tromber’s review published on Letterboxd:
When we saw this the first time, one of the few other people in the theatre with us euphorically announced that it was /even better the second time/. We stumbled away, aware that the second experience would undeniably be a different one but pretty overwhelmed by the bombastic and immediate experience. I had the feeling, knowing the way the man writes his films for second viewings, that this was a primer for that second viewing. But I was still dubious as to how different the second time could be.
It was a completely different film. My biggest frustration or confusion last time was the editing feeling choppy and fast and breakneck but this time, it all moved exactly how it needed to. The sound mix was easier to make out. The conversations and logic were easier to surmise. The motivations and themes all rose to the surface. We were as euphoric as the man at our previous showing. Euphoric in that way I used to get when I was younger and first learning about any kind of cinema, discovering Nolan's movies, the specific and fun way he plays with narrative, expectation, and genre.
There are multiple points throughout the film in which John David Washington's Protagonist is told to not try and control things or to try too deeply to understand it. Instead, he is encouraged to just let it happen, with promises that it'll make sense later if he just goes along for the ride.
And so so so many reviews came out making fun of the movie for that quote, framing it as an excuse rather than as a genuine instruction.
Now, I want to talk about some spoilers. Theme-wise.
It really is a time travel film but calling it that makes it harder to understand how all the inversion stuff works. But it's a film about being your own hero. About autonomy as a motivation. The Protagonist sets himself up to succeed. Elizabeth Debicki's Kat finds the strength within to free herself from her abusive relationship after seeing her future self succeeding, realizing that she will survive her husband because she can imagine a future in which it happens. Sator, our villain, is a dying man who agrees to destroy our reality because he won't be around to see it and he's been living off the future people's money this whole time anywhere.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's a climate change parable. It's the GOP versus the next generation. It's the angry old white men selfishly destroying our world to be next to real power for a little while. It's a film about the importance of saving the world even if succeeding means no glory. If we prevent the climate from killing us, we won't know it was for sure ever going to, but unless we take the necessary steps anyway, there won't be anything left to gloat over.
And then I realized that most of Nolan's filmography is about power or success with or without glory. The Transported Man who has to hide under the stage, the astronaut who sabotages the mission because he doesn't get to be the hero, the amnesiac serial killer who puts targets in front of himself so he doesn't have to face who he really is. The Pilot who saves everyone and then gets captured while they celebrate. Even Cobb in Inception is trusting that Seito will actually clear his name when they depart the airplane.
He has long explored the concept of history shaped by the anonymous. Increasingly, he makes movies about the importance of being the hero of your own life rather than counting on someone else to save the day.
And all of this is happening via a story told on an impossibly ambitious narrative and structural scale. The story started before we showed up (as is the way with spy movies) and has been running in two directions for some time. As we jump into the time stream, ignorant and confused, we are rapidly approaching the bend that is going to slingshot us backwards through everything we've just seen. We don't even really understand what has happened until after. Until, like the Protagonist, we say we're ready to go back in and try again.
He always says he makes films from the outside in. Imagining it from the point of view of the characters.
Self-actualization on a temporal scale.
After the first viewing, I wasn't sure what to make of this. I appreciated it more than I liked it, I felt like it was an interesting piece of abstract art that I wouldn't want in my home but that I was glad existed. But after spending more time with it, it opened up, and I'm not so sure it's not his masterpiece. It's everything his career has been building towards. He continues to expand film to film and this is the natural extension after Inception/TDKR/Interstellar/Dunkirk.
Before he made films that would change on a second viewing, a recontextualization. Now, he's made his first film that doesn't even really work on the first viewing but falls perfectly into place on the second.
Once I wasn't so worried about understanding the basic premise and stakes, it was much easier to just settle into the film and take in the sound design, making out little snippets I might have missed before, chewing on the theoretical and philosophical maxims that get casually dropped throughout. I was able to understand where we were, where we were going, and why. And I was able to understand why this man would make this movie like this. Why the puzzle box is so oddly shaped. It's so compelling and alluring once you understand how to unlock it.
I'll be back in another almost empty imax theatre soon. I understand that we can't all safely see films right now but this really is a cinematic work that affirms the singular nature and value of a theatrical experience.
And of patience.