'Tenet' and the Past and Future of Christopher Nolan

by Richard Newby
Tenet Christopher Nolan BTS
Warner Bros.
Through 'Interstellar,' 'Dunkirk' and 'Tenet' — now out on home entertainment — Nolan has fashioned his very own Annihilation Trilogy as the filmmaker becomes increasingly aware that time is something we’re running out of.

[This story contains spoilers for Tenet.]

“We live in a twilight world.” As a storyteller and filmmaker Christopher Nolan is many things, but a pessimist isn’t one of them. Despite the myriad of words that have been used to describe the acclaimed director’s works over the past two decades, ranging from “dark,” “gritty,” “grounded,” and “cold,” none of those terms feel accurate in terms of pinpointing exactly what Nolan’s films are and what interests they share. Nolan’s films are guided by optimism and the idea that justice, even if in its most ironic form, is given a chance to survive. Yet Nolan’s concept of balancing the scales, from his first film, Following (1998), to his most recent, Tenet, has become less focused on the individual and more innately aware of the communal and global. The concept of time in his films has become more urgent as the stakes are raised on those considerations of justice, and as the filmmaker becomes increasingly aware that time is something we’re running out of. In the process, with his most recent three films, Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (now out on home entertainment), Christopher Nolan has fashioned his very own Annihilation Trilogy.

Naturally, to use the term annihilation is to invite thoughts of despair and hopelessness, and perhaps suggests a thematic link to horror films of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. Yet Nolan’s fascination with humanity’s potential for annihilation isn’t hopeless or horrific. Ultimately, what Christopher Nolan is concerned with is the preservation of the future, ensuring that there is one for the next generations, even if that means sacrifice in the here and now. Tenet is the most recent example of that concern, but the imagery of it, the symbolism of a bullet with its entropic path reversed goes back to Memento (2000), Nolan’s second film and the one that put him in the Hollywood spotlight. Speaking to Complex earlier this month, Nolan said, “I had this notion of just a bullet getting sucked out of the wall and into the barrel of a gun. It's an image that I had in Memento to demonstrate the structure of that movie, but I always harbored this ambition to make a film where the characters had to deal with the physical reality of that.”

Tenet is, in a number of ways, the thematic opposite of Memento. Beyond the fact the two films handle time differently, Memento is an exercise in Lenny’s (Guy Pearce) refusal to go forward, his omission of crucial information in an effort to preserve his own present state, his quest for revenge in a loop, regardless of who gets hurt by that process. Memento is the journey of a selfish protagonist, whose loss of his short term memory leaves him no place in the past or the future. Tenet, the other side of the coin, is an operation moving forward and backward in time, a “temporal pincer movement,” and an effort to save the future by saving the present, and effectively change both. The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil’s (Robert Pattinson) omission of information, both from each other and their past selves, isn’t to create a holding pattern but dismantle the threats of the present and build towards a better future, one that will never know their existence was at stake. As Neil says, “we’re the people saving the world from what might have been.” That is their legacy, and it’s profound in its selflessness because it is a legacy that few will ever even know about. “The world will never know what could happen. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Because no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off.”

Nolan has been fascinated with the idea of legacy since Insomnia (2002), with Detective Domer (Al Pacino) telling Detective Burr (Hilary Swank) not to lose her integrity as he did. Nolan went on to grapple with the darker, possessive side of what humans choose, or don’t choose, to leave behind in The Prestige (2006), considering what the theft of legacy means in the rivalry between Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), with the later succumbing to his own pattern of ouroboros in destroying himself in order to retain the individual benefits of his own stolen legacy.

But Nolan’s biggest treatise on legacy was the one explored through his Batman films, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Within that trilogy, we see that legacy, through one man’s will to act, become a call to arms. It is the spark of escalation, one that leads to revolution, and a profound statement on the world’s most popular superhero. As Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) says to Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the finale of The Dark Knight Rises, “a hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat on a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” Nolan’s Bruce Wayne manages to leave Gotham City better than he found it, and surprisingly, impossibly even, managing to do so while walking away with his life, able to enjoy the fruits of his labors from afar.

There is a nobility and allure to the idea of a single hero serving as the catalyst, one man or woman who can change the odds and inspire others to follow. But as Nolan’s career has gone on, he’s shown a greater investment in teamwork, and the idea of multiple heroes who can do what no one else can and suffer the consequences, multiple dark knights, if you will. The first overt exploration of that was in Inception (2010), which Tenet shares a number of similarities to with its union of the heist and espionage film subgenres. But Inception isn’t about saving the world, and with all the charm of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), Ariadne (Elliot Page), Yusef (Dileep Rao), and Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), it’s almost easy to forget that they are criminals, ultimately working in the service of personal gain, the chance to get home, to get rich, to "build cathedrals." Within Inception, notions of legacy and justice, are entirely subjective, and perhaps, in the end, not even based in reality.

Cobb wants a future for himself, for his quest to come to an end by being reunited with his children, but he’s not entirely unlike Lenny who will accept the reality in his head, regardless of whether you subscribe to the notion that the top keeps spinning, rather than be confronted by any objective notions of the real. As Lenny says, “we all lie to ourselves to be happy.” But what is the cost of that lie? Who does it affect? The key, in terms of looking at Inception as a path to Tenet, is that Nolan sees the fulfillment of the job, and the salvational boon of truth, objective or subjective, at its end, as the efforts of more than one protagonist. Priya (Dimple Kapadia) reminds Washington’s Protagonist of this in Tenet when she tells him he is “a protagonist,” one of many navigating through the truth and lies necessary to save the world, and each one keeping another in check, revealing to each other what they need to know when they need to know it, as Neil does for the Protagonist.

While all of these aforementioned films prove formative on Nolan’s Tenet, it is Interstellar where this idea of Nolan’s Annihilation Trilogy first takes shape, because for the first time Nolan is dealing with the survival of the entire human race and the end of the world. It is in Nolan’s space odyssey that he establishes that only by humanity coming together can catastrophe be prevented. The threats to the world in Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet — blight, war, inverted entropy, fictional and imagined — are all ultimately leading to same thing, the end of the world. And each one of those apocalyptic scenarios are caused by the machinations of mankind, a mankind who knew all the warning signs and still chose to repeat the same behaviors, to remain complacent within a loop, to lie in order to remain happy, just as Lenny said each and every one of us does.

The threat in each of these films in Nolan’s Annihilation Trilogy supposes that mankind’s greatest legacy is the reality of its own destruction. But rather than see that plot point as an ending, Nolan sees it as a beginning. What if mankind’s legacy isn’t to destroy the world, but to come together and save it? And by what means could such justice be done?

Interstellar marks the point where Nolan becomes more confident with his own sentimentality as a filmmaker, through the idea that love is the cosmic language that can travel through time and space. Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) compass on his journey across the universe, alongside fellow astronauts, Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Doyle (Wes Bentley), is his love for his daughter. It’s Cooper’s ability to see beyond his own life that separates him from Mann (Matt Damon), who represents humanity’s worst, most individualistic, instincts of a life lived with inability and unwillingness to see beyond the present. “Once you’re a parent you’re the ghost of your children’s future,” Cooper says, speaking directly to Nolan’s current consideration of legacy. This identity as parent isn’t something that has to be looked at literally. Rather parenthood is reflected through the idea of being a caretaker, which remains evident in Nolan’s subsequent two films.

Dunkirk, while grounded in history, is possessed by the same parental idea that Cooper gives weight to. “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?,” Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) asks. As much as Dunkirk is a story about the hardships faced by young soldiers, it is also a story about average citizens, those who bravely set sail in the name of their country, not simply for what it is, but what it could be. While history books may depict the event as one that saved Allied soldiers and allowed them to win the war, Nolan’s perspective, as suggested by Mr. Dawson, is grander. Dunkirk is the event that saved the world. It wasn’t a war that was won, but our very survival as a human race. It is a film, told yet again by way of a ticking clock, most interested in reminding audiences of how narrowly the end was avoided in World War II, how quick twilight approached our world, not in some far off future, but 77 years ago.

Dunkirk is Nolan reflecting on his own contemporary place in a future that might not have been, his care and attentiveness towards the bomb that didn’t go off. Dunkirk is Nolan communing with the legacy of ghosts.

In Tenet, ghosts speak back. What are the Protagonist and Neil if not ghosts? In the Protagonist’s case, the film opens with his seeming demise, his existence being wiped clean by all government standards. His journey is one set in motion by his future self, the ghost of who he will become. And in Neil’s case, he is simultaneously dead and alive, a paradox caused by time, Schrödinger's cat given heroic form. Their efforts to save the future, and serve as caretakers, along with Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who takes action because her literal role as a parent to her son, Max, stands in stark contrast to Sator’s (Kenneth Branagh) aims to destroy it through a temporal cold war that serves as World War III.

The protagonists believe that the world is worth saving even if they can’t directly reap the benefits, while Sator, dying of cancer, takes the stance of “If I can’t have her, no one can,” when it comes to the future. But the stakes in Tenet are even more complex than what Nolan has explored before, because the protagonists of Tenet are dealing with a future in which mankind’s present actions have already caused unparalleled destruction in the future. Nolan suggests manmade climate change has created a bleak legacy, a future haunted by the actions of humans’ past.

Ultimately the Protagonist, Neil, and Kat have to save the present so that they can unwrite the future, simultaneously considering the here and now, and what may be. They must give equal weight to them both, the present and future, represented by Kat’s love for her son in the present, and the Protagonist and Neil’s love for each other in the future. And if Kat’s son Max, is short for Maximilien, the inverse of which begins with Neil, then Tenet’s idea of legacy and love is given even greater significance.  “Whoa,” indeed.

For all the mind-binding physics that come from wormholes, tesseracts, aerial dogfights, and inversion, it is the seemingly simple, yet immensely layered notion of love that saves the day, that is the cure for annihilation. Be it the love of a father for a child, as in Cooper’s relationship with Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn), the love for country, as Dunkirk showcased through Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Mr. Dawson  and Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) efforts in World War II, or the love of a friend, even before realizing how much that friendship means or will mean, in the case of the Protagonist and Neil in Tenet, each speaks to Nolan’s optimism, and belief in the idea that a shared experience can be salvational within this twilight world we inhabit.

For Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker never seen clearly enough for his sentiment, love is the ultimate form of justice, legacy, and posterity.