After a long hiatus due to the Covid lockdowns and three deferred opening dates, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet finally opened in American theaters in late August. Filled with epic cinematography and Nolan’s expert use of practical special effects over CGI, the film’s 150 minute run time is moved along at a fast pace by plenty of action and a pulsating soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson- this being Nolan’s first soundtrack without Hans Zimmer since The Prestige.
Depending on your taste for the way Nolan plays around with time and perspective in films like Momento or Interstellar, you will either like Tenet or you won’t. As has become the norm with most of Nolan’s films, Tenet is a movie that will either require multiple viewings or (as has also become the norm) consulting various online sites where some of the more intrepid Gen-Z basement dwellers have taken the time to break down the plot, the mechanics of time travel shown in the film, and the surprise ending.
This is an important point since there is much less exposition about the mechanics behind the world he’s created such as in films like Inception, and much of the information that is revealed comes out in very rapid sequence and is often hard to make out amidst the ambient noise and soundtrack. While all this may seem like a lot of work to some, the more one watches or delves into how intricate the storyline is, the more one will recognize how the nearly two decades Nolan spent on conceiving of Tenet was well worth the effort.
The plot of Tenet is moved along by a whole host of wonderful actors and is pretty straight forward once one understands Nolan’s take on time travel. Tenet allows for multiple versions of a character existing at the same time but at different points along the timeline like the movie Primer, but doesn’t allow the creation of alternate futures every time an attempt is made to change the past like the movie The Butterfly Effect. Instead it makes use of both the Bootstrap and Grandfather Time Paradoxes as was seen in the film 12 Monkeys in that the past and the future exist in a causal loop of events that cannot be changed, but one's understanding of it can.
The best way to understand all of this is with the movie’s title “Tenet”. The word is a palindrome and based on an ancient Roman artifact called the Sator Square which was a series of four palindromes arranged in a square; all of which cleverly appear in the movie! Thus, just like a palindrome, what you are watching in Tenet is the same storyline, but viewed from the perspective of the viewer moving forwards and then backwards. Furthermore, pay attention to the colors red and blue that are seen in the film, as Nolan uses them to signify regular and inverted time respectively.
The Future and the Past Conjoined in Peril
The film opens with a CIA operative,who is never named and is simply called the “Protagonist” (well-played by John David Washington), who is trying to extract an exposed spy and an object in his possession from an opera house in Kiev, that has been taken over by a group of terrorists. During the ensuing struggle with the terrorists, the Protagonist notices a strange phenomenon when he is rescued from being shot by someone who appears to be moving and shooting in reverse.
The Protagonist escapes with his target, but the plan goes awry when they're caught and tortured by a different group of terrorists. When he sees a chance, he takes a suicide pill and apparently dies. He later wakes up in a hospital bed and is told that the pill was a fake, and that the whole operation was a test to determine his willingness to fight and die for a cause greater than himself. He is then informed about and asked to join an ultra-secret group called 'Tenet" that not only works all over the world but throughout time itself. He agrees to join and is taken to a clandestine location where he learns about the reality of the world that undergirds the rest of the movie, the concept of “Time Inversion”.
The Protagonist learns that at some point in the future scientists have discovered a way to reverse the entropy of an object. This means that not only does an “inverted” object movie backwards in time, but its existence or state of being moves in reverse as well. Thus, in addition to bullets moving backwards or car accidents happening in reverse, explosions will reverse their process and get colder and people in inverted time must use an oxygen mask because the breathing process acts in reverse as well.
Later, he learns that in the same future that time inversion is discovered, a scientist creates a weapon called the “Algorithm” that utilizes the process and will be capable of reversing the entropy of all of creation. Realizing that she has created a doomsday device, the scientist broke the Algorithm into nine different pieces and hid them by sending them back in time, before committing suicide so that she would not be asked to create another one. However, the world of the future has turned into some sort of hellscape because of (you guessed it) climate change, and so a group of people in the future decided to send a series of time capsules back to the past. Inside the capsules were the locations of all the pieces to the Algorithm, as well as resources (gold bars) and instructions on how to build a time inversion machine and assemble the entropy weapon. Their goal is to change their present by setting off the Algorithm in the past, even if it risks destroying the whole world, since they feel that even a chance of a different future is better than living in their current state of affairs.
These capsules were found by a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (decently played by Kenneth Branaugh), who has spent years locating and assembling the parts to the Algorithm. Sator, who found the first time capsule in his native Russia while cleaning up after an underground nuclear test, is dying from the radiation he was exposed to in his youth. His plan is to commit suicide and, like the “Joker” in Nolan’s Dark Knight, he plans to use the entropy weapon to play the part of a kind of Shiva-type demi-god and “watch the world burn” upon his death.
This ostensibly is the reason why the Protagonist was recruited by the Tenet organization, and along with his young sidekick named Neil (played by Robert Pattinson), the two track down Sator and attempt to stop him from activating the device. All of this culminates is a truly spectacular and utterly mind-boggling time pincher movement in the final battle scene, which involves Tenet using two assault teams to deactivate the device. The “Red Team”, with the Protagonist, moves in normal time, while the “Blue Team” moves backwards in time ten minutes (there's that palindrome again with "ten") before the Red Team so as to relay tactical info about how the battle “went” to them. Trust me on this one, you will be watching this battle scene more than once.
The Allure of Time Travel Stories and What it Says About Us
Time travel in fiction has always been a way for writers to project and play out our hopes and fears about the future. In terms of dystopian futures, it has been a way for our consciences to wrestle with how our current “sins of the father” will manifest themselves to the “seventh generation”. And yet in an allegorical sense, it can also be seen as a way for science fiction, which usually steers clear of religion, to deal with the concept of the Four Last Things. So the question becomes not what will be the fate of particular individuals when they die, but what sort of judgement will be meted out to our society or culture when it dies or decays as a result of the sins it commits or worse, the ones it ignores and allows to continue.
In Tenet, Nolan does an admirable job in working through these ideas through the actions of the characters, but especially the Protagonist. When the Protagonist is first introduced to time inversion and is shown numerous items that have be “inverted” from a future that is a wasteland, he wonders how if the world is already doomed, can it be saved when he asks, “But what about free will?” His Tenet instructor simply tells him not to think about it too much.
Yet he does think about it throughout the movie, and while the Protagonist is not always shown to be the most moral of actors, he is also not portrayed as wanton or uncaring. Time and again he risks his life or the success of an operation in order to save individual lives, to say nothing of trying to stop the destruction of the world, even if no one will ever know of it.
In this way, his character offers up a vivid portrayal of how even if we appear to be mere actors in a narrative larger than ourselves whose outcome appears to be out of our control, we are still free and rational creatures who are expected to make moral choices in every moment in our lives. And in the case of Tenet’s storyline, it is a poignant reminder that in all the current blather about climate change and saving the planet for the future of humanity, we need to be careful that, like Sator, we don’t lose our own humanity in the process.
Photo Credit- ABC