Tenet ★★★★★

“That time is reversed… Does that mean we are here now, not that it never happens? That we stop them?”
“Optimistically, you are right.”
“And pessimistically?”
“With parallel worlds we can not understand the relationship between… consciousness and more realities. Does it hurt in the head?”

TENET is many things, but - as its title implies - it is also a film about faith in forces and ideas that humanity doesn’t quite understand. Indeed, for all that a certain strain or internet commenter has complained about not necessarily understanding or following precise details of the movie, that’s very much intentional. At the risk of quoting a line that has become a cliché in discussions of the film, “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it.

For all that Nolan is framed as an arch-rationalist filmmaker, notable in his emphasis on shooting on actual film, using real locations and practical effects, his films exist at odds with that tactile sensibility. Nolan’s films exist in worlds populated by characters and objects that have mass and weight; even the film itself has mass and weight, rather than existing in digital streams as malleable and abstract data. This physical component of Nolan’s filmmaking exists at odds with the core ideas of his films, works in which memory and myth can be distorted and warped, where the reality inhabited by his characters is fungible at best.

So it’s no surprise that there’s a strong spiritual subtext running through Nolan’s filmography. There’s a question of what reality is, and the limits of the human capacity to comprehend that. In Memento, Leonard talks about how his lack of memory results in a perpetual disorientation - the importance of knowing that an ashtray has mass when he can’t be sure that the world continues to exist after he closes his eyes. In The Prestige, Angiers complains about both his inability to understand what happened to his wife, and his uncertainty about whether he was going to be the man in the box or the man on the stage. Inception is similarly fixated on characters who don’t know whether they are in a real or illusory world.

This uncertainty is occasionally explicitly spiritual in nature. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne seeks to become “more than just a man” in his fight against crime. Interstellar is perhaps most explicit in this, with the humanity’s future opening a portal beyond human comprehension as a way to save mankind. Nolan openly invites a spiritual reading of Interstellar, with Hans Zimmer’s organ on the score, and the framing of these time distortions as “ghosts” and the suggestion that Murph and Coop are “praying to it.” As ever, TENET feels like a spiritual successor and companion piece to Interstellar.

TENET is built around similar ideas. The audience and the Protagonist are confronted with concepts that challenge humanity’s understanding of how the rational world is supposed to work. Of course, there are basic rules and structures, logical concepts that govern and shape the flow of events. However, the particulars remain obscured and perhaps even irrational. To pick an obvious example, in terms of basic physics, how does light interact with inverted objects? Things get thornier when it comes to questions of causation and morality. As Ives points out, this is all “cowboy sh!t.” The characters are operating on faith that they understand how these concepts work.

“You don't believe in God, or a future or anything outside of your own experience!”
“The rest is belief, and I don't have it.”
“Without it, you're not human. You're just a madman!”

In some ways, TENET feels like a maturation of a thematic dialogue that runs through Nolan’s filmography. In earlier films like Memento and The Prestige, belief itself was not enough to sustain a person. In The Dark Knight, Batman argued that “sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Of course, Nolan would temper that assertion a few years later with The Dark Knight Rises, which was a film that deconstructed the uncomfortable post-truth implications of that argument while arguing that perhaps the idea of Batman was superior to the reality that Bruce had created.

TENET feels like a culmination of this debate simmering through Nolan’s body of work. Nolan’s characters often suffer when they try to impose their beliefs upon reality, when they try to bend reality to conform to the lies that they tell themselves. This is the challenge facing Leonard in Memento, Dormer in Insomnia, Cobb in Inception and even the Joker in The Dark Knight. There comes a point where those internal mythologies collide with reality, and the house of cards must come tumbling down.

Appropriately enough, TENET is positioned as an inversion of this. It is a film set in a world that doesn’t conform to any rational attempt to understand it. In such a world, belief and faith in fundamental morality aren’t just important. Such tenets are essential.

“Let's start with the simple stuff. Every law of physics operates the same forwards and backwards, except one. Entropy...”

One of the most frustrating clichés about Nolan is that he lacks a sense of humour and that he has settled into a comfortable groove. A large part of that is rooted in the fact that Nolan tends to revisit familiar themes and tropes across his work, which tends to feed into the criticism that Nolan is just repeating himself. However, there’s something interesting in Nolan’s evolution as a filmmaker, in the way that he is constantly challenging and pushing himself. Nolan claims that he doesn’t read criticism of his work, but he tends to calibrate in ways that feel engaged with common critiques of his work. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Nolan is reacting to his own observations about his work.

To pick an obvious example, many of Nolan’s earlier films featured underwritten female characters - to the point that Natalie in Memento stands as the exception that proves the rule. Many of Nolan’s early films are haunted by lost loves and dead wives. Inception was in many ways the apotheosis of that approach, imagining a professional haunted by his own memory of his lost wife. Tellingly, Nolan followed Inception with both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, featuring two of his strongest female protagonists.

Similarly, Nolan has been criticised for his over-reliance on exposition in films like Inception. Indeed, movies like Inception and Interstellar have been frequently criticised for being too exposition-laden, with characters spending half of the movie explaining the rules before the action kicks in. Nolan stripped Dunkirk down to its essence, avoiding many of the clichés of the war movie and paring the dialogue down to the minimum. (Nolan has joked that he even considered shooting Dunkirk without a script, which hints at his process on it.) This is all a director pushing himself.

TENET is slightly cheekier than Dunkirk, but built on similar principles. It explains enough of its plot and mechanics that the audience can follow along. However, it is also repeatedly structured in such a way as to avoid cumbersome exposition. Nolan often cuts away from characters explaining the mechanics of what is happening, as if teasing the audience with answers that it refuses to provide. There’s something cheeky and subversive in this, Nolan playing with his persona as master of exposition. It is a wry joke, but a joke nonetheless.

“What's happened, happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It's not an excuse to do nothing.”
“Call it what you want.”
“What do you call it?”

At its core, TENET is a story about a world that is coming increasingly undone and which feels increasingly irrational and illogical. It is a film about chaos and uncertainty, about how hard it is to make sense of the forces that are shaping and bending the world. In a world as densely interconnected as this one, in a time where so much is happening so quickly, where cause and effect are so frequently unmoored from one another, it can be hard to figure out which way is up and what is really going on. Consider the mess of information that people have to navigate each and every day, and the struggle to make sense of that, to massage it into a narrative that makes sense.

TENET is, like many Nolan films, engaged with the fear that reality itself is fundamentally unknowable. However, it’s interesting that TENET seems more comfortable with this reality than earlier films like Memento or The Prestige. Those movies were about the possibility that the world inhabited by their protagonists were fundamentally broken, while TENET takes this as a certainty. While characters like Leonard and Angier seem unsure how to navigate this space, the Protagonist moves with surprising assuredness and certainty. Indeed, there’s a solid argument to be made that the Protagonist is the most wholesome and heroic character that Nolan has ever written. He does attempt to blackmail Kat, but he quickly promises to protect her and Max.

At its core, TENET is an argument for the importance of doing the right thing even when the world is chaotic and the value of doing it seems minimal. TENET repeatedly finds characters asking whether anything they do actually matters; the Protagonist asks whether the simple fact that the world hasn’t ended means that they already know that they beat Sator, which is paralleled with Kat wondering whether killing a terminally ill Sator could be considered a murder. The Protagonist responds with complete certainty, “It always counts.

As with Interstellar, it’s interesting how TENET thematically overlaps with Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. Moffat’s Doctor Who was full of time warps, resets and imaginary universes, but maintained a very clear internal morality. In Moffat’s view, it was the choice that was inherently more, not the consequence. TENET makes a similar argument about how best to navigate an increasingly complicated world. The right thing to do is the right thing to do.

This is the core of Neil’s final conversation. In the end, neither the characters nor the audience can ever truly know whether events are predetermined or predestined, just as they can never truly know the consequences of their decision until they play out. However, this is not an excuse for passivity or inaction. The right thing to do remains the right thing to do, even if there’s no way of knowing if or how it might change the world. Perhaps this is what faith looks like, and TENET finds Nolan making his peace with that.

It’s an oddly reassuring idea in a world the feels increasingly arbitrary and random.

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