'Tenet' and Christopher Nolan's Meditations on Time

The filmmaker has long been fascinated with the subject, but don't expect the new tentpole to be like what he has done in the past.
'Tenet'   |   Warner Bros. Pictures
The filmmaker has long been fascinated with the subject, but don't expect the new tentpole to be like what he has done in the past.

Time holds no challenge for Christopher Nolan, whether it be in terms of the plot of his latest movie, Tenet, or in his push for a theatrical release date amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the trailer’s time of release on Thursday was something the filmmaker displayed a mastery of, creating a day of anticipation before unexpectedly announcing the trailer would premiere on the online game Fortnite. Tenet, the latest film from Nolan, takes the director back to the realm of science-fiction, after his brief departure from the genre for his historical epic, Dunkirk (2017). Joined by familiar collaborators Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh and Martin Donovan and new recruits John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Clemence Poesy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nolan’s latest is shaping up to be another ambitious, mind-bending blockbuster that lives up to the director’s reputation.

At the center of Tenet is a mystery concerning time, and the backward and forward manipulation of it, a seemingly symmetrical element that’s reflected in the palindrome title Tenet; the expected release date, 7-17; and in the fact that it’s the filmmaker’s 11th film. Time has been a central moment throughout Nolan’s filmography, whether through literal ticking-clock motifs or his frequent use of non-linear narratives and manipulated memories. Though Interstellar (2014) had time-travel elements, Tenet looks to be going all in on the tried and true sci-fi element. But because this is Nolan, don’t expect his version of time travel to align with any of the expectations we’ve seen delivered upon in other films. Even the term "time travel" is corrected in the trailer with Washington’s unnamed protagonist calling his ability "inversion." Given Nolan’s penchant for titles beginning with the letter "I," Insomnia (2002), Inception (2010), and Interstellar (2014), it’s a small wonder that Nolan didn’t title his latest Inversion. The fact that he didn’t raises several questions about the term "tenet," its importance as a title and as a secret password within the world of the film.

“All I have for you is a word: tenet. It’ll open the right doors, some of the wrong ones, too,” Donovan’s character says to Washington’s at the start of the trailer. Definition-wise, a tenet is a principle or belief, usually affixed to a religion or philosophy. Much like "prestige" in The Prestige (2006), a magician’s term, the word "tenet" could also describe Nolan’s own principles about filmmaking and the stories he tells. But what are those? As a filmmaker he’s known for his belief in the theatrical experience, which makes his much discussed decision not to opt for a VOD or day and date release of Tenet amid the pandemic, very fitting. But more than that, he also, very consciously, creates characters who, either rightly or wrongly, must choose to accept their reality and live with it. Manipulating time in an effort to prevent Armageddon, seemingly spurred on by Branagh’s Russian nationalist, opens multiple possibilities of new realities for his characters to face, and perhaps, ultimately accept with some sense of finality.

There are certainly comparisons to be made between the footage shown in the Tenet trailer and Inception, but rather than suppose the two pics are connected in any way via a Nolan cinematic universe, it seems that Tenet, like Inception, is inspired by Nolan’s love for James Bond movies. Nolan has previously discussed his admiration for the franchise, and how the set pieces within those films inspired ones in his, notably the plane heist in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Because of this, there has been near-constant clamoring from fans to see the director take on the long-running franchise. But it would seem that instead, with Tenet, Nolan is creating his own espionage landscape, with a black lead, no less, notable for the fact that race is a controversial point among Bond fans wondering who will don the tuxedo next. And within that landscape, Nolan is dealing with an element that the James Bond series has never had to worry about: time.

When Branagh’s villain asks Washington’s character how he’d like to die, he responds, “Old.” The desire to survive to old age is something that doesn’t need to be taken into account in the Bond films. The character is as young or old as the actor portraying him, and always set for a renewal when the next actor takes on the 007 moniker. Bond doesn’t necessarily need to stick to a belief, a tenet, outside of serving queen or country, given the scope of the franchise, which creates a strange sense of consequence, or lack thereof, across the series’ timeline. That aspect has interestingly enough shifted during the Daniel Craig era of films, which seem heavily inspired by Nolan’s filmography. While there is no sense in guessing where Nolan will take us on his latest cinematic journey, the trailer for Tenet does suggest the potential for the film having an interesting conversation within the context of Bond, a contemplation on that series’ sense of consequence, reality and valor. The first teaser came with the taglines, “Time has come for a new protagonist” and “Time has come for a new kind of mission.” It seems entirely likely that Nolan’s sense of newness comes from a reflection, itself a palindromic concept, on the old.

  • Richard Newby