Saturday, 12 September 2020


(Another Not A Proper Review At All. Which, like normal, means PLOT SPOILERS)

This new Christopher Nolan film is already notorious for its bewilderingness. Tough the labyrinthine plot is at times incomprehensible, at other entirely predictable. Maybe you need to see it twice, first forwards then backwards. But clever is not the same thing as coherent. It’s best not to look under the hood while you’re taking the ride. Just just take the high concepts as something there to jolt your mind as much as the action sequences do your nerves. We’re specifically told “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” It’s a shopping list of cool stuff - forged Goyas, impregnable storehouses, off-grid ‘closed cities’ - in which backwards bullets are just more stuff on the list.

But let’s take another tack, and bring it into our little look on how science fiction has treated time over time. Even if, strictly speaking, it doesn’t involve time travel. There’s no Tardis here, to zip across timezones. There’s a mechanism, but it reverses time, sends you backwards down your own timestream. (And anyone who suggests my blog is currently running backwards, judging by the lateness of the visual art reviews, will be escorted off the premises.)

Which means, interestingly, it’s at complete odds to all that quantum entanglement of ‘Avengers Endgame’ Time here is strictly linear. There’s a reason a long, key sequence takes place on a stretch of highway. Like a road, you can traverse time in both directions. But it’s the same stretch of road you’ll be travelling.

Except time isn’t referred to as reversed, but the less common term ‘inverted’. Which implies an external force. Just as a bullet must have a maker, an inverted one must have an inverter. But it’s also a negative word, suggesting something contrary to nature. (In more homophobic times gay people were called ‘inverts’.)

And the ‘algorithm’ (as ever, a magic spell) which allows all this inversion is at several points compared to plutonium. With the war which inevitably ensues a “new cold war”, one in which our primary antagonist is a Russian. (Andrei, played… while actually hammed up by Kenneth Branagh.) Inverted time doesn’t just not work like a Tardis, it has a different plot function. It’s not an adventure enabler but a cursed object, a weapon of the enemy. This is a war where “even to know its true nature is to lose”. True our heroes do the backwards dance too, but only in a join ‘em to beat ’em sense.

If (as previously argued) time that wimes is post-modern, this conjures up a bleaker scenario. Time is like a road in a second sense, the sense that eventually both run out on you. This is not the ’Terminator’ scenario where the future has suffered a hostile takeover. Here, our future is inherently our enemy. Because our descendants, having run out of road, can only back up. Which means running over us. They come to plunder us like temporal colonialists. (The film’s tag line is “time runs out.”)

And there’s a microcosm of this. Through films like ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘Prometheus’ we’ve become used to the trope of the wicked capitalist who tries to use his wealth and power to cheat oncoming death. Here the villain is also dying, but has two quite different solutions. One is to jump back to the time he was still loved by his wife. And the other is to take the world down with him.

And scale up from there, because like him his society has an unavoidable death day. The implication is that this future cannot be prevented, defeated or altered. It can only be held at bay, as we remain trapped in that title palindrome. An operations code phrase is “we live in a twilight world.” This is our future, where “the oceans rose and the rivers ran dry”. We’re the people who knew about climate change and still stood by while a fascist set light to the Amazon.

In concept it’s essentially William Burroughs’ ‘Ah Pook is Here’. But with a dash of Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, in the sense that our enemies, though essentially dead, are a destructive force held over our lives. We could never hope to meet, let alone beat them. Even their henchman doesn’t communicate with them directly, only by scheduled temporal ‘dead drops’.

There’s two hints at exceptions to this clamping rule. First the ‘temporal pincer movement’, where in the final battle backwards and forwards troops team up to take on the bad guys. (And it’s an act of backwards heroics which saves the day.) This makes little internal sense. But it perhaps suggests a symbolic unification between the highway lanes.

And then Andrei being killed doesn’t bring about the much-mooted end of time. Which suggests this was all more mutable than previously supposed. But these are bumps in what’s otherwise a long straight road to oblivion.

All of which is underlined by the tone. Nolan has been candidly about the Bond films’ influence and, if you were to watch without sound, it very much visually resembles one. But what are we used to with Bond? His self-introductions (“Bond… James Bond”), his witty one-liners and his getting the girl. Whereas our protagonist not only doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t even get a name - he’s literally called ‘The Protagonist’.

We’re told early on by a female Q “no small talk”, an instruction the film takes to heart. Dialogue is unashamedly expository. (I was completely unable to recognise John David Washington’s permanent poker face here as the lively Afro-sporting cop from ’Blackkklansman’.) Only the Principal Girl (Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki) gets given a personal motive, and with it even shows some emotion.

Despite the regulation scenic backdroppery, actual settings are corporately anonymous - airports, concert halls, secure facilities. We’re often told we’re in places, such as Estonia, and essentially have to take the film’s word for it. Which may also be true of Bond films, but here you seem more keyed in to notice. That futureless future we’re heading towards, that lifeless non-place, it’s already being built around us.

In fact, if there’s a sequel my money would be on our Protagonist set against some morals-inverted future version of himself, exchanging dagger glares through the glass of one of those two-sided rooms. He’s already got in a fight with himself, after all. Cold, dispassionate, calculating, he wouldn’t even need to play the two parts differently.

If you now read this backwards there are secret messages. (Yllaer t’nera erehr.)

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