What is a Palindrome Attraction?
The question accompanied many of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which presents itself as a kind of film palindrome. The film’s title is palindromic, and a reference to the Sator Square – a complex Latin palindrome. The film itself, a heist film in a way about inverted entropy and a race to the end of the world moving back through time, is one that focuses on the ideas of things all the same – back and forth. But, what’s the draw?
Eventually, a palindrome hits because it’s a puzzle. The thrill is not so much in what is conveyed at the end but in the complexity of dissolving it. The very thrill of a palindrome is that it exists. Consider the famous English palindrome, “Man, plan, canal – Panama”. The sentence itself has no meaning; the thrill comes from the fact that it is a palindrome. Any communication of meaning beyond its existence as palindromic is incidental. The palindrome is the medium and the message. This is not unlike the narrative gestures at work in “Tenet”, where meaning is incidental to the buzz of the puzzle.
“Tenet” premiered in select movie theaters a few months ago in August. Despite the expectation that it would be released locally, closing cinemas during the pandemic prevented this. The film’s digital premiere, currently available for purchase and not for free streaming, this past week coincided with Nolan making the news for other reasons. Earlier this month, WarnerMedia announced that it would release its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in cinemas and digitally via HBO Max – a streaming service not yet available in Guyana, or the Caribbean. The implications of this for the region, where cinemas are mostly closed, remain uncertain. End of the cinema as we know it? Who knows? But Nolan has expressed great sense in the development, especially in the lack of consultation with filmmakers.
It’s a complicated situation, though, and when Nolan pushed for cinema release for “Tenet”, the supposed final hope for giant tents in a changing world, it’s a gamble that didn’t quite pay off – for reasons that beyond the quality of the film. The entertainment industry has been gutted by the pandemic. Nolan’s insistence on theatrical release for “Tenet” seemed strange in a way, but given that the film will show for the first time to many of us in the comfort of our own homes, “Tenet” is in a strange position of trying justified her previous theater. its existence. Is “Tenet” something I would have dreamed of pandemic to see in a potentially crowded theater? Unlikely; but then, which movie can hold that litmus test up?
Given the month-long digest about Tenet’s boredom, its intricacies and deliberate sincerity – what surprised me most was the ways, at its heart, that seemed so familiar. In a way, it makes some sense. The film is largely the culmination of Nolan’s power as a symbol and director of Hollywood, so much of “Tenet” comes across as a well-curated potpourri from the director’s most familiar occupations. Time has always been a sensation of concern for Nolan, as are stock heroes, parables in distress with penchants for being vaguely dangerous and fragile goals for a politically-successful and puzzled politics. It’s all there. In “Tenet”, though, it’s conditioned at the expense of a story that is incredibly simple – even if the way it is presented requires something more complex.
Our main character here is played by John David Washington, a character who, without any hint or irony, declares, “I am the main character.” We never learn his name. It doesn’t matter. These are not people, as much as they are ideas. Our unnamed hero (?) Is a CIA operative drafted into a mission against time. At some point in the future, war equipment will be ‘inverted’ by threatening the past (or present). This wretched future has turned time into a weapon, so our main character must fight against things that do not yet exist. The primary villain is a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh somewhere between his James bombardment, and the pure tomfoolery of his work in “Jack Ryan”) who has somehow gone into illegal arms trading. He has a weapon that could destroy the world. The key to stopping this? His wife, who is of course disengaged. Enter Elizabeth Debicki in all her long-legged glory as Kat, an art appraiser whose not-so-flirtatious relationship with the main character could hold the key to saving her son, the present, and the future.
Additional plot points are supplementary. The details of a particular plot are less important than the general pieces of the puzzle that Nolan obviously spent time crafting. The last important member of the film’s central quartet is Robert Pattinson as Neil – a mysterious activist sent to help our main character, though the source of his arrival is ambiguous. If the four main characters are of all kinds – the swirling villain of a mustache, the fragile but insightful lass, the hero of stock and the cavalier sidekick – then Pattinson does the best for turning type into something compelling. Not so much that Neil is a particularly complex character, but freed from the pressure of having to push his own unique arc, Pattinson exists in the background of the film, unreasonably prone to the potential tranquility that ensues. It provides a much-needed element of levity to the proceedings (which also gets a similar charming and insignificant twist by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in a short late night in a film). On the whole, however, “Tenet” is so committed to making sure that its moving parts lead to a palindrome – it feels like it’s more intended to hit its mark than relax and be personable. It leaves little room for the actors to do much, especially as Nolan seems ambiguous about playing to the strengths of his performers especially Washington whose frequency seems out of place here.
Many have commented on the self-reflective irony of a line from the beginning of the film where a scientist explains the idea of inverse time to the main character. The idea of this inverse entropy frustrates him. But she hides it at the limits of his understanding. “Don’t try to understand it,” she cajoles. “Feel it.” It’s not so much that “Tenet” is beyond feeling. Two set pieces – an early heist gone wrong, followed by a later chaotic car – are both exhilarating in their own way. But, for one to have the luxury of “Tenet,” the palindrome would have to have some meaning beyond its mere existence as a palindromic. But even as “Tenet” engages in a load of crunch about the implications the characters’ actions have for the future, it is difficult to form any concern about that future that only exists in prolepsis.
It’s something I’ve always found fascinating about Christopher Nolan’s films – they exist in the “present” and yet they seem completely devoid of any kind of cultural or political markers. There is a lack of air to his idea of the contemporary that seems trapped in some vague idea of the past, but which is driven into an arbitrary version of the future that is marked by a kind of lack of geopolitical color. “Tenet” may play the same way in two decades, as it does now, pointing back to the vague ideas of the Cold War and the Russian crisis but without any sort of context for anything around it. This isn’t even much of a judgment on quality, it’s just one of “Tenet’s” facts – like its palindromic articulation – concerning now without looking back or forward. It makes a movie that is so visible on its own kind of glamorous. When “Tenet” ends, little of it lies. The film’s effervescent energy seems to tidy up, because the whole arc of the film is wrapped up in the seasonality of its existence. The palindrome is over and we are back to the right where we started. It’s a neat sport. But, there is nothing there to sustain future thinking. It only exists as credible or valuable at play.
Tenet is available on Prime Video, iTunes and other streaming platforms for purchase.