This article contains spoilers for Tenet
There is a moment during Tenet, Christopher Nolan's new quantum physics spy blockbuster, where it almost becomes something entirely different to a quantum physics spy blockbuster.
The film's thuggish oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is speaking to The Protagonist (John David Washington) and explaining his reasoning for wanting to put together the algorithm which will reverse the flow of time and destroy the past.
He talks about future's desire to erase the past because "the oceans rose and the rivers ran dry", a clear dig at Generation EasyJet and the precarious situation which the earth finds itself in as a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge climate change is real and very much here.
For people in the future, erasing the past is revenge on those who blithely destroyed the planet. Yet the film itself is similarly unwilling to look the problem fully in the eye, presenting this only as a glancing motivation for the villain. It feels like an idea that Nolan couldn't commit to properly but included for fear Sator would seem like a one-dimensional baddie who wants to blow up the world because he's not long for it anyway.
It's a moment which leaves the film, and the viewer, confused. The Protagonist has been clearly marked as our hero and Sator explicitly as his antagonist villain counterpart. Now Sator's eco conscience gives us a a new perspective to see Tenet's mission from, allowing us to wonder whether there is any hope for the future despite how noble the good guys believe they are being.
It's a point which is swiftly mooted as The Protagonist continues with his mission to save the world and doesn't appear to give much thought to what that world might look like. Tenet's ending is seen as a victory as the WWIII threat is seen off and we're left with John David Washington and R Patz bromance as they look forward to hanging out in the future, or the past, depending on how you look at it.
Of course, turning an elaborate espionage story into an allegory for climate change isn't the sort of high-concept storytelling which Nolan is known for, and would make the whole thing feel a little bit like being force-fed one of Linda McCartney's vegetarian sausages when you were expecting a Big Mac. Turning the real villain into single-use plastic and earth's rising temperature might also feel a little hollow given the colossal production budget and amount of international travel required to make the film.
Still, the decision to include the destruction of the planet as a motivation for Sator, only to then have the good guys ignore this, is one of Tenet's most confusing threads. One of the film's more interesting points is the evisceration of the billionaire class, who are able to hide forged art and dangerous materials in spots in which they evade the law. In this sense, much of what makes Sator so odious is how he feels like a rich man who treats the world like his playground and is shielded from consequence by his wealth. But if part of his motivation was keeping rising sea levels down then why is he charging around the Amalfi coast on a super yacht, which has helicopters coming and going?
It feels as though the scriptwriters spent so long squaring how time inversion works that they forgot to work out why exactly the villain is trying to take the world down with his FitBit. At one point, Sator says that the worst thing he ever did was bring a son into a doomed world, offering one of the most touching moments in a film that often feels void of warmth.
It's a shame that this moment of humanity isn't intended to reveal to us that Sator is perhaps secretly the real hero of the film, but instead a prologue to him being heaved off the side of the boat. Take that, Extinction Rebellion!
What would have truly turned cinema on its head and flipped life as we know it would have been a blockbuster not trying to save the world but one asking if there's a world left to save. Instead it seems to say with a shrug, "What's happened, happened."
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