In Nolan's latest some people are going forwards, others backwards, but it's the stuff that comes in sideways that proves the most frustrating.
I remember that the second time we watched Inception we enjoyed it in terms of both visual and intellectual content as much as we had the first time. Sitting through Tenet again would seem like a chore, though a chore made almost necessary in order to work out what the $%&# is going on.
There's nothing wrong with a bit of difficulty, or even disorientation per se. In The Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell has this little anecdote: “Hans Jonas, who studied with both Husserl and Heidegger, remarked in a later radio interview that Heidegger was by far the more exciting of the two. Asked why, he replied that it was largely ‘because he was much more difficult to understand."
Opacity can of course be strangely thrilling, as I noted recently in a social media post about about one of my favourite lecturers at Cambridge, John Dunn, emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King's, whose labyrinthine sentences, both spoken and on the page, seemed like the main reason for attending them.
Heidegger's game, specifically, was to make the familiar feel unfamiliar and vice versa (and thereby philosophically invigorating) via a set of ultimately very modernist techniques in the idiom he was using.
Hardcore Christopher Nolan fans will no doubt be getting much of what they crave from Tenet, even if the director appears to be stooping to self-parody at times.
Yet there are smart films that even if they don't make the viewer smarter, do get them thinking. Tenet is complex, but in the end its complexities appear to amount to little more than a sort of cinematic fairground ride.
The best smart time travel movie we've seen in the last couple of decades was Spanish: Cronocrímenes. It toyed with paradoxes, sent multiple versions of its characters chasing around a confection of timelines, and yet never left us feeling lost.
2004's Primer was more of a mind mangler, but I ended up convinced that Shane Carruth (at least) had a comprehensive grasp of the physics (and metaphysics) he was playing with, something I doubted about Nolan at various stages of this ride. And there's nothing especially meta about any of the physics here in the end.
There's also some serious mission creep going on. At the beginning it seems that only fairly little stuff can be inverted, but soon major characters are also going through the revolving MacGuffin and travelling in reverse time.
This is still reverse 'real' time however, and it is not until the final act that the possibility of larger shunts backwards are suggested. Yet these inherently open up all sorts of potential plot holes. And it is never adequately explained why the pointy heads of a distant future would pick our time, supposedly at some distance from their own, to begin the wholesale inversion.
And what would inverting time's arrow actually do for the future civilisation and its messed up world? Would they need special respirators? Would their new inverted environment appear so to them? Cars seem to invert when inverted people board them. What else? And so on.
If there is an open philosophical question at the end it is the one about whether all these loops are open or closed. The Protagonist stumbles upon it quite early on and is reassured by Neil, but this same character later pronounces wistfully 'What's happened, happened'. That Nolan intends this one to remain open is signalled by the fact that, for me at least, he has left a bit of a loose end — the lacuna between the moment the Protagonist takes a pill and the moment he wakes up with all his teeth.
Anyway, the best thing about the movie is Robert Pattinson's Neil, in part because he's the only character who seems to be speaking, and emoting, like an actual human being.
John David Washington is excellent too, but the role is restrictive. Elizabeth Debicki is playing a character that is inherently hard to sympathise with on many levels. She seems to specialise in females bored and disgusted with a life attached to wealthy male bullies: here as Sir Ken's wife, in The Night Manager as Hugh Laurie's elfin moll and in The Crown as Lady Diana. You'd have to think that in any future movie about the Trumps...