Reflections on Tenet (2020): "Feel it. Don't Try to Understand It"
Updated: 7 days ago
Editor's note: Listen to a slightly updated version of this reflection on the Stage & Story podcast: "Have You Seen? | Tenet (2020)"
This Saturday I visited a place I hadn’t been in a while: the movie theaters. At 40% capacity and with all the expected safety measures, AMC opened its doors to Dane Bundy…(and Johnson City) this weekend. With Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet releasing this weekend, I wasn’t going to miss it.
Lines out the door? No problem. I’ll camp out. Soft drinks and popcorn that require a mortgage? No problem. I’ll sell my car.
This is a Christopher Nolan film, people. Yep! Never heard of him?
The Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012).
The Prestige (2006)
And now...Tenet. It’s the story of one man (played by Denzel Washington’s son) fighting to save the world. The enemy? Time. Weapon? One word...Tenet.
Not following? That’s ok. The movie will explain it all. This is Christopher Nolan, for goodness sake. And he has 2 hours and 30 minutes to do so.
I reached the theater at around 12:25 PM. Ticket on my phone. Mask on my face. I swung open the doors, bracing myself for the hum of my imagination-starved Johnson City people and their loud welcome I was going to receive. I considered making a scene utilizing my improv skills and massive movie trivia mind...you know...like yelling, “Leonardo DiCaprio's totem top never fell. Bam!” That’d get the party started.
I’m glad I didn’t.
Because when I passed the threshold and my eyes adjusted, I didn’t see anyone. Hmm...everyone must already be in the theater.
I decided to skip the concessions: I didn’t want to miss any of the previews.
Again...strange. The hallways were deserted. It was too weird not to take pictures.
I arrived at theater #6 and opened the doors. I took a tally of everyone in there...it took me a few minutes. One-two-three-four. Strange. Four people.
I found my seat, sat down, and reclined as far back as I could. I glanced over to the two people across the aisle (fifty percent of the attendance) and was shocked that they weren’t wearing their masks. So rude.
Oh wait, they’re eating popcorn. They’re good.
Finally, the movie started. And the opening scene didn’t disappoint. It was strange though...the setting was an opera house, literally packed with people...in every seat. No social-distancing and no masks…
Oh wait! Except for the men with guns: they had gas masks and were sprinting down the aisles. And then the scene ended. Hmm...I’m not sure what was going on there, but Nolan will probably tell us.
I’m going to skip a little bit ahead in my story...like 2 hours and 23 minutes ahead...and go right to the moment when I was exiting the theater.
Is it just me or did Nolan forget to tell us what was going on here?
Ultimately, I enjoyed the film, the entire experience, but a number of things stood out to me in the film. I’ve listed a few of them below.
FIRST REACTIONS ON CRAFT
Something was off with the score. Hans Zimmer can’t win them all. Right? Oh wait, Zimmer didn’t score this film. That’s probably why.
The acting was fine. Okay, well, actually it was a little disappointing. Even Michael Caine’s three-minute cameo was off. The strongest acting (by far) came from Kenneth Branagh who played the Russian villain. He plays monster very well.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the actors. But here’s the thing...I could not understand the vast majority of what they were saying. I’m not exaggerating here. I could not decipher around 40 or 50% of the actors' dialogue. Is that a new technique? Or was it just my theater’s sound? Maybe it was a COVID safety measure?
When you realize that character development often takes place through dialogue, you can understand why I felt that the story was all plot and no characters. I had little to no connection with the hero (literally named Protagonist) or any of the characters around him.
Don’t misunderstand me, the plot was heady and intriguing but ultimately empty. What I thought would be the most engaging sequences: fighting and driving through time backwards (inversion) were actually the least engaging. It’s almost like all the cues (sound and visual) that make an action sequence enthralling were absent...because everything was backwards.
FIRST REACTIONS ON WORLDVIEW (SPOILER AHEAD!)
Finally, and big spoiler here, I’m not sure what to do with the idea that Protagonist (played by John David Washington) was actually the creator of the entire Tenet mission from the beginning of the film. To say the least, this made Protagonist’s relationship with Neil unique as well. Because Protagonist had recruited him in the future, by the time we arrive at the end of the film Neil (played by Robert Pattinson) admits that he’s known him for a long time. Actually, this is the end of a great friendship, he says. For Protagonist, this is only the beginning of the friendship. Unfortunately, although we spent over 2 hours with Neil, I didn't feel like I knew him either.
In this cryptic denouement scene, there’s also some philosophical investigation (not surprising) going on here about how they prevented WWIII. We learn that it was Neil (masked as a member of the Blue team) who sacrificed himself by taking the bullet for Protagonist. Before Neil sets off to make sure the ending goes as it is supposed to, Neil states the following:
NEIL: “What's happened, happened.”
This mantra, of course, stirs the question of free will and the importance of making choices, something the film anticipates. Neil continues (I’ll give the entire quote):
NEIL: “What happened, happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It's not an excuse to do nothing.”
Hmm…So, everything is fated. But we should still do something. Why? It’s a matter of faith in the universe.
Are you a little lost too?
Maybe the answer comes from the Protagonist's guide: the brilliant physicist (played by Clémence Poésy) who first explains how inversion works. When Protagonist tries to understand the concept, she tells him:
BARBARA: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
I’m not sure that helps.
In terms of worldview and real-life application, this film might serve as a metaphor warning us about a coming ecological crisis, such as global warming. Maybe.
Following this line of thinking, we might argue that this crisis is inevitable (“what’s happened, happened”), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and work towards fixing it (“It’s not an excuse to do nothing”). Faith in the world must place a role in our activism…But what is "faith" in this context? I’m not terribly sure, but whatever it is seems to act on the level of intuition and not rationality.
Ultimately, who is the savior we’re to look for to rescue us from this fated disaster of the world? Nothing outside of us: we (humanity) can be the savior, if we want to. This is a form of secular humanism.
I’m open to the argument that I’m reading something into this movie that’s not there. But, I seem to remember the same type of humanism in Nolan’s Interstellar (2014).
If you remember (BIG SPOILER!), humanity was staring at extinction in this story too, so Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his team (including Anne Hathaway) blast their way to space to save the human species. At one point, deep in space, a mystical hand reaches out to them. God? A supernatural power? Maybe! We did see some signs of the supernatural in Cooper’s bookshelf with 10-year old Murph.
Or did we?
Well, as the climax of Interstellar takes place (again SPOILER AHEAD!), we come to realize that there is no supernatural world. The mystical appearances were actually Cooper...he had found his way into a wormhole...and was simply communicating back to himself and others from a different dimension.
So, who is the savior in Interstellar? Humanity. They had it in them the whole time...because it was him (Cooper) the whole time. From what I can decipher: this is humanism in a materialist world.
Notice how this is quite a departure from sci-fi/fantasy films like Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in which space is occupied by supernatural beings. These aliens are not only friendly but prove to be saviors for humanity, or at least for Roy Neary. (You can read my review of this film here.)
I don’t cite this to defend the existence of aliens, but to point out that Spielberg’s universe accounts for the supernatural world whereas Nolan’s does not. It’s a material cosmos. The material is all that exists. At least that’s what I can piece together.
So, I return to Tenet. Humanism. Materialism. These philosophical underpinnings are not new to Nolan, and they are problematic. For, if the material world is all that exists and the world is fated to destruction in some way by some force (...maybe just human beings…) and the real protagonist-savior is humankind...well, then we are doomed.
Sorry, Neil, I don’t see why we should work towards fixing things...if every that "happened, happened." And, I’m sorry, but “don’t try to understand it, just feel it” doesn’t give me a reason to leap over that logical cliff.
If I’m going to have "faith" in something, it’s not going to be an impersonal, irrational, ultimately-material universe or the human species, but the eternal, wise, all-powerful God. Indeed, he has already acted in time and space, defeating death and evil once and for all. We might say that, yes, he has already stopped the algorithm.
In conclusion, Tenet felt cold, almost like trying to interact with human beings through a Zoom meeting in a COVID pandemic. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed myself at the theater very much and still think Christopher Nolan is a powerful filmmaker, but Tenet fell short of my expectations. But that’s okay, many of his other films wildly exceeded them! I’ll probably see the movie again, if not only to understand what I did not understand, which was quite a bit.
And maybe I’ll see you there! Not through a screen, but live and in-person. Look for me. I'll be in a mask.
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and principal of the secondary school at Providence Academy, a classical Christian school in Johnson City, TN.