Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020)
The best way to approach most Nolan movies is, in my opinion, to think of them as summer-popcorn fare. The plots are so convoluted that I can’t track with them at all, so I stop trying and just go with the flow, enjoying the cool action, the special effects, and the great camerawork which are Nolan’s trademarks. The Prestige was probably the easiest of his for me to understand; Inception was . . . well, I couldn’t wrap my head around the plot, so I gave up. Of all of his films that I’ve seen, Tenet is the worst in terms of making coherent sense, but it’s a fun thing to watch. And I’m sure there are legions of Chris Nolan fans willing to tell me how wrong I am and how the movies totally make sense after you watch them five times, but I’m not going to do that.
Tenet is a time-travel movie; the main arc of the plot involves the attempt, by a character known only as the Protagonist, to thwart the plans of an organization from the future that is trying to destroy modern civilization before climate change kicks in real hard. However, unlike films such as Terminator or Back To the Future, this one is self-conscious about the contradictions inherent in the idea behind time travel. The characters continually bring up the grandfather paradox and puzzle over what it means to be traveling back and forth through time. It’s almost as if Nolan’s Protagonist is a surrogate for us, the viewers, as he wonders what is going on around him and tries to figure out how to solve this mess anyway.
Tenet doesn’t dwell much on deep, heady philosophical issues, other than the ones allied with its time-travel motif, which don’t really count because they can’t map to the real world at all. But there was one scene that struck me as especially important. The philosophical heart of the film occurs in a scene in which the Protagonist, Neil, and Kat head toward Oslo in an attempt to save Kat’s life:
Two things are going on here. After the bit about the paradox, the Protagonist asks Neil if the bad guys are correct in their assumption that they can go back in time and destroy their own ancestors without annihilating their future selves. Neil tells him that it doesn’t make any difference whether or not they are correct, because they are obviously trying to do it. This resonated with me because it really seemed to point out the limitations of the common way people fight against beliefs and ideologies they don’t agree with. Most of the time, when involved in debate, people take the reasonable and respectful route and try to explain their position, hoping to persuade the other person to change their views. This works with varying degrees of success; sometimes the other person will concede the point and change their mind; other times, the two people will talk past each other, both unwilling to budge, and both thinking something like this to themselves:
But even if this is the outcome, the two parties both share the assumption that words will do the trick of persuading the other person to modify their views. Even social-media flame wars are still wars of words.
But there are some situations where reason doesn’t work. Imagine being held up by a burglar. The likelihood of your being able to talk the burglar out of their crime is absurdly low. There are only two options: surrender, or resist. Resistance can take the form of fighting, or running—but either way, words are not used. This is what the Protagonist has to deal with in Tenet: he can’t reason with the future, so he has to fight.
The scene also reveals what might be the Protagonist’s one moment of vulnerability. I get the impression that the Protagonist is looking for some assurance that everything will work out and that he doesn’t have to worry. I know that if I were in his situation, I would also be thinking “does this mean I don’t have to do anything? I can just sit back and relax, because the outcome is assured?”
In this case, I’m certain the Protagonist isn’t trying to get out of the fight that he increasingly realizes is inevitable; but the tendency to slack off because an outcome is known is pervasive in human experience. For Christians, who believe that God is in control of everything, this can be an especially tempting course of (in)action, and sometimes leads people to the irrational extreme exemplified by this drowning man. The complicated relationship between outcome and personal responsibility is not something I want to get into here. But it is a challenge for Christians, who must remain vigilant against sin even while they are assured of their salvation.
So . . . would I recommend Tenet to anyone? Probably not. The movie just isn’t coherent enough, and doesn’t convey enough interesting ideas for me to consider it worth thinking deeply about. Even the points I made above are only tangential to the movie’s main themes. But if you like action movies, this one won’t disappoint. The scene where the airplane crashes into a building is good eye candy; so is the reverse explosion / collapse of a building in the final battle sequence. What do you think? Did the movie actually make perfect sense to you? Am I missing some big truth that Nolan was trying to convey? let me know in the comments.
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Also, if you are interested in film criticism in general and western movies in particular, The Inverted Gentleman has a fine three-part series of essays on the topic. You can read them here (part 1), here (part 2), and here (part 3).