Despite the standard cliche, I don’t remember ever literally being on the edge of my seat during a movie, but there are some movies that make me sit up a little straighter and pay very close attention. Tenet was one of those movies. I wasn’t really all that surprised that I enjoyed Tenet; Christopher Nolan is one of my favourite directors working today (or really, ever), and I’ve been a fan of all of his movies to date. Nolan is one of the few modern directors who is able to effectively blend the auteur and blockbuster approach to craft films that are truly epic in scale but at their core are stories about people and that both pose and explore questions about the human condition in an intelligent way. In that way, Nolan is heir apparent to the original generation of auteur film makers who essentially invented the blockbuster like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. And like Spielberg and Lucas, Christopher Nolan is primarily concerned with telling original stories about larger than life events anchored with fully fleshed out human characters (and a fair amount of explosions).
That’s one reason that I will gladly fork over my hard-earned cash for any film that Nolan puts out over whatever the latest made-by-committee Marvel or Star Wars movie that the Disney corporate machine churns out. I say this as a fan of both the MCU and Star Wars, but I would rather see Nolan try something new and fail than have to sift through another ten movies’ worth of the Marvel formula or mull over the next chaotic Star Wars trilogy to find the one or two movies that really excel. At the end of the day, a movie directed by Christopher Nolan expects more of its audience than a great deal of independent films and outclasses the action of most action blockbusters. Any movie that crashes a real plane into a real airport for my entertainment while also exploring questions of free will and determinism is all right in my book.
Tenet is the perfect example of a modern film that actually expects its audience to pay attention. I usually don’t have a hard time following the plots of Nolan’s movies, but I found myself having to pay very close attention when watching Tenet. I say that as a good thing. I love it when a movie engages me and makes me think. When I read a book, if I don’t learn at least five or six new words, I’m disappointed. I read with my finger at the ready… to google any new words I come across (get your minds out of the gutter). I approach movies with a similar attitude. I want to walk away from a movie with the urge to go back and watch it again immediately to catch all of the small things I missed. I want a movie to make me start reading articles and researching for days afterwards. I want a movie to force me to think about, or rethink, my worldview.
And that’s exactly the kind of movie Tenet is.
I don’t generally use the term “craft” when discussing movies today, but with Christopher Nolan, it’s the only word that applies. Every frame of Tenet is not just incredibly well crafted at a technical level, you can tell the love and detail that was put into it by somebody who actually enjoys the experience of watching movies. It’s clear that Nolan loves the movie-going experience, as most of his films are designed to maximize the advantages that a movie theatre offers. His passion was clear as he pressed for movies to be released during the pandemic to help try and save theatres with some kind of revenue stream. This was a move I disagreed with him on completely as the health and safety of my fellow citizens takes priority over any other concerns, but it’s hard to argue with the man’s passion for film.
Like the vast majority of Nolan’s films, Tenet is preoccupied with questions of time, though surprisingly, it’s only his second movie to actually directly deal with literal time travel. Even then, in typical Nolan fashion, he had to put his own spin on it, coming up with something called “time inversion.” Basically, through vague technological means, people in the future will discover a way to reverse the flow of time for a person or object so that it, or they, travel(s) through time, just in the opposite direction to everything else. As with most time travel movies (aside from Primer) the how of the time travel technology isn’t as important as how it drives the story, and Nolan wisely glosses over the specifics, much to the benefit of Tenet’s story, in a way similar to how the consciousness-sharing technology in Inception was handled. The technology is there, and it works (to quote those famous last words spoken in IT departments across the world).
In terms of the whole blockbuster spectacle side of things, this time inversion led to some incredible action scenes that included some people and objects travelling backwards through time while the rest of the world kept on trucking forward. This means that nearly all of Tenet‘s key action scenes had to be meticulously planned out both normally and in reverse. The time inversion led to some interesting and unintuitive physics that played out incredibly well on-screen, but must have taken an insanely long time to plan out. the final battle of Tenet might be the most mind-blowing action scene Nolan has committed to film since the hallway fight in Inception. This time, instead of two people fighting, an entire small army is split into two groups – one travelling forward through time normally and one travelling backwards through time – for a coordinated assault on the bad guy’s secret compound in a “temporal pincer” maneuver. Nearly as mind-blowing is another fight that happens near both the beginning and end of the movie, in which it turns out that in two simultaneous fights that include two combatants each, three out of the four people involved are actually the same person at different points along their own timeline.
Not only is this this interweaving of past and future events tied directly to some of the key underlying themes of Tenet, but the action itself is remarkably easy to follow considering how complex the timeline of the movie is. Unlike the legion of Bourne imitators who ineffectively aped Paul Greengrass’ trademark “shaky cam” visual style for action sequences or the bombast and chaotic camera movements and cuts that plague so many Michael Bay movies, Tenet‘s action is both incredibly dynamic and completely legible to audiences. There wasn’t a single moment where I had to cognitively recalibrate myself to figure out what was going on in an action scene. Watching the action sequences in Tenet unfold was so refreshingly clean that I found that I had mental capacity left over to think about not just the action, but what it meant in terms of the characters, theme, and story, instead of having to devote all of my processing power to deciphering what was going on in the frame as well as what’s going on beneath it.
I found Tenet to be the perfect companion piece to Nolan’s earlier movie, Inception, both in terms the feel of the world and the themes. Like Inception, one of the fundamental questions at the heart of Tenet is whether our actions ultimately matter. In Inception, the question was explored in the context of multiple levels of dreamworlds calling into question the nature of reality. In Tenet, the question is explored through an interwoven timeline of loops that defy traditional notions of cause and effect. Essentially, if what has happened in the future/past has already happened, then do our decisions and our actions actually matter?
The human longing for agency is, at its heart, a desire for meaning. In general, we tend to put a great deal of stock in the concept of free will. That is, the ability to act as autonomous agents in the universe. For those that don’t subscribe to some form of fatalism or determinism, the significance of our actions is derived from our ability to choose, and that ability to choose means that there had to have been the possibility that things could have turned out differently if we had acted differently.
The first possible answer that Tenet gives is that maybe there is no answer.
In the movie, Neil (Robert Pattinson) uses the example of the grandfather paradox as he’s discussing the philosophy of time travel (no, not that one). This thought experiment revolves around a time traveller going back in time to kill his own grandfather which means that the time traveller couldn’t have been born, which means he couldn’t have gone back in time to kill his grandfather, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. When the Protagonist (John David Washington) asks “What’s the answer?” Neil replies “There’s no answer. It’s a paradox.”
Similarly, if we extrapolate, then the problem of free will is itself a paradox and, therefore, unsolvable. Since the Protagonist and Neil are on a mission to save the world and the world hasn’t yet ended, then that would seem to indicate that they will be successful in their mission. But in order for their mission to be successful, for that predetermined outcome to happen, they are still required to act, to exercise their will. So assuming all outcomes of human events are predetermined based on external, universal factors (both natural and unnatural) that shape the decisions we make, those outcomes still require us to make those decisions to arrive at those outcomes.
Which leads us to the second answer.
Near the end of the film, after the Protagonist and the Tenet organization have successfully stopped the villainous Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from effectively bringing about the end of the world, he asks Neil, “But can we change things? If we do it differently?”
To which Neil replies, “What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, not an excuse to do nothing.”
There’s something I found incredibly comforting about this conception of human agency. Instead of seeing our decisions within the framework of free will and determinism as data points proving complete autonomy or total subservience to cosmic forces beyond our control, it contextualizes our agency in terms of being part of a larger interconnected system. Not necessarily the engine that powers the system, but an integral part of the machine nonetheless.
In that way, Tenet feels philosophically aligned with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which deals partly with deriving meaning in one’s life despite being simultaneously aware of every instant of one’s life and basically knowing how everything will turn out (which probably made/makes/will make watching Game of Thrones a lot less exciting). Both Tenet and Arrival suggest that it’s still possible to find meaning in our lives even if the outcomes of all of our decisions are beyond our control. It’s kind of like watching a movie you’ve seen before. Watching a movie multiple times and knowing the ending doesn’t detract from the enjoyment or meaning of the movie, but instead adds to them.
The meaning in our own lives comes partially from playing our parts in the great cosmic movie in which we are all simultaneously starring and observing.
Your actions are still yours. Yes, there are undeniably external factors that are out of your control that shape the person you are and the decisions you make. Heck, maybe most of the time the choices that you make are inevitable. But you still need to make them. You still need to play your part. Because nobody else can. We may be the result of unknowable forces, but we can either let the weight of that uncertainty about our free will crush us or embrace the roles we have to play. As Neil pointed out, yes they knew the world would be saved, but that salvation still required them to continue to act.
It’s hard to remember the last time I was as engaged with a blockbuster the way I was with Tenet. It gripped me from the first frame and didn’t let me go for the next… two and a half hours? I wasn’t paying attention to the time while I was watching (ironic, I know) and looked it up afterwards. Once again, Nolan has crafted an incredible movie that feels less like it tries to tell a story to its audience than it whisks them off on an adventure in another world. Tenet is yet another masterpiece from Christopher Nolan, that rare hybrid of blockbuster scale and auteur vision that creates a truly memorable experience. This is what cinema is all about.