Tenet

Tenet ★★★★★

When thinking of the idea of predestination, a kind of hopelessness can understandably emerge. Meaning can feel like it is drained from one’s actions when the thought of a fixed, immobile future is in store even after the moving parts, the decisions, that work toward it. This is because we as people tend to think with the chronological circuitry presented to us: exclusively progressive time. This thinking is therefore understandable, if it’s all we know, but we also have a different understanding of predestination: that which is confirmed by the present, not speculative to the future. This present moment in time could technically be called “predestined,” only with the “pre” extending farther back into a past that was in that moment controllable and shapeable… but with a fixed (if we assume present occurrence is as fixed as any event or moment gets) future, fundamentally planned by the past. If we could see our future, it would foul up the fluid nature of the present as we use our controlling human nature to manipulate what was once a naturally unfolding plan, and this concept is not new to storytelling or mainstream thinking, but that anxiety about the future, that desire for prospicience, is very real and lingers in our collective conscious. Christopher Nolan provides in Tenet a pathologically plausible and technically allegorical expression of the despair and hopelessness the progression of time brings, but instead of leaving it at that, crafts a proposition for mankind’s reaction to this “fight with the future,” by employing the same perspective that helps us make sense of the thought of predestination: looking into the past.

One thinker who can be credited with useful advances in discussing free will “vs.” predestination is Harry Ironside, who theologically illustrates the cooperation of both these seemingly mutually exclusive concepts with a doorway. The frame of the door has an invitation facing those who wish to go through it, and a declaration of predestination of entry once a person has gone through. He uses this analogy as a Biblical reflection of salvation, reconciling verses from Revelation and Ephesians respectively (source), and I believe this to be an excellent addition to the conversation of mankind’s fear of the boundaries of time. Experiencing time forwards, while perceiving it with future knowledge, is incongruous with human existence, so this knowledge should not contribute to how that future is approached. Our hopeless view of progression, that makes us ask “what’s the point, if everything’s ‘meant to happen’ anyway?” so often, is inherently human, meaning the enemies found in Tenet are the modern sci-fi villains who come the closest to playing God of just about all antagonists of today’s speculative fiction (matched in effect maybe by Ex Machina?). They want to break these boundaries of time because they are afraid of them and resent them, and in turn amass enough power in their chronological high ground to flesh out their once impossibly lofty views of themselves. Nolan’s capturing these facets of humanity so boldly and so thoroughly is something I didn’t think could be made today.

What’s to be our response to this revelation of fear, and the destructive path it can potentially take? Tenet’s mission statement is one that acknowledges the past, present, and future, amalgamating its perspectives on all of them into an intricate holism (a hopeful interpretation of the interlocking fingers). Its founder is a man who has experience in both directions of time, but still has a developed stance that the way we are moving in time and space is the way we are meant to move. Tenet is a technocracy that has as much credibility as its adversaries to advocate which way the world should move, and settles on a “faith in the mechanics of the world” (to put it in the film’s terms), with its motivation lying with compassion and humanistic duty rather than despair and revenge. The complex premise of the movie could be written off as more Nolan shenanigans, with the man just trying to top himself, but this is clearly not the case in the way the conflict and his stab at a resolution are so constructive, engaging, fleshed out, and (on a purely pathological level) relevant. The science fiction concept perfectly communicates these ideas regarding time, just as the spy thriller angle connects to the future’s scrutiny of the past.

But wait a minute, if the whole point of the film is that time is only supposed to move in the direction it was intended, as it does now, and that knowing our futures is destructive to the present and past since we try to change it, then isn’t Tenet’s desire to fight future crimes against humanity futile, and paradoxically counterintuitive? While this is a legitimate concern, I’d argue against it. The thing is, humanity is always going to feel fear and despair. That is just an unfortunate fact of life. While the goal to prevent Sator’s death drop is an instantaneous battle, Tenet is fighting for a greater cause than even this. As one of my favorite Letterboxd users Danielle Pajak put it in her enthusiastically poignant review, “[Sator] tells his wife that if he can't have her, then nobody can - and this is the stance that Future Humanity is also taking. If they cannot have a glorious future… nobody can. He is truly a despicable and corrupted individual, but he is less an individual than an idea.” As a general rule, knowing the future is destructive to humans progressing linearly through time, but Tenet’s fight is against a concept, an attitude, an impulsive worldview that seeks to undo what was predestined (as Neil communicates in the Future’s violent interpretation of the Grandfather Paradox). The Protagonist is then undoing this cancellation—in a sort of double negative—because the fear and despair that sought to unravel the world this time will always stick around, will always be a part of humanity’s making, and Tenet can bet that saving the world from this future destruction won’t mean they’re out of the job protecting the world from more endangerment. The organization’s already been made and “what’s happened’s happened,” and that innocence of experiencing time as it should be has been lost for Tenet. This is the story of a bomb that didn’t go off, but only because those who were directly attacked by the future fought back and defused it for mankind. They experience nonlinear time to make sure no one else has to, fighting resentment and despair to prove that hope and compassion are just as permanent.

Of course, this movie’s quite dense. The viewer is fed loads of information constantly, with varying amounts of payoff. Some people don’t want to put up with that because it’s not their thing, and that’s totally fine. My personal experience, however, was non-stop captivation. I’ve never felt so invited to love a movie, to understand it like the puzzle it is. It’s not presented conventionally, or even in a way I prefer to watch movies, but in a medium where rule-breaking can be as applauded as it is scorned, I think sacrificing a traditional narrative and relatable characters was exceedingly worth it. As I said regarding Inception, these attributes can be found elsewhere and needn’t be prerequisites for a breed of film that tries (and succeeds) in being something else entirely. It’s like faulting a player of one sport for breaking the rules of another. Also like Inception, I wish it were 4 hours long. It can’t be understated how perfect this film’s technical accomplishments are, with a pair of scenes depicting a fight from two chronological angles being only one of them. The acting was also surprisingly impressive; I really loved all the casting choices and Neil and the Protagonist’s professional chemistry that remains subtle until the revealing end. Washington was a perfect Protagonist—a standout moment being his interrogative realization “You’ve known me for years(?)” that thanks to his inflection does sound like both a question and a conclusive statement. There are just too many fantastic moments in this movie: not one scene is unnecessary. In fact, any qualm I had with my experience watching Tenet (the sound mixing not being one of them, for the record) made me feel like I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, and all the cinematic wonder and philosophical pondering miraculously available was all that mattered. It’s a gift of a movie. That’s why I abandoned my watchlist and let Tenet take me on its labyrinthine journey three times the past three days, and why I intend to watch it many times in the future. It’s not for everyone, but it’s unquestionably invaluable cinema that has hopefully planted seeds for more appreciation as we move forward through the glorious art form that is film.

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