Tenets of Nolan

If the title hasn’t given away yet, this is an opinion piece on the newly released movie directed by Christopher Nolan. Titled Tenet, the movie is surely an interesting watch. For those familiar with Nolan’s earlier works, Tenet seems to be a marriage of two excellent ideas of Christopher Nolan’s screen writing. Non-linear screenplay is a rather simplistic description of what happens in Memento, the first feature film of Christopher Nolan’s. The screenplay is written in what was a rather novel way when the movie released. One half of the movie moves forward, and another moves backwards while both the narratives meet at the climax. Interstellar showcased a method in which subtle hints of direction would leave us noticing a few details askance and towards the end, the movie circles back to where we start watching it.

Tenet happens to be a great way to marry the two techniques of storytelling to build a gripping 150 minutes of screen time. In any good story, there are three acts. The first act is where the challenge is presented to the protagonist and where we get to know the struggle of the protagonist. The second act could either be a misdirection, where a seemingly easy means to the ultimate ends of the story throws the protagonist off the trail, or a narrative in which the protagonist temporarily gives up the struggle and challenge due to a lack of meaning. The third act is where the protagonist realises the true meaning and comes back to the path of destiny and overcomes the challenge. That last part is the kicker. It sometimes feels like there is only one path forward for a protagonist in the bounds of the story. The protagonist doesn’t live in an open society a la Karl Popper. He lives in a Hegelian system, where the outcome is defined. There is an element of historicism, a pre-written fate of the character that he or she must fulfil. Tenet doesn’t escape this narrative. To make that point, none of Nolan’s films do. In a typical story, the challenge is presented by the antagonist. In Memento, the challenge is presented by the protagonist himself, but he doesn’t realise this until the third act. In Interstellar, the challenge is presented yet again by the protagonist, but it’s written in a circular format. Memento was still a story written in a line, presented differently. Interstellar is a loop with infinite regress. In Tenet, the story is presented by taking these two together. The challenge is presented to the protagonist within the first few minutes of the movie. The second & third acts are where things get creative.

Instead of looking at the story from a single protagonist’s perspective at that moment of time, we look at the same moment from 2 protagonists’ perspectives. Except, these two aren’t separated by space. They’re separated by time. It appears as though the movie is a class on how to interpret Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in his description of space & time. Though I must confess, it has nothing to do with space-time which was dealt with in Interstellar. This is a movie about objects existing in time through space, and not in space through time. After all, Kant describes space as what matter exists in & time is what matter exists through. The screenplay answers one fundamental question – what if objects were differentiated by time and shared the space they existed in? That is how one tells a story forward & backwards while maintaining a circular narrative. It seems as though the movie was one giant experiment of how far one could go in taking two of the boldest ideas possible. The ideas are not inherent to the story, but to the method of telling the story.

As someone who has watched the movies made by Christopher Nolan before, Tenet did not come across as a movie that showed creativity of writing a story. The three acts are rather humble –

  1. There is a World War to stop, & it is nuclear devastation if it isn’t stopped
  2. There is a way to stop it, but to understand it would mean to un-learn the fundamentals of thermodynamic laws that run our universe
  3. The destined fate is executed but the fate is set by the protagonist himself

To put it across like that would mean Tenet might fall into the category of any generic spy film. It is a huge disservice to say that the movie is Nolan’s ode to the classic cold war spy movies featuring James Bond. This movie is closer to the Batman trilogy of movies made, where there’s a protagonist trying to find the meaning and purpose of what he’s up to. And if one’s watched enough Christopher Nolan films, it seems rather obvious from the get-go. That doesn’t take away how gripping the screenplay is, as unpredictable challenges present themselves to a protagonist who doesn’t know how to deal with such a problem. Credit must be given to Nolan for presenting this challenge even to a temporally forward (read protagonist who is from the future) protagonist who knows what has happened. It is a matter of perspective. In both cases, the audience is shown that there are things the protagonist doesn’t know even though in one of the two cases, there is a difference in the level of information. This is settled in the climax, at the end of the third act.

It is undeniable that Christopher Nolan has written an excellent screenplay. But has he outdone himself? I don’t think so. Tenet isn’t a bad movie, but it surely can’t be called Nolan’s best either. The major plot point of being different across time but not space hasn’t been fully milked in the movie; it is because there is a lot more to do with it that cannot be done in a 150-minute run-time. If this were made a central plot point to tell a story with counterfactuals and lost opportunities through a long-format show, it would do justice. Such complexity needs a set-up so that the gravity can be understood by the audience. To circumvent that, the movie uses a world-war narrative with glaringly obvious Soviet era tropes to create the tension and threat. However, the protagonist is suave and smart. He rarely feels the stress of the challenge he’s facing. That isn’t a comment on John David’s acting skills. It’s still on the method of storytelling. Had there been more time to showcase the threat, the stoic nature of the protagonist in the face of danger would’ve added to the story.

To conclude, Tenet is a movie that deserves attention but it does leave wanting for more. The gratifying ending typical of Nolan is amiss, and for a good reason. I hope there is a sequel or a series being made.

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