One suspects that Christopher Nolan became a filmmaker because film is a uniquely time-based art form. In Inception, minutes of waking life translate to hours of dream time; in Interstellar, an astronaut boards a spaceship shaped like a clock and travels into a black hole that stretches hours into years. Nolan is fascinated by time, obsessed by time; he loves time, hates time, fears time, longs to gain an advantage over time. Who cannot sympathize? We are all time travelers, moving into the future at the unsparing rate of sixty seconds per minute, sixty minutes per hour. Kronos is the great devourer who comes for all of us, and we all wish, on some level, to be free of him.
Over the last twenty years, Nolan has made a somewhat unlikely career out of wildly successful blockbusters that appeal to both the gut and the intellect – billion-dollar brainteasers that set the heart racing and the head spinning. He has a knack for using familiar genres as springboards for his bookish experiments: Inception was a heist movie where the heist took place inside the characters’ minds, his Dark Knight trilogy used comic book characters to explore the political life of the American city, and his new film, Tenet, would be a classic espionage thriller in the James Bond mold if its spies stuck to moving forwards through time like the rest of us.
The plot, which I could not easily elucidate even if I wanted to, centers on “inversion,” a trick of physics that reverses the entropy of an object or person, sending them backwards through time. In other words, the film is full of sequences in which certain elements are moving forwards and others are moving backwards, a trippy visual device that Nolan deploys frequently and with obvious glee. Early on, our unnamed hero (a phlegmatically noble John David Washington) illustrates the concept by firing an inverted bullet at a wall – or perhaps “firing” is a bit of a misnomer, since the bullet shoots out of the wall and into the magazine of his gun. “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it,” explains a scientist. “Whoa,” he replies, reasonably enough. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” advises the scientist, which is good advice.
Understanding, rather than feeling, would seem to be Nolan’s forte. He is a distinctly right-brain director, whose films often work like cinematic Rubik’s Cubes or nesting dolls; at worst, these puzzles titillate the mind and leave the heart out in the cold. Tenet’s immediate predecessor, Dunkirk, is something of an exception, an impressionistic flow of elemental emotions that shuffles timelines like a poem, rather than a puzzle. Piecing it together is less important than surrendering to its urgency and being swept up in awestruck catharsis as its disjointed timeframes coalesce into a stirring portrait of beauty and virtue. It is Nolan’s most human film, and it reinvigorated my interest in his work after Interstellar left me ready to write him off forever.
Nolan likes to traffic in paradoxes, so try this one on for size: Tenet is both the polar opposite of Dunkirk and its closest counterpart in his filmography. With its sparse dialogue and often purely visual storytelling, Dunkirk embodies a kind of ragged, primal simplicity, whereas Tenet is the most willfully complicated film to be bankrolled by a major American studio in years. It lacks a human touch almost entirely and contains wall-to-wall exposition. And yet, the overwhelming preponderance of dialogue in Tenet ultimately has the same effect as Dunkirk’s wordlessness: all you can do is buckle in for the ride as it washes over you. Both films are strange and fascinating marriages of the cerebral and the visceral, enormous thought experiments that must nonetheless be experienced in the unrelenting moment.
“It’s not about what, it’s about how,” the scientist tells our hero, and this, too, is good advice. Beneath its dazzling bells and whistles, Tenet is a boilerplate spy movie: people talk a lot about “the plutonium” and go to elaborate lengths to get the mysterious briefcase in which it resides, Kenneth Branagh’s megalomaniacal villain metes out ostentatious threats in a funny accent, and everyone has a secret agenda or two up their sleeve. Sometimes it seems that Nolan has, as in Dunkirk, deliberately stripped his narrative of more conventional signifiers, the better to admire the brutalist architecture of the plot. (The protagonist is listed in the credits as “The Protagonist,” and occasionally refers to himself as such.) It is often hard to stake an emotional claim in films about the end of the world, and Tenet seems content to let its stakes remain theoretical in nature; the MacGuffin everyone is after turns out to be nothing more concrete than an algorithm (or “The Algorithm,” in the film’s preferred parlance). It’s action as abstraction, and while some will surely see this as a bug rather than a feature, I found it refreshing and not infrequently riveting. It’s not about the what so much as the how, and the how – from the temporal convolutions of the plot and the standoffish grandiosity of the set pieces to the insistent pulse of Ludwig Göransson’s score and the gorgeous palette of Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography – is really something. It is difficult to predict how Tenet will hold up on repeat viewings, but even if turns out to be a one trick pony, it is one doozy of a trick.
The theme of the film is sketched lightly, but intriguingly. For Nolan, a tenet is more than just a palindrome, and thus a sly hint as to the shape of the narrative; a tenet is also a thing, like love in Interstellar or a legend in the Dark Knight films, that transcends time, space, and death to unite past and future. (The password “tenet” is paired with a palindromic interlinking of the hands.) Perhaps it is a tad disappointing that Nolan evinces little interest in any particular tenet, only in tenets qua tenets. If Tenet stands for anything, it stands for the belief that existence is better than nonexistence. “Your duty transcends national interest,” our hero learns. “This is about survival.” This is not much to go off of, though neither is it a bad place to start. The claim that life is better than death and survival is better than oblivion seems like a no-brainer, but perhaps it is not, judging by our routine slaughter of the unborn for “humane” reasons. Nor is it a conclusion we could take for granted based on Nolan’s other films, which often posit a bleak cosmos where the line between the goodness of life and the senselessness of death is perilously blurred. There is something of this bleakness in the fact that Tenet’s great gimmick is a matter of “reversed entropy”: in other words, all man’s scientific prowess merely allows him to return to nothingness instead of progressing towards nothingness. Like Dunkirk before it, though, Tenet reaches past Nolan’s stultifying rationality to grasp the primal impulse for survival that tells us life is good – a conclusion that cannot be reached by reasoning, but must be taken as a given if reason is to have any meaning.
Per Heidi White, “Nolan’s films are haunted by a taut strain between nihilism and humanism,” and the line that divides Tenet’s heroes from its villains seems to run neatly down the middle of its author’s heart. The Protagonist lives for the belief that existence is worth preserving even if he cannot partake of it himself; his foil, Branagh’s monstrous Sator, is compelled by a hunger so devouring that he would rather end existence than let it go on without him. Sator’s name is ironic, for his appetite can never be sated, and he seems to have given up trying. Branagh plays the part grimly, glumly, with none of the flamboyant malice of Nolan’s Batman supervillains: he indulges his vices as if they are obligations and goes about the work of ending the world wearily, almost halfheartedly. That Sator hates the very thing he hungers for is an astute observation of human nature on Nolan’s part. The Joker is a persuasively terrifying bogeyman, but Sator is a sadly recognizable figure to any man who lives in slavery to his appetites.
The Protagonist is marked as such precisely because he is a man who will die for a principle; Sator is a man who wants to die because he has no principles to live for. They are distinguished primarily by these different approaches to death. The Protagonist is a martyr, but Sator is merely a suicide. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton offers a fine account of the opposition between the two:A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.
Sator is a dead man walking, but the Protagonist’s devotion to something beyond himself makes his life worth living after his life has ended. Nolan is too staunch a materialist to ever let a bona fide spirit intrude into one of his films, yet Tenet is something of a ghost story. Within the first ten minutes, our hero has “died” by devouring a sham cyanide capsule; a superior prefaces his postmortem mission with a deadpan “Welcome to the afterlife.” Spies greet each other with the code phrase “We live in a twilight world,” recalling “death’s twilight kingdom” from T.S. Eliot’s ghostly The Hollow Men – which Sator, something of a hollow man himself, quotes directly. Tenet is not a remake of The Sixth Sense, but its main players move through their twilight world like ghosts, untethered from the land of the living even as they work to save or destroy it.
The hero of Interstellar also did time as a sort of ghost, benevolently haunting his children from beyond an existential veil, if not the literal veil of mortality. The motif of generations attempting to cooperate with one another across the chasm of time recurred in Dunkirk, which saw old men trying to help young men escape the hell of war, and returns again in Tenet, which posits that continuity between generations can be cosmically essential while conflict between them can be cosmically destructive. Through a physics lecture on the Grandfather Paradox (if you traveled back in time and killed your own grandfather, would you cease to exist?), the film arrives at something like Edmund Burke’s conception of society as a partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The unseen villains of Tenet are those who would destroy this fabric and risk their own destruction in the process – those who would kick their grandfathers down the stairs, gouge their eyes out, and slit their throats. It is our duty to look beyond ourselves and work for the good of posterity; we can only hope that posterity will work with us.
Nolan’s films often hinge on comforting fictions and noble lies, as if the only antidote to the meaningless of the cosmos is to make meaning of our own, but Tenet, like Dunkirk, ultimately gestures towards a hope beyond what we can construct for ourselves. Sator tries to subdue reality to his will by making a deal with the devil – what C.S. Lewis refers to, in The Abolition of Man, as “the magician’s bargain.” By trading time for money, he hopes to achieve the ultimate object of both science and magic: “to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible.” Nolan’s idolatry of science can be seen with terrible clarity in Interstellar, which ends with man achieving mastery over time and space to secure his own eternal wellbeing. Although it is often mistaken for Nolan’s most hopeful film, Interstellar is little more than a variation on the ghastly ouroboros of The Prestige, a tale of two dueling magicians who mutilate their souls in a cyclical attempt to gain mastery over each other. Per Lewis:There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.
The heroes of Interstellar and The Prestige embody the ends of science and magic, respectively; both control the cosmos by circumscribing it. In Tenet, Nolan inches closer to the wisdom Lewis describes, trading in control for surrender, repudiating lies and illusions in favor of reality. His unlikely wise man is Neil (a rakish, levelheaded Robert Pattinson), secret agent, physicist, and amateur philosopher, whose stated tenet is “What happened, happened” – “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world.” What we might call “fate,” Neil simply refers to as “reality.”
Neil’s creed is implicitly materialistic, atheistic, and yet it is oddly consonant with Christianity. The faith Neil describes is not quite faith in the Christian sense, but for the Christian, faith in reality and faith in God are very nearly one and the same. Faith in the mechanics of the world is simply faith in the One who brought all things out of nothing and continues to give them being, and all sin can be summed up as a turning away from reality to nothingness.
In these evil days, it is tragically easy to retreat from the chaos we cannot manage into the pleasant illusions we can circumscribe and control. Since seeing Tenet, I have spent a lot of time thinking about Neil’s expression of faith. I have been thinking about placing my trust in Reality Himself.