“We all believe we’d run into the burning building. But until we feel that heat, we can never know. You do.”
In the sci-fi action thriller film Tenet (2020), philosophy and physics merge into an untameable hybrid. Christopher Nolan is known for exploring the concept of time in his films, distorting reality to locate it on the spectrum of unexplored possibilities. The very concept of time varies from culture to culture. In America, it’s linear and equates to money.
In Southern Europe, it’s multi-active, with schedules and punctuality taking on a more abstract form. In the East, however, time is cyclical. It doesn’t pass, “wasted” because of inactivity, but rather comes back around in a circle, often presenting the same risks and opportunities.
With mind-bending futuristic technology being suspected of contributing to World War III, the Protagonist (John David Washington) sets out to locate its source. All signs point to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a vicious arms dealer more entrenched in the complexities of time than anyone could have expected. As the Protagonist uncovers more details along the way, he is pulled deeper and deeper into a cave he can never emerge from again. Aided by Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), he has to shatter the rigidness of his mind to embrace the menacing unknown.
The film builds suspense through its world just as masterfully as Inception (2010) and Insterstellar (2014), playing with the idea of thunderous external isolation the same way Dunkirk (2017) did. However, all of these films evoked poignant attachments because of the emotional hook they were skewered onto.
Inception presented Cobb’s deep, bone-grating longing for his wife and children. Interstellar balanced its poignancy on a similar scale, succumbing its audience to sobs through Cooper’s ill-fated loss of not only his children, but their good memory of him. Dunkirk tore through the heart by presenting an exhaustive slaughter of men desperately trying to hold on.
Not only are all of these scenarios relatable on a deeply empathetic level, but they carry the plot on their backs. In contrast, the complexity of Tenet fails to engage, stripping its dilemmas of any emotional value. In fact, the people they decide to sacrifice quite early on are even referred to as “the nosebleed section” in a tone that suggests the obvious consequences of the term.
In a desperate grab for our hearts, the Protagonist seeks to jeopardise the mission to help Kat and her son, but as the audience, we are never shown how his affection bloomed – leaving us questioning its honesty. The complete lack of emotive driving forces makes the Protagonist’s mission to save the world from complete annihilation lose its credibility, leaving the men fighting for something as abstract as the idea of time itself.
Tenet‘s main appeal lies in its ability to shock and injure the brain without a physical touch. This is achieved in different ways. First of all, Ludwig Göransson’s rupturing music dominates the eardrums to seemingly not only instil a state of constant hyperactvity of the heart, but to drown out most of the characters’ words. The dialogue relies heavily on its ping-pong style, leaving the characters essentially just bouncing the words around. To put it simply, if subtitles were displayed below, they would melt into an infuriating blur of white on the fringes of our cross-eyed vision.
Christopher Nolan isn’t the only filmmaker to use this tactic to stupefy his viewers, with Tom Tykwer doing the same in his 2009 action thriller The International, with the same fruitless results. The downfall of this method is that its operative goal becomes sorely transparent. To inspire awe in the hearts of the audience, the dialogue sacrifices its ability to entertain and stimulate, risking aggravating a worn-out mind.
Secondly, the film manipulates inversion to a respectably detailed level. To be more precise, the plot hones in on time inversion, otherwise known as time reversal. Its complexity comes down to the existence of a “mirror world“, as outlined by the physicst Logsdon Fitch. In 1964, both Fitch and James Cronin agreed that time reversal does not equate to its symmetry, and that “reactions going backward in time are not identical to those going forward”.
While this makes for a unique visual feast, the depiction of the concept in the film is eerily similar to another portrayal of time alteration. The Protagonist is informed that allowing his other self to come into contact with his present self would lead to disintegration, which is a rule of “time travel” that was introduced to us in J. K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999). Its source could potentially go even further back in time.
The head-scratching rules of time inversion in Tenet wouldn’t be half as undewhelming if they were at least consistent. While the Protagonist does experience the unnatural effects of being inverted – and appears understandably thrown-off by the suddenly arduous task of walking – when the main shootuot scene takes place, whole legions seem to have no difficulties in moving at all. The only element that seems odd to those who are reversing time is the backwards motion of those existing somewhere else on its spectrum.
All in all, while our minds remains hazy, our eyes are blinded by talent, both on-screen and behind the scenes. And even though the story leaves wiggle room for improvement, its convolution stains the brain until long after the film has finished. After all, isn’t that the whole point?
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