David Lynch would be very upset with the 2020 version of me. 2020 Rami, trapped in his little suburban basement, had no access to a high quality screen. He had no access to a state of the art sound system. He had no blu-rays of the latest films. What he did have was his laptop, a shoddy pair of headphones and a website whose legality was questionable. What should have been a viewing experience characterized by a chamber of rumbling sound and overwhelming visuals was … decidedly not that. For most movies, this wasn’t a problem. “The Father,” “Minari,” “Sound of Metal” and the outstanding “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” survived the neolithic conditions of my basement to leave some kind of impact in my mind.
This technique, surprisingly enough, did not work when I watched Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” a movie equal parts ambitious and ill-timed. Instead of delaying his bombastic summer blockbuster, as pretty much every other filmmaker did in the middle of the greatest public health crisis since 1918, he valiantly pushed on to theaters. How could you blame me for sailing the high seas to watch it on my little PC? My tiny setup took a lot away from the film. Gone were the garish visuals and sensory overload. What remained? Not much. Nolan presented some neat concepts. There were some funny lines. But at the end of the day, nothing in the movie mattered to me. The strange monologues, the “twists,” the batshit insane final fight. It all felt empty.
Maybe I wasn’t a movie guy. Or maybe I just needed to watch “Tenet” in theaters. About a week after watching “Tenet,” I moved to the oft-mentioned sci-fi drama “Dark” on Netflix. Focusing on a German teenager’s journey through time and, ultimately, a journey to find himself, the show is undeniably impressive. Its plot was as intricate as a Fabergé Egg, with thousands of small features and moving parts that constantly wowed. There were twists and turns and moments I never expected. The show’s tangled web of characters and family trees were organized, seemingly seasons in advance, to build a wide tapestry out of its strange timeline. But funnily enough, the same problem I had with “Tenet” re-emerged: After 26 hours of sci-fi drama, I didn’t care. By the third season, I had seen nearly every character die multiple times, I had seen the central town get time-nuked (do not ask) four times, I had seen a child bludgeoned by a rock (twice) and two separate incestuous family loops. Time after time after time, the show found ways to subvert all expectations to shock and awe, but it failed to be shocking.
How could two separate works of fiction, one focused on spectacle and the other on plot, contain the same core problem? It’s simple: Neither contains human beings. Sure, they looked like people. They grinned, frowned, cried, laughed and died. They went through all the motions, but that didn’t make them human, just human-shaped.
Take John David Washington’s (“Malcolm & Marie”) character in “Tenet” — the Protagonist. Who is this guy? Is he kind? Does he care about others? Is he an optimist? Does he have goals besides doing what he’s told? Nope. Minus some occasional snark, there’s not even a hint of personality in him. How about Jonas (Louis Hofmann, “Red Sparrow”), the protagonist of “Dark”? Every single thing he does in the show he does because he’s told. Admittedly, he does have one leg up over Washington’s character: There are people around him he cares for. His father, his girlfriend, his missing friend and his mother (Fun fact: two of those are the same character). But does he actually care? Does he do anything to show that he cares, other than cry on command when they’re hurt? After his girlfriend, who is supposedly the only one keeping him happy, is murdered for the first time (do not ask), what does he do? Does he look for revenge? Does he try to go back in time to resurrect her? Does he fall into some kind of depressive haze? Does he do literally anything other than following the same instructions he was already executing? For all of the above, the answer is a resounding no.
Every other “character” in both “Dark” & “Tenet” is the same. They move where the plot dictates. They have beliefs but no traits. Ideas but no feelings. The worst part? This wasn’t accidental. Washington’s character isn’t just the protagonist of the movie, he’s officially credited as “The Protagonist.” Nolan absolutely understood what he was doing here. There was too much going on in “Tenet”: strange concepts, an unhinged plot, gaudy visuals. Something had to give, and the chosen lamb for Nolan’s proverbial slaughter was character. “Dark” functions similarly, as an auxiliary storytelling device. Netflix created an online character guide for viewers. Instead of recording any characters’ personal aspects, there were paragraphs chronicling their importance to the plot.
Heartbreakingly, these pieces of media are mere symptoms of an overall issue plaguing modern movies and TV. While blockbusters of yesteryear took their time to develop their characters in the first act, modern outings forgo this necessary step to leap toward their plot. There are limitless recent examples, chief among them the recent wave of Marvel movies, the “Jurassic World” trilogy and the past year’s flood of Netflix originals. All of this because character is deemed unimportant when contrasted with plot or action. As a result of this sacrifice, all that plot and action is left pale, bland and uninteresting. Without any characters for the audience to connect with, what good does a twist do? What good is an action scene if no one cares if the nameless protagonist dies? There are no stakes there. The only intrigue the plot can deliver is mystery, which shows like “Dark” use as a crutch. This leaves nearly every conflict unexplained for at least two episodes, rendering audiences bewildered and disoriented.
Looking back at the movies the 2020 version of myself loved, there’s a reciprocal pattern. “The Father” was a very slow film chronicling a family’s battle with its patriarch’s dementia. It contained no high-concept sci-fi or dazzling action, but it was enthralling due to the fantastic characterization of the titular father. The incredible “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was another favorite from 2020, and while it did have some wondrous visuals, its plot was, on first viewing, complete nonsense. But upon further examination, everything the movie does is in service of a deep examination of one man and his loneliness. Where the sacrifice of character for plot proved disastrous in the case of “Dark,” the gutting of plot for character did wonders in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” so much so that I consider it one of the best movies of the last decade. These are films that were able to escape the Bermuda Triangle that was my 2020 viewing condition. “Tenet” and “Dark” attempted conceptual backflips and twist-based twirls to attract sailors to save them, doing nothing but drag them further into the sea. Meanwhile, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “The Father” and a myriad of other 2020 films allowed themselves to float on the waves, the characterization and dialogue acting as floaties to drift, slowly but surely, to the shore.
BTW, in this metaphor, “Tenet” drowns and sinks to Davy Jones’ Locker. I hate that movie.
Daily Arts Contributor Rami Mahdi can be reached at email@example.com.