Christopher Nolan’s new film, Tenet, was released under possibly the most bizarre conditions a movie has ever been released within. During the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, theaters are often closed, require masks if open, and play films to empty rooms. Outside the theater, people are jobless, sick, or scared of both. Perhaps the oddness of that was just too much for Nolan to resist for his new film, which has an innovative temporal structure that might be the only thing weirder than the behavior of the Trump administration. It’s a bleak but brilliant film for bleak times which are as out of joint as what the film portrays.
A visually powerful director with bold composition and tendencies towards epic storytelling, Nolan made Dunkirk about hope and humanitarian aims amidst the worst possible situation. Interstellar showed the worst world of perhaps any film, with humanity on the midst of extinction after destroying earth, something which should cause the film to resonate far more now that California is burning thanks to capitalists exploiting the environment just about to death. Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed a dark and collapsing world looking for a savior, and A Dark Knight Rises has often been used to show parallels to social deterioration under the Trump era.
With Tenet, Nolan has made the oddest film of his whole career. The movie seems like it should be a European arthouse work instead of a mainstream Hollywood film, much less one that cost $200 million, but Nolan has been successful enough with idiosyncratic large films that he was able to do as he pleased. The result is brilliant, strange, and disquieting. The narrative moves through time in an odd enough way as to make the plot quite hard to follow. In particular, I found it impossible to tell when the film should end, because the temporal playfulness of Nolan’s central idea makes it unclear how his film should be edited and leaves one wondering what should be before or after and given scene.
In spite of that, it’s an excellent film, beautiful in a grand visual sense with sweeping depictions of how the world might head to its end with science and capitalism both run amok. Buildings collapse and then rise again in reverse. People move forward and backward, displaced from themselves and their own history.
The film explores interesting intellectual puzzles about the nature of personal identity, history, and time. One of the puzzles of physics is why time moves forward and never backward. The same equations that describe motion that happens forward in time work equally well when moving backwards through time. The intriguing scientific bit here is that insofar as physics effectively reduces natural phenomena to equations, for an event to move backwards instead of forwards makes perfect sense. After consulting physicists like Kip Thorne for Interstellar, Nolan is aware of this and made a film that fully works out how the consequence could play out in cinema as well as showing how it raises issues about major themes for human beings.
If time can move backwards just as well as forwards, it’s not irrational to suppose that making this happen could be a future scientific discovery. It’s quite possible, of course, that things really can’t go backwards for reasons not presently understood, but this is a plausible science fiction scenario much like Interstellar was, something that may never actually happen but theoretically could happen.
That is an interesting cinematic terrain to explore, and doing so requires a grand level of skill, to which Nolan may be the only person up to the task. Working out a way to fit this chaotic material together, film it so grandly, and edit such a massive jigsaw of events is an analytical undertaking on a massive scale. While the drama suffers from a certain deflation given the problems this structure creates with the normal cause and effect sequence of a protagonist’s actions, Nolan is rather brilliant for seeing how this shapes and reshapes who a person is and also for seeing how human history itself would become a muddle.
The great Marxian project was one of showing how history could be understood as an empirical science, and this has influenced major thinkers for generations. This important intellectual consideration of a major philosopher / economist is often lost in the world of anti-communism that took over the West after the failures of the Soviet era brought such horrors such as the gulag and Chernobyl, and I often commiserate that the serious intellectual appreciation of a thinker as influential as Marx gets lost in this, but at bottom Marx treated history as a sort of materialist machine that bifurcates between shaping human beings and itself being shaped by human choices. This idea of an an engine of history encounters something remarkable in the disjointed plot of Tenet as it skips through time in more than one direction.
Nolan is smart enough to appreciate this mixing of history with personal actions as shaping every person, every society, and effectively the world, and he undoes the meaning of this in a radical way by mixing up the flow of time. If time could move backward as well as forward, this would bring with it a remarkably postmodern world of things in flux, being broken and put back together again.
So this is what happens to the protagonist of the film, and it has a strong resonance, as even without technological manipulation of time, the imposing world of technology, corrupt institutions, mixtures of violent terrorists and violent governments, and science run amok rips society to shreds right before our eyes while the coronavirus rages through our societies, economies, and hospitals. The disjointed picture of the world in Tenet looks shockingly similar to the world we all live in during 2020, a world where we sit waiting for a big scientific discovery (a vaccine) while we are powerless in the midst of chaos as we wait.
Political leaders are depraved, ruthless, calculating, and corrupt in the film, much like the insipid ones we really do live around, psychopathic manipulators of events and opinions all aimed to make themselves more powerful. One of the masterful strokes of the film is that it is unclear who protagonist X works for. We know it’s the government, but this is kept so amorphous that it could be almost anyone. After spending some time lately reading the spy novels of the great John Le Carre, whose latest is about our present predicament of Brexit, Trump, Putin, and… endless nonsense, the most true thing about the spy world is that nothing is left clear. It’s a world of opaqueness which fits perfectly amidst Nolan’s strange world of people who don’t know themselves, and who sometimes even unmake themselves.
It’s hard to tell who really works for who and who or what the players are really loyal to. As Le Carre describes this, the difficulty is that criminals and thieves are hired as spies. So when they go bad, no one knows where to look or what to do, and when they are good, they do the same things as the bad spies. This makes for a messy world of nonsense, and it leaves spying as the perfect place to encapsulate Nolan’s idea of a world where science reduces meaning to nonsense by manipulating time.
This director has manipulated time in a more realistic way in Interstellar, a film that holds more importance than most intellectual books about time, because while a lot of fuss has been made about the meaning of the theory of relativity’s clear observation that time is not a stable thing (that it changes with gravity amongst other variables), I doubt very seriously how much anyone really understands that. Nolan’s film forces one to make sense of it by showing people try to explore space while they experience time at completely different paces based on where they are. With film being an instrument of time, both these films should rank as among the most important cinematic works for so carefully exploring time itself.
Tenet is an oddity that does not defy criticism. The way this inventive approach to time shapes drama is important to examine, but its cleverness may well fall outside the bounds of the mainstream audience it was released for. The sheer spectacle of the film may lead to it making more money in the long run than is anticipated, but this is an intellectual arthouse work at bottom that is lucky to receive the grandiose budget that was needed to make such an important film.