundtrack. I was lucky (“lucky”) to catch more than two words from each sentence. But, as far as I and my fellow viewers understand it, Branagh “explains” to The Protagonist that the reason the future is trying to blow up the past is because of global warming: Things have gotten so desperate in the future, that the inhabitants have no choice but to turn back to the past for answers, and the answer they settle on is “bomb it all,” with, perhaps, the hope being that the vengeful act will … create some kind of new timeline in which the planet will survive? Unclear. Either way, Branagh goes so far as to ask The Protagonist if he’s sure he wants to thwart this plot, considering the fact that the future sounds like an awful place. “Yeah,” says The Protagonist confidently.
My reaction to this revelation was twofold: (1) Christopher Nolan figured out how to fix global warming but won’t even do us the honor of explaining it in full; (2) Wait, wait, you’re telling me that the future believes that if we want to save our planet, all we have to do is obliterate the entire past (the “past,” of course, being our current present moment, please keep up), and that Earth might go on to experience a healthier, saner existence where its inhabitants are not at the mercy of whatever mutant supervirus has escaped into the smoke-clogged ether? Sign me up, babe!
The classic hero’s journey has long centered on the idea that saving the world also means saving everyone in it — but what this Kenneth Branagh villain presupposes is, what if it didn’t? *Pulls giant bong rip* Let’s consider, for a moment, the notion that the human species as it exists has no specific “right of way” on planet Earth — that since we’re solely responsible for killing it with our capitalistic greed and narcissistic myopia, perhaps we don’t deserve even a chance to stay here. It was a nice experiment, the human one, and it’s all but failed; let’s admit defeat by giving something else a shot at doing it better, rather than dragging everything — including the planet itself — down with us. Why not let the birds take over? Let the turtles have a turn, all the way down, baby!
In the interest of sounding even more dorm-room nihilistic and Bane-esque, allow me to add that, although the dinosaurs’ sudden extinction was likely a bummer (briefly) from the dinosaurs’ perspective, it doesn’t necessarily have any inherent qualitative meaning within the greater life span of the universe. If we let go of the human-centric idea that we’re somehow superior to all other species and the Earth itself — that we should continue to totally and systematically destroy the Earth simply because we can — and accept the notion that another life form might arise and treat the planet and each other with more love and respect than we ever could, it becomes easier to enthusiastically sign up to be a bad guy in the 2020 Christopher Nolan film Tenet, only in theaters now.
I’m not here to condone the behavior or the methods of Sator, who is a FitBit spon-con demon. I am also not here to pretend that I don’t sound like a 19-year-old philosophy minor who just finished watching Trainspotting. I am merely here to say: Let’s shoot the messenger (and throw him off a boat), not the message. I am, of course, a reasonable supervillain, one who’s open to hearing about other ways to fix global warming — oh wait, we already know about those, we’re just not doing them. So at this point, I suppose, if I were John David Washington, and someone from the future approached me and asked me to help press delete on the oil-guzzling trillionaires and the fascist dictators and the people throwing shit at Walmart employees because they don’t want to wear a mask, subsequently assuring that the planet (and potentially our species, though that’s secondary) would survive for billions of years to come, supporting all other sorts of life forms who did not go out of their way to rape and pillage and plunder and throw condoms into the ocean for thousands of years, I would be like, “Kenneth Branagh … excuse me, Sir Kenneth Branagh …I am intrigued.” I would then call up Rihanna, explain the situation, ask her to release R9, and then call up Sir Kenneth Branagh from the future on his little yacht phone, and ask him to speak a bit more clearly this time.