TENET (Thematic Analysis): One for Posterity
Written by Kev
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Christopher Nolan… the guy needs no introduction at this point. He is the premiere blockbuster hitmaker for the past 12 or 15 odd years now. Amidst the height of his pop culture powers, he has become oddly divisive. I say oddly, because from any interview I’ve ever seen, nothing about the guy’s attitude or manner invites anything inflammatory. He doesn’t have a wild ego or outlandish persona that we typically expect to rub people the wrong way. I can see his commitment to physical film over digital, or practical effects over CG, coming across as a little snobbish. Still, when the guy Is relatively soft spoken and humble when asked to speak on his own impact as a filmmaker, it’s hard to understand how “somewhat snobbish” translates to infuriating for many. Are there other factors that make him frustrating then?
His movies do welcome a fair bit of nitpicking. Marketed as “thinking man’s blockbusters” or “cerebral films”, they practically beg the audience to prove they aren’t as smart as they claim. These designations for his films seem to be attributed by the internet more than Nolan himself though. I have seen him say many times (usually due to a leading question from the interviewer) that he enjoys “challenging the audience” or “respecting their intelligence”, but I’ve never seen him describe his movies as “smart” or average blockbusters as “dumb”. Yet his movies can often be judged more as documentaries than works of fiction. Any scientific inaccuracy can invalidate the entire narrative for many. Nolan often strives for realistic depictions to be sure, but only up to the point where they don’t limit his storytelling. For just one instance of Nolan sidelining the science to create a better film, you can read this article from Gizmodo. The article also demonstrates how his film’s scientific ambitions are often a construct of the internet as much as of the man himself. Nolan is a story teller first, a cinematic visionary second, and a science professor last. Any scientific accuracy his movies have should be considered the cherry on top, not the main course.
Now the issue of scientific accuracy, or lack thereof, is just one of many recurring criticisms that sink Nolan in the eyes of many. His films are too long, full of clunky exposition, sloppy editing, and poor sound mixing. Another common complaint is that his characters are paper thin, or at the least, get lost at the expense of his labyrinthian plots. This question of character is something we’ve discussed on the podcast and you can check those discussions out here and here. I personally find these criticisms range in validity, but there’s no denying they exist in the discourse around his films.
Then along comes Tenet… His latest effort is easily his “Nolaniest”. It’s almost as if he took every criticism to heart, then actively threw them out the window to spite his detractors. As I sat in the theater, hyper aware after our podcast conversation, I cringed to learn the main character’s name was “The Protagonist”. Not so much because it bothered me, but because I knew this movie was already going to be sunk for many. Throw on top of it a core concept so convoluted, that even for a staunch Interstellar apologist such as myself, the only defense I can muster is, “it either works for you or it doesn’t.” A science documentary Tenet is certainly not.
Don’t misunderstand me though. I said above that “it’s almost as if” to show how we might perceive his intention when making the film. I feel the more likely explanation is that Nolan doesn’t care about those criticisms and made the film he wanted to make. This sticking to artistic guns is something we would applaud in most other creators, but it can be truly aggravating when it come to Nolan. Perhaps we like the idea of the auteur pursuing a vision but consider it a little unfair when they get to do so with a $200-million-dollar budget. We complain that too many big budget affairs are formulaic and boring, then solve the ones that aren’t by prescribing them by-the-numbers solutions. It may be that a backstory for The Protagonist (or a proper first name even) cures what ails Tenet, or maybe not. Either way the final product of Tenet is what it is.
So… with this long of a preamble, what is the purpose of this article? It is not to defend the science of Tenet or explain every plot-hole. It’s also not to dissect every character to defend their lack of backstory or fabricate my own for them. Instead I want to ask the reader to accept the concept of inversion for what it is, and the characters for what we are given. If we concede Nolan these elements, does Tenet give us back something worthwhile? While many can boil their critique down to “Nolan went to far up his own *$$”, I have seen a fair number of reviews willing to give Nolan some grace. It seems that even if we can reach this point, there is still a feeling that Tenet is ultimately hollow, or “all sizzle and no steak”. A reviewer for Variety.com put it this way,
“Again, his musings are rooted more in physics than philosophy or psychology, with the film’s grabby hook — that you can change the world not by traveling through time, but inverting it — explored in terms of how it practically works, not how it makes anyone feel… "Tenet” is not in itself that difficult to understand: It’s more convoluted than it is complex, wider than it is deep, and there’s more linearity to its form than you might guess”.
I can sympathize with this read on the movie, and I would honestly say I identified with it as the credits rolled…
I’m realizing I still haven’t explained the purpose of this article have I… my goal is to explore the themes of the film and questions it poses for myself. Half due to the film’s convoluted nature and half due to the surrounding context of the filmmaker previously described (and I suppose one more half due to many not seeing the film as a result of COVID… that’s 3 halves… maybe I am drinking too much Nolan Kool-aid), I have hardly seen any critic dive into the film’s themes in any substantive way. They allude to the movie’s superficiality without really explaining how it falls short in exploring its themes. After all. the themes are fundamentally deep on paper. The two biggest that I identified, and that we will examine, are FREE WILL and POSTERITY. If the film did fail to properly explore these themes, then that is a critique I anticipate even Nolan himself would find valid. After all, he himself did write in his film THE PRESTIGE.
***Spoilers! Only continue reading if you've seen the film***
We will begin with what is clearly one of the film’s biggest themes. I suspect we can’t get away exploring what it says about free will, without at least partially explaining the mechanics of inversion. You see, it becomes clear as the film progresses, that time inversion all takes place on a single timeline. If you decided after the fact to invert and try to change something you did, it is ultimately moot because you were already present attempting to make the change the first time. One of the best examples of this is shown from the main antagonist Sator’s perspective. He waits for details of The Protagonist’s (will be denoted as TP from now on) heist, then inverts to go back as an ace in the hole. By waiting till the end, he has knowledge to supersede any sleight of hand TP may attempt and ensure he obtains the plutonium (which is really the algorithm, for the rest of this article we will call it “the 241”… Oh, and we can also call it what it is, a macguffin… actually it’s 1/9th of a macguffin, so it’s a horcrux). Where Tenet becomes interesting is in how this strategy plays out differently than it would in other time travel films. Normally, if Sator initially lost the 241, then went back and obtained it by knowing the past, this would create an alternate timeline. Tenet makes clear this is not how it actually worked by showing it from TP’s perspective first. We see that there was no first heist where Sator never showed up, then a second version where he magically knows how to get the 241. Inverted Sator arrives during the initial heist and successfully obtains it.
The mechanics of this are further driven home when we realize that an inverted version of TP was driving the Saab that un-crashed in time to facilitate forward TP’s attempted sleight of hand. So even though Sator inverted after the heist, and then TP inverts after Sator, they are both present at the same point in time the first time (by the way, it’s not lost on me how annoying explaining this stuff on paper makes Tenet). What does this imply about the capabilities of inversion though? Seemingly it can’t be used to change the past, because you were already there attempting to change it and failed. At best inversion gives you an advantage but it is by no means a guarantee when both sides are utilizing it. So, it would seem inversion is pretty limited when compared to your usual time travel mechanic.
These factors have led many to the conclusion that there is no free will in the world of Tenet. The phrase frequently recited “what’s happened’s happened” paired with inversion’s seeming inability to change the past lends to this conclusion. While this can be unsatisfying from a philosophical standpoint, it can be even more disappointing from the narrative’s perspective. If the characters have no ability to change what’s happened, doesn’t it make the entire ending anti-climactic? It would seem Nolan even understood this issue, speaking through TP when he says:
This means we already know the good guys win. Not just in “the good guys always win” sense, but we realize it’s baked into the rules of Tenet’s world. Still, when the creator nearly breaks the 4th wall to point out they understand this concern, I think it warrants a little prodding to see if there isn’t a more complete interpretation. I think the only way to see if this more complete interpretation exists is by examining the main characters and their actions/mind sets. Of course, it makes the most sense to start with TP.
TP is unique among the film’s characters (perhaps it’s the reason he deserves to be the protagonist) because he consistently attempts to enact his will. Some of this is depicted as a naïve misunderstanding of inversion mechanics, but other times it manifests in deliberate decisions he makes. This character trait is established from the very beginning with the Opera siege. His mission is simply to retrieve the 241 (not yet knowing what it is) and extract Tenet’s undercover operative. The bad guys have rigged the auditorium to explode though and sacrifice the audience as collateral damage to cover their tracks. Having successfully secured his mission objectives, TP makes a personal call to risk going back into the auditorium to retrieve the explosives and save the crowd. This almost costs him his life, but he is saved by a mystery man we later learn is Neil. Regardless, the point is that TP made a decision he didn’t have to make which resulted in saving lives.
Also interesting is the fact that the “admittance test” given him by Tenet is based on a choice. He is fit to be brought into the organization because he made the choice to sacrifice himself rather than give up his teammates. But Tenet also know about his initial decision to go off mission and risk failure to dispense the bombs. As we learn more about how Tenet operates, this may seem a little bizarre. After all, shouldn’t an organization from the future that has knowledge of future events just seek operatives that simply follow orders? A Tenet member would not need the capacity to make tough choices, they can just receive the objectively correct course of action to follow from the future. And yet, this is not how Tenet functions at all. We learn one of their core tenets (I had to do it once) from Priya.
This intentional concealing of information takes place repeatedly throughout the movie. On the one hand, it’s a convenient trick for Nolan that allows him to withhold answers to the film’s mysteries until he wants them revealed. Diegetically, it allows the Tenet organization to maintain the free will of their operatives. They merely give parameters to guide their mission, then allow them to fulfill it as they deem fit. You may read what I just said about Tenet’s motives and think, “no it’s to prevent counter intelligence!” You are correct that it is to avoid leaving a trail of intel the future can access to know their plans, but this taps into the idea of “posterity” which we’re not quite ready to discuss. For now take my word that it accomplishes both.
Consider TP’s decision during the Tallinn heist that we already described before. More specifically, consider Ives’ reaction to TP’s decision. He very clearly does not approve, terming it “cowboy shit”. He also captains a team and presumably pulls rank, yet he lets TP go after Sator when he clearly isn’t prepared to handle inversion. Of course, we learn TP is intended to lose the 241 to Sator so they can steal the completed algorithm later, but from TP’s perspective his ignorance allowed him to make a genuine choice to pursue it. I think it’s also safe to assume Ives wasn’t privy to the plan, since even Priya didn’t know about the Stalsk operation until TP told her. All of this highlights how perspective on free will changes depending on the perception of time. Things look deterministic from the future, but dependent on decisions from the present. This is how maintaining the agency of their operatives plays out for Tenet. There is one more complication we find due to inversion we haven’t examined yet. What happens when you arrive at the desired outcome thanks to inversion, but something undesirable had to happen to achieve it?
This is exactly what happens at the end of the film with Neil. An inverted Neil unlocks the interior vault that allows TP and Ives to procure the algorithm but is shot dead in the process. Tenet achieves their goal, but with a very undesirable side effect. This begs the question, if Neil and TP decide Neil shouldn’t have to die, can they roll the dice and not have him invert? This of course would create one of many potential “Grandfather Paradoxes”, which is a concept the characters are aware of. Still, the question remains – is it possible to attempt a Grandfather Paradox, or is Neil compelled to follow the course of fate? I think Neil delivers one of the best lines in one of the film’s best scenes. TP and Neil’s farewell brings a much-needed warmth to their relationship, but also reveals how the rules of the film work.
You see there is nothing stopping them from getting greedy and testing a Grandfather Paradox. Neil in particular works to prevent them because he doesn’t desire to find out what happens when one occurs, but there’s no reason to think they couldn’t create one to save Neil. This is the culmination of why Tenet seeks agents who will make the hard decision and sacrifice themselves for the greater good. With inversion it is tempting to put confidence in your understanding and the near omniscience it gives you of the past. It can be tempting to assume you can fix every problem and facilitate a perfect solution that gives you everything you want. If someone or something is hindering your plans, just go back and take them out before they’re a problem. Maybe the paradox works out in your favor. Neil understands that there is no perfect reality. His sacrifice is necessary to save the world and he makes the decision to place the survival of other’s above his own. Just because he has faith things played out the way they were supposed to, does not mean they couldn’t play out differently if he’d acted differently.
So how does any of this pertain to our reality? What does this indicate, if anything, about free will in a world that doesn’t have inversion? I will answer this question, but I think it best I finally break down the idea of “Posterity” before bringing it all together. After all, the concept of inversion is fantastical and hard to map to real life, but the way the film depicts posterity I believe maps very cleanly. So… what is posterity?
I found the use of the word in the film interesting. After all, they could have just used the term “the future” but I think “posterity” is much more descriptive. It speaks to the human element of the future. It makes the future as personal as is possible. After all, how much time do we really spend thinking about our distant descendants? In my experience, my compassion and energy only goes up to my grand-parent’s generation, and I anticipate it will only trickle down to my great-grandchildren (if I live long enough to meet them). We think of future generations in general terms, but it is hard to feel too much for them because we will never personally know them.
The rules of inversion change this. The future can now communicate with the past and they make clear they don’t like us much. It’s hard to blame them though, as it turns out we left them an abused and unsustainable planet. This sets up the framework for the film’s conflict. Sator and TP are really just proxies for the true battle being waged between the future generations and the present. Between this generation and posterity.
This communication between present and future is of course possible because neither generation must perceive the passing of time. If Sator sends an email, the future receives it instantaneously, regardless of how far into the future they are (technically they have access to every email he ever sent instantaneously). Conversely, if the future inverts a message for Sator, he can retrieve it instantaneously, not perceiving the time the inverted package spent travelling backwards. This is a huge advantage to both viewpoints as they can adjust plans quickly based off the information they receive from one another (facilitating temporal pincer movements). We see TP begin to leverage this method of communication at the end of the film.
TP realizes he can protect Kat without having to follow her. He will retrieve her message instantaneously (from his perspective) in the future, then invert and arrive to save her instantaneously (from her perspective). This is exactly what happens when he saves her from Priya, who attempts to clean her up as a loose end. Overall, inversion gives us a fun way of literalizing the fickle way we perceive communication between generations.
Of course, without inversion we cannot send communications TO the past, but we do receive communication FROM the past the way the movie depicts! Whether the history was recorded a hundred years ago or a thousand, I can pull it up on google right this instant. I don’t perceive the extra time the thousand year old history had to travel to reach me either. The only reason I know the one history is much older is because I was told it is. In ancient times, it was hard to preserve a message well enough that it could survive to posterity. Furthermore, unless you were a king, explorer, or someone else of supreme consequence your story was likely lost to time. You may have had wisdom you desired to pass down, but you had no way to get it to your distant descendants. This has totally changed in the digital age.
We are the first generation of humans who have the capability to communicate with posterity en masse. Every facebook status, tweet, blog entry, youtube video, and Instagram post could feasibly last forever (you know, assuming the internet doesn’t explode, or social media companies don’t pull down all your content… just go with me on it). We are all communicating directly with future generations, but how often do we consider this? Would the message of your podcast change if you were intending it for posterity rather than to address the hot button political topic of the day? Your descendants will not have to wonder what you were like or what you stood for. If your online footprint is big enough, they will hear from you directly! I myself had literally never considered this until thinking about the film. It’s made me realize I hope I’m proud of the message I’m sending to far more than just my great-grandchildren.
Alright let’s finally get to the point…
With all this in mind… what does Tenet have to say to the generation in which it was released about these topics? Unfortunately, like nearly all of Nolan’s movies, it leaves it open. It is hard for me to say definitively that the characters in the movie had free will, as he leaves enough in there to suggest the outcome was predetermined. Even if every event of the movie played out according to the will of future Protagonist, was he fated to orchestrate it the way he did? Could he have decided to let Sator succeed and potentially wipe out humanity? The film makes the case for both possibilities.
I’ve noticed the tendency for modern film analysts to criticize open ended films like this as “lacking a point of view”. Unfortunately we want our media to tell us WHAT TO THINK instead of giving us tools that simply LET US THINK. The reality is that the idea of free will lies somewhere in the middle for modern humans. Yes, we have the capability to make decisions, but many decisions we wish we could make lie outside our power. We don’t get a say in the nation, genetic advantages/disadvantages, time period, or many other factors we are born into. We can choose how we see fit, but the choices available to us are constrained. This can be frustrating, but it doesn’t do us any good to linger on the fact. It also doesn’t mean that the decisions we make are insignificant, even if we feel like we have no capability of changing the future. Whether you have faith in the mechanics of the world, or utter distrust, it is not an excuse to do nothing.
As for posterity, I think Tenet helps us grasp the reality of our relationship with it more completely. A phrase I hear increasingly in modern discourse is - “Don’t end up on the wrong side of history.” When we say this, we are taking a similar role as “Posterity” in the film. They know previous generations were “on the wrong side of history”, harvesting the planet’s resources unsustainably for short term profit. Since they are literally capable of communicating with the past through inversion, they let them know this fact. I understand the sentiment when we use it in real life, but ultimately I don’t like the phrase, as we don’t know the future for a fact. We actually try to limit the free will of others when we say that. We’re trying to discourage them from making the choice they see fit, by supposing we already know the better choice. Just follow what we’re telling you… and it will work out best for all of us.
Free will means the capacity to make imperfect decisions. It means being allowed to face the consequences of imperfect decisions. The one decision I didn’t mention in my analysis, was Kat’s decision to shoot Sator before receiving the all-clear (Mainly because I still haven’t fully decided what I think it means. I’ll still risk an interpretation here though because I think it’s applicable). It was a short sighted and selfish decision that could have cost the world, but she couldn’t overcome all the pain and anguish that fueled the action. In the same way, we are free to make short sighted and destructive decisions. Maybe we get lucky like Kat, and the decision doesn’t create collateral damage for others, but let’s try to think further ahead before we act. Consider one of the last lines we hear in the entire movie.
Typically we forge ahead and wait until the problem boils over to address it. Conversely, we may not even perceive all the tiny decisions we make that prevent the problem arising in the first place. We may think the catastrophe is the cause, and our efforts to quell it is the effect. But perhaps our inaction is the cause, and the catastrophe is the effect (probably smart not to introduce another weighty concept at the end of your essay… someone else will have to write the essay that does justice to the film’s reversal of cause & effect). We assume TP had no other course but to succeed according to the events of the film, but perhaps he only had that course because he decided to act in the first place.
It is distinctly possible this article quit making sense awhile ago. I kind of blacked out for the last couple pages, so hopefully I presented my thoughts on the film coherently. Regardless of my proficiency in doing so, I believe Tenet warrants this level of analysis. It is hard for me to deem the movie a failure when it has been so successful in provoking my brain to think. Perhaps it was a less enjoyable 2 ½ hours spent viewing than your typical Marvel movie, but I think it was a far more enjoyable 10, 20, 30 (who knows how many at this point honestly) hours spent thinking afterward. Hopefully I’ve sparked a new angle for you to think about it today. Like I said, this type of thematic analysis is what I feel like was missing from all the discourse on the film thus far. I appreciate Christopher Nolan for swinging for the fences with Tenet. I don’t believe he makes hollow films that are only about the spectacle or a puzzle to solve. We might make the point of Inception whether the top falls at the end, but Nolan himself has stated the point is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character doesn’t care. I think Tenet has thematic depths on this level as well. It was daunting to get my thoughts on the film down on paper, but regardless of my success, I’m glad I made the decision to try.