It is no secret that time is one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest fascinations. From Memento, which takes place entirely in reverse order and follows a man who can form no new memories as he tries to piece together meaning without consequence, to Interstellar which presents time not as linear cause and effect, but as constantly in flux as any other part of the human experience. Even Nolan’s more grounded superhero offerings are fundamentally framed around time and the fear of what it means to run out. Arguably, The Dark Knight establishes this not only as a fascination but a fear as its second act pits Bruce Wayne against time only to reveal that he was misled from the beginning, suggesting a futility in even trying to win.
When Tenet was announced and later revealed to be about reversing time, the reaction was one of little surprise, it seemed inevitable that Nolan would return to one of his most consistent topics, though it was an exciting concept to see him tackle it head on instead of in service of something else. After a prolonged wait until the film’s release, I was struck by the fact that not only was Tenet one of Nolan’s most personal films but also that against all odds, it was profoundly hopeful.
Nolan’s fascination with time has always been resolutely pessimistic, save maybe for Interstellar. It takes the form of countdowns, restrictions and more than anything a march straight to the end. What made Tenet such a surprising experience is that that same pessimism is regarded here as unquestionably evil. That to selfishly assume some inescapable finality is to will it into existence. The film’s villain, portrayed by Kenneth Brannagh is dying of an incurable cancer and through communication with the future has acquired a weapon that will take all of existence with him when he dies. Through that framing, the act of securing a future becomes inherently noble and allows the film to build on that idea as its story goes on.
Even in Nolan’s films that don’t directly deal with time, his characters have a tendency to escape to the past, if only in memory or dreams. The most obvious example maybe being Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is haunted by the memory of his late wife, insisting that he could join her in the real world if only he would kill himself. In tandem with his fear of finality, Nolan regularly explores the possibility of using time to rectify your mistakes. Tenet brings these two ideas that had so thoroughly defined his filmography to a head with a story that not only introduces the ability to reverse through time to escape the end, but frames that as a deeply cruel act, either a rejection of something that had often tempted his characters or a more explicit statement about just why it was never a real possibility in the first place.
Though a lot has been said about the end of Inception, the closest thing to a consensus is that Cobb is genuinely reunited with his children, and that to cut away before the top falls is to suggest that it doesn’t matter anyway. Tenet builds on this insistence, that in trying to reverse time in hopes of bringing back something lost, the actual decision you are making is to walk away from what isn’t. Though John David Washington’s Protagonist has never, to our knowledge faced some great loss, he is still human and his first instinct when a new friend is fatally shot is that if he can undo it, he should. When encouraged to think outside the linear progression of time, his plan is to simply do things differently this time, only to discover that nothing was as simple as he had assumed.
“It hasn’t happened yet”
Tenet answers the questions Christopher Nolan has been asking for his entire career with answers that in retrospect seem obvious. The world doesn’t end when the bomb goes off and leaving what’s left behind only makes its impact bigger. If we accept the idea that everything will end unchallenged then we rob ourselves of the chance to make something permanent.
The moment this all fell in to place for me was near the film’s end, when Robert Pattinson reveals to John David Washington that Tenet, the organisation founded to prevent the end of the world was his own creation and that from his point of view, the two had been friends for a very long time. This is not only a dramatic final twist as we might expect from Nolan, but direct, unfiltered communication from the future, reassurance that things go on further than we ever thought possible. The same reassurance Cooper receives in the end of Interstellar, the same hope Leonard finds in the freedom to create a new self in Memento, for the first time made inescapably real. For his entire career, Christopher Nolan has been asking how we can keep going in the face of uncertainty of anything but the end and Tenet answers that with the idea that to do anything else is to give up more than death takes. To give up everything.
Though Nolan might have overused it in Interstellar, there is maybe no greater summary of Tenet’s philosophy than to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
Tenet is probably not Christopher Nolan’s crowning achievement, though its action and direction are world class and the cast are all immensely exciting to watch, it is plagued by strange writing choices and Nolan’s signature quirks when it comes to sound design and structure, though the latter is inevitable in a film this scale. What it does feel like is the ending of a chapter, a kind of ironic finality in Nolan’s ongoing struggle with the end. I can’t say for sure that Nolan will never tackle time again in fact I would put money on that he will but there’s a sense that anywhere that goes will be informed by the conclusions reached in this film.