When half our institutions are closed by a pandemic, what else is there to do at night besides watch action movies while contemplating our sorry fates and the destruction of all things? So, it’s fitting that Christopher Nolan’s baggy 2020 pandemic time-reversal film Tenet is available to stream now. After all its twists and turns and pretzel-like time-travel noodling, it seems to end with the somewhat gnomic shrug, “What’s happened, happened.”
In fact, there is something more going on here, and I wonder whether Nolan’s ambitions for his film have outrun our tastes for mass art.
The film begins with a suspenseful assault on an opera house. And our protagonist — known only as Protagonist (played by John David Washington) — swallows a suicide pill rather than be compromised. He wakes up and finds himself recruited into a more mysterious battle yet — the battle against “reverse entropy.” Objects are being sent back into the present from the future, moving in time. Gradually we learn that this is an all-out war on the past — and existence itself — waged by the future and overseen by Andrei Sator, a weapons dealer played by Kenneth Branagh.
Soon Protagonist learns to catch bullets into his gun as they whiz backward in time from the walls and wounds in which they were deposited. He engages in a car chase where cars that had been turned over after an accident reverse course, flip up into the air, and start chasing him. (If it sounds confusing to read on the page, it’s just as disorienting on the screen). There are nods to The Matrix, Casablanca, and many others films. There are cleverly arranged pieces to the puzzle. Sidekick Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, seems to be one step ahead of things, leading viewers at first to wonder which side he’s on. But eventually, we surmise that he’s been sent from the future to help Protagonist.
First things first, Tenet doesn’t really work as a blockbuster film, and anyone could be forgiven for turning it off. It gives us beautifully shot scenes and spectacles never seen before, such as a building that is un-exploding and re-exploding while two military units — really one unit — attack it from the future and the past almost simultaneously. But the movie is confusing, and its time-reversal palindrome premise requires constant exposition. Naturally, because the story is running backward and forward at the same time, some of that exposition even comes in the final scene. The mysterious weapon at the center of the film turns out to be a MacGuffin.
And yet, a bad scifi movie can also be a great philosophical drama, and the message at the heart of Nolan’s puzzle-film is extravagantly life-affirming. Tenet successfully portrays a resolution to a thorny theological riddle: How do we reconcile God’s predestination of events with genuine human free will?
As a theological problem, this one has nearly broken the Church. The attempt by Protestant reformer John Calvin to vindicate God’s sovereignty ultimately forced him to abjure any meaningful belief in human free will, leaving us as either tools in the hands of our Maker or utter slaves to sin. For the rest of Christianity, the mystery of how to reconcile the seemingly unreconcilable is beyond the human ability to reason.
But it’s not above Nolan’s capacity to dramatize. Spoilers to follow.
As we learn in the film, the humans of the future are attacking those in the past because the future humans are miserable from climate change, and they are using the health-obsessed but terminally ill Sator to turn his own suicide into the very event that destroys all time and space.
Minutes before what he thinks will be the moment of nihilistic self-destruction, Sator taunts Protagonist:
You fight for a cause you barely understand. With people you trust so little, you’ve told them nothing about what you’re doing. When I die, the world dies with me. And your knowledge dies with you. Buried in the tomb like an anonymous Egyptian builder sealed in the pyramid to keep his secret.
His motive is entirely nihilistic, he says that he has lost belief, to the point of abominating himself as having “sinned” by bringing a son into a world he knew was ending. The motive to destroy the world and all existence grows out of his hatred of self, his unwillingness to suffer, and ultimately the unwillingness to bear with uncertainty. He lacks faith.
Meanwhile, we also find out that Protagonist had to fight himself passing backward through time, as he moved forward through an airport hangar. Ultimately, we find out that it was he in the future who set events in motion to bring himself into the mission in the first place. We find out that Kat — Andrei’s wife, working with Protagonist — has to fool her past self into thinking her husband is having an affair, setting the awful events in motion that will lead to her getting shot. And we discover that Neil sent himself backward in order to take a bullet for Protagonist.
Ultimately, Protagonist asks Neil whether they are mere pawns in the hands of fate. Neil explains, “‘What’s happened, happened.’ It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.” Neil affirms that they are merely fighting on the side of “reality.”
By running time backward and forward at once, Christopher Nolan ultimately gets to something like what might be God’s view from eternity. And our three heroes, when coming from the future, are willing to recruit themselves into their own suffering and torture, willing to personally inflict on themselves miserable injuries and despair to the point of suicide in order to save existence itself. In their embrace of their own suffering, they become willing to see Creation, to look upon “everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Their past selves, moving through the present, barely understand what is happening to them and cannot yet trust each other fully. They must step into their suffering with faith.