If Christopher Nolan knew what I was doing, it would probably break his IMAX-loving heart. This is not what he intended.

I am watching his new movie not in a movie theater, but in my living room. On a laptop. With headphones on, because there are leafblowers outside, a dishwasher running in the kitchen, and a cat who, finding me distracted, demands my attention.

To borrow a line from the despairing King Theoden:

Nolan clearly wanted to rock the world with a “Go Big or Go Home” event — he made that plain with that ten-minute-long trailer, which showed off the massive scale of its ambitions by turning terrorists (or are they?) loose in a packed symphony hall. This wildly complicated action scene, with its trippy special effects and earth-shaking sound design made it clear: He was leaning hard into his obsessions. Pummeled by Nolan’s signature sonic punctuation, I anticipated that this would be exactly what Empire‘s Alex Godfrey would eventually label it: Nolan’s “blammiest film yet.”

But then the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the film’s release, theaters closed (many permanently), and moviegoers who value their lives begrudgingly shifted their routines to home-theater viewing. When the film finally did open in limited release, it did not persuade many to break their pandemic restrictions, self-imposed or governmental. To make matters worse, word-of-mouth reviews were mixed: The plot was too complicated, even by Nolan standards, and characters were poorly developed (Datebook‘s Mick LaSalle described the hero as “blank”) and hard to care about. Those who insisted on its greatness were, for the most part, already Nolan super-fans.

Me, I steered clear of the whole conversation. My eagerness for Nolan’s filmmaking fizzled a long time ago. Things began with a backwards-narrative bang: I loved Memento for the ingenuity of its inverse narrative, but I cared because it was told in extreme close-up, making me care about a man struggling with short-term memory loss. (Also, it was funny.) Memento was a big idea told on a small scale, such that I wasn’t just trying to solve a puzzle — I felt the protagonist’s desperation.

What’s the difference between a Michael Bay explosion and a Christopher Nolan explosion? Nolan’s pyrotechnics are serious.

But as Nolan’s films have become progressively larger, louder, more interested in spectacle over storytelling, and more intent on overloading our senses than on inspiring us to care about characters, I’ve gone from enthusiasm to annoyance. The psychological clashes between characters in Insomnia, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight captivated me in a carefully calibrated context of human drama and big-screen fireworks. But the epic ambitions of The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Dunkirk, and even, to some extent, the heavy-hearted Interstellar failed to inspire me to come back for closer consideration.

So here I am, insulting his efforts to set movie screens ten stories tall ablaze by watching Tenet on a small screen. To be frank, this is probably the only way I was going to get around to seeing it before it becomes, eventually, a curiosity beloved only by Nolan’s most devoted, geeks who love the puzzle-box convolutions of tangled-up time-travel stories.

In a speedboat scene that can only be described as “Michael Mann-ish,” John David Washington plays Protagonist: an all-purpose action hero devoid of history and personality.

But maybe it’s for the best that I’m experiencing the film this way. Tenet requires so much of the viewer’s attention and intellect that if I’d seen it in a theater, beaten half to death by subwoofers and straining to understand the dialogue (that’s a complaint I heard from many moviegoers), I probably would have bailed anyway, determining to wait until I could have more control over my circumstances.

And you know what? Watching it like this — on a small screen with easy-to-read captions and a clearer sound mix — I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t understand it — no, it doesn’t make a bit of sense, and characters in the movie take turns either trying to explaining it to us or telling us not to bother trying to understand. But the pleasure of watching Nolan play with some of his nifty and (at least for this moviegoer) original takes on time travel was worth the two hours, even as the hyper-explosive action reminded me of some of the silly summertime blockbusters of early moviegoing years — particularly Die Hard 2, with its jumbo-jet fireballs.

Kenneth Branagh is Sator, a snarling, spitting Russian villain who crawled out of a box of James Bond’s take-out leftovers.

But even more than that, I’m remembering how so many of science fiction and fantasy stories became my favorites because I experienced in similar circumstances: I was sitting in a comfortable chair at home with a book open in my lap. Okay, technically it’s a MacBook that’s open in my lap here, but this experience reminds me of the joys of reading a challenging science fiction novel, one built on thrilling ideas. Something about the scale of this experience seemed just right: Tenet is best approached as an entertaining brain-teaser, not something profound that insists we kneel before it.

I mean, while the aesthetics scream to be taken seriously, the characters and the crises suggest that Nolan himself wasn’t really interested in them.

Heroes Neil and Protagonist hold their breath during a gassy action sequence.

As I track this story of Sator, a megalomaniacal billionaire (played by Kenneth Branagh, chewing on a cartoonish Russian accent), who begins messing with both the future and the past in ways that threaten to annihilate human history, and as I follow the desperate efforts of a singularly uninspiring action hero literally called Protagonist (John David Washington), I am not inspired to care much about who lives or dies. (LaSalle again: “Washington, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be playing anything other than an attempt to be cool.”)

If anyone in the movie has a chance of making us feel something, it’s Kat, Sator’s battered wife and the mother of his child. Played by the always-elegant Elizabeth Debicki, Kat is dressed to look like a chilly mannequin whom Sator might have once stretched half-to-death on a medieval torture rack. As she uses her incredibly long arms and legs to try and free herself and her son from the violence of their world-threatening abuser, she may be wearing a name tag saying “HELLO, I AM STOCK NOLAN FEMALE IN CRISIS.” To her credit, Nolan lets her show some fight, particularly in a boat scene that recalls Polanksi’s Knife in the Water. And I suppose it’s a step forward in Nolan’s storytelling that he gives so much screen time to a female character, but he has a lot to learn about female characterization.

Elizabeth Debicki is Kat, the necessary wife-and-mother in distress.

I wish I could feel here the stakes that I feel watching Shane Carruth’s brain-benders Primer and Upstream Color. The former has the satisfying advantage of being focused on a friendship we care about, and its disintegration is genuinely distressing. Tenet ultimately fails because its concept is so much bigger than its characters. Nolan’s signature obsession is, unfortunately, the same as so many of his villains — the desire to rig a game in such a way that audiences are forced to scramble in making sense of what they’re seeing. There’s a little too much of The Prestige‘s mad magicians (or even Tesla!) in him, a little too much of the Joker’s mayhem. It’s easy to imagine him guffawing like Bane from his Batman series as he braids his plot lines into a pretzel. (Let’s give credit where credit is due: This screenplay must have been a beast to construct, and these action scenes, lensed by Hoyte Van Hoytema and edited by Jennifer Lame, were probably among the most complicated ever choreographed.) He wants us intrigued, challenged, and ultimately dazzled to the point of awe…

… and it’s all in service of… what? The inevitable conclusions about love or human decency usually end up feeling more obligatory than affecting. Nolan’s addiction to guns and explosions outshouts any inclination he has toward meaning. In his films I am so often taken back through time — back through my own moviegoing time, that is — to that moment in The Matrix when Neo decided that the solution was “guns, lots of guns,” and my enthusiasm for the movie instantly collapsed. Exhausted and disoriented by Nolan’s curlicue-rollercoasters Nolan, we end up fooled into thinking we’ve been stirred when, in fact, we’ve mostly been shaken. (Maybe that’s why I’m not among the many campaigning for Nolan to direct a Bond film. I’ll take the character, the humor, and the stakes in Casino Royale over this stuff any day.)

Among Protagonist’s many hardships, he must try to look like one of the 1% in order to gain world-saving intelligence.

Still, while neither the characters nor the crisis interest me, the <i>concepts</i> eventually do: I’m intrigued by the ideas driving the movie’s mind games. The nature of this movie’s “What if?” experiments remind me of some of Primer‘s paradoxes and the grander philosophical ambitions of The Matrix trilogy. Special effects artists, perhaps inspired by the backwards-running destruction in Doctor Strange, play with some fantastic derivations of those ideas.

Once the dust settles and the echoes fade, I cannot shake the fact that there are deep matters of conscience at the heart of this story, matters that a greater artist might have teased out more compellingly. Some of them gleam in this exchange:

Protagonist: “He can communicate with the future?”

Arms dealer Priya: “We all do that, don’t we? Emails, credit cards, texts — anything that goes into the record speaks directly to the future. The question is… can the future speak back?”

Now that’s an intriguing idea — the sort of inspiration that can light up a science fiction novel.

Protagonist tries get his gun with something like The Force — he means to “catch” it. Trust me, I can’t explain it to you.

And this gets me thinking about science fiction itself as a genre. At its best, it’s prophetic: It’s the the Book of Revelation, a wild vision we can’t fully understand but through which the future is speaking back to us, shouting about the wages of our sins-in-progress, but also reminding us that it’s not too late. Like a lot of science fiction, Tenet places too much faith in humankind’s ability to save itself through strength and technology, and shows little-to-no curiosity about any grander powers at work — except insofar as Love keeps insistently and irrationally working on the Protagonist’s heart and motivating his decisions. In Protagonist’s all-too-fleeting glimmers of conscience, I catch glimpses of the Divine at work in and through human beings, evidence that maybe God — the uncredited ghost in this well-oiled and exquisitely complicated machine — is present, whether the characters or the artists know it or not.

Having said that, I find one conundrum more challenging than anything else in the film. It’s a question consistent with all of my frustrations with this film — a question of scale and proportion. Just as many are asking why Nolan would make a complicated movie so loud that audiences cannot hear clearly the characters’ explanations for what is happening, I submit the following question:

Why would anybody ask 6′ 3″ Elizabeth Debicki to wear high heels?

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