Director: Christopher Nolan
Working time: 150 minutes
Christopher Nolan is perhaps more than any other contemporary Hollywood figure, a deeply philosophical filmmaker. Over the course of a very successful and fruitful career – two decades, ten feature films, countless screenplays and legends, and Oscar nominations and victories – Nolan’s works have often penetrated reality and raised deep ontological and epistemological questions: What is the purpose of existence? How do we know what we know? And what is the purpose of existence?
If we question his filmography, it is easy to see that Nolan’s films are intrinsically linked to the way our perception of time and space influences the visual narrative. Memento and The Prestige used the distortion of memory and the power of self-deception to destroy ideas of self-awareness. Interstellar explored the long distances of the human search for salvation, while the concept focused on the expansion of dreams to navigate the unconscious labyrinth of the human mind. The Dark Knight trilogy struggles with the notion of sacrifice in the pursuit of truth and justice, while Dunkirk – an original departure from Nolan’s work – offers a raw immersion into the devastating stories of pain and senseless loss. Tenet, Nolan’s newest big-budget blockbuster, is the director’s easiest guide to exploring time as a storyteller for yourself.
But what time exactly? Is that a ticking clock? A sequence of events stretching from the past to the present and into the future? Is it a physical part of our physical reality? An extraordinary phenomenon we use to measure and understand change? Or is it just an illusion, as some great theorists assume? While prior to the release of the film the details of Tenet’s story were deliberately scattered and the intriguing trailers suggested a spiritual continuity to the flowing aesthetics of the fantasy inclusion game, some of Nolan’s recent comments have suggested the context of the film’s physics lesson* : The principle has nothing to do with time travel in the traditional sense. Instead, the film focuses on solid science, with entropy and inversion theories at its core.
The film follows the main character (John David Washington), a former CIA agent who, after foiling a terrorist conspiracy and risking certain death, mysteriously returns to the work of the elusive shadow organization known only as Tenet. A brief overview of the immediate threat of the Third World War as a result of the ongoing Cold War: A character from Washington takes a crash course in the use of time reversal with all the subtleties of video game teaching. By finding a way to reverse the entropy of closed systems – for example, objects or people – agents can reverse the time arrow in relation to them, allowing them to effectively perceive objects, people and events as they travel back in time. Classes on this confusing concept can be found in the strange name Tenet (and in the now deleted advertising iconography), in which the Latin name for storing a principle or belief is doubled and in the form of a palindrome (a sequence of symbols or numbers that can be read both backwards and forwards).
It’s this narrative technique that allows Tenet to combine Nolan’s three points: an imaginative and trippy background; characters imbued with neo-black style and mysticism; and spy actions on the edge of your seat based on international intrigue, espionage and spy-vibrations straight from a Bond franchise. Along the way, the Washington-based protagonist Neal (Robert Pattinson), a fraudulent fixer and temporary assistant; Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a struggling art dealer, a distant woman and a reluctant femme fatale; and Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch whose Faustian treatment of the future threatens mankind across time.
Visually, this is Tenet Nolan’s most ambitious and daring film to date. The heavy plot, which permeates the audience between the rugged urban landscape, generous foreign territories and cumbersome sets, is presented in beautiful close-ups made with the help of the filmmaker and Nolan Hoyte van Hoytem (Interstellar, Dunkirk, Hell Astra). The director also bragged about the fact that he could work on the practical implications of the film because he boasted that Tenet only has 300 VFX footage. The exact nature of this performance becomes immediately clear when the second actor is in the middle of the 150-minute episode. All the consequences of the time reversal are reflected in the Nolan brand, a solution that is not easily accessible to non-linear narratives, a solution that completely reconstructs the previous events of the film and exposes the audience to the treatment of overdrive. (Suppose the editor Jennifer Lam (Midsommar, Marriage History) probably wins an Oscar for Best Picture).
It is the same place where a film meets the emotional appeal of its story and characterization. The criticism Nolan often receives as a writer, especially in his later works, is that he prefers the spectacle to the detriment of the figure. And if Interception and Interstellar have small pain points in this respect (does love really transcend time and space?), then Dunkirk almost seems to confirm and refute this reasoning, overshadowing the passionate aspirations of the film’s characters for security and human bonds by the enormous scale and cruelty of the war.
With Tenet, the problem is just the opposite. The protagonist in Washington seems to be motivated to save the world by an incomprehensible sense of arbitrary altruism; it is not that we as spectators question his methods or motives, but the script gives us very few clues as to why he does so. On the screen we see a brief emotional bond with Kat being evoked, as well as the desire to protect her and her son from Andrew’s anger; however, there is little tension between the two, and their relationship is usually romantically inert. While Nolan’s films are frankly rational and deterministic in their approach, often aggressively mechanical with certain storytelling tools, Tenet spends more time revealing herself in the visual spectacle of an upside-down world than betting on what she actually brings. Although visually as complex and engaging as the Intercept or Interstellar, there is a striking lack of emotional response or resonance at the end of the third act.
But at a time when the fate of a Hollywood blockbuster and the viability of cinema as a whole is being questioned, you only have to see the principle in the theatres. The range of the film is absolutely unstoppable, clearly defined, with gigantic screens and fast-growing speakers at the back of the head. It might not be Nolan’s best movie, but because of the poster, if you have the time, you should definitely watch it once, maybe twice.
*The physical laws that describe systems such as motion and gravity are considered to be symmetrical with respect to time. If you changed the direction of time, the same laws could still be used to describe events in this system. Entropy is a measure of the number of possible locations or states of the atoms in a given system; low entropy means fewer states and high entropy means more states. In that sense entropy is a measure for the uncertainty or arbitrariness in a certain system, often loosely characterized as states that shift from order to disorder. However, entropy is one of the few physical processes that do not seem to be symmetrical in time. The second law of thermodynamics requires work to reduce the entropy of the system. Without work the entropy cannot decrease, so that on a macroscopic level everything mixes slowly (high entropy). It’s usually called the Time Arrow].
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