What once might have seemed like a radical situation, far removed from our everyday reality, aligned itself with our own experiences of living through a dangerous pandemic.
Christopher Nolan really doesn’t like you
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, released September 2020, is the epitome of his film-making. He promises dynamic action scenes and ponderous, philosophical plots that provoke and challenge. He fails abysmally.
Tenet’s dynamism is perhaps contentious ground. The audience could be forgiven for finding the action drab. It is hard to feel excited about vast battle scenes where the enemy they are shooting at is not shown on screen. Or when the action is just a flat shot of a plane very slowly crashing into a building. Simply using practical effects as opposed to special effects, whilst nice, is insufficient to challenge the nauseating mundanity of contemporary action movies. We have been oversaturated, and whilst that isn’t Nolan’s fault, it means these comparatively tame scenes are just not noteworthy anymore.
And then comes the “intellectualism”, Nolan’s brand. He has successfully posited himself as some mastermind whom the audience should, and largely do, trust to guide them to universe-brain conclusions. Even when the audience doesn’t get what he is trying to convey at all, they are more likely to simply accept that Christopher Nolan has it all mapped out rather than think he might just be a bit of a hack. Critics perpetuate this just as much. That is not to say that all of Nolan’s films are awful, but rather that they are not good solely because they “make you think”. Indeed, Nolan rarely offers a thesis; his tool is not complexity but convolution. There is nothing philosophically radical or subversive about films like Interstellar, Inception or Memento. They’re little more than “what if?” thought-experiment scenarios dressed up in layers of complication. In some cases, like Memento, the end result is decent enough, but far more often Nolan’s pursuit of a complicated thesis leads to a lack of complex characters or plots. That’s not to say there is never any nuance present in Nolan’s films. But it is easy to take a complex concept and present it in a complicated way, and yet much harder to present it in a simple way. This is where Nolan fails. That failure makes him look smarter, because the gestures all appear so spectacularly complicated. Tenet is by far his worst film in this regard. It has been regularly compared to James Bond, an analogy that is interesting and presumably insulting to intellectual giant Chris, given that Bond films are some of the most simplistic there are.
The key to understanding Nolan’s films is that he doesn’t want you to feel like you “get it”. His sound mixing is consistently bad across his films, and that’s no accident. Having to rewatch, listen closer and try to understand what characters are saying on multiple levels (audibly, linearly, philosophically) is part of his process of complication. The reason why is simple: Nolan does not like his audience. He is not the first director to feel such a way, and that’s unsurprising. Bourgeois film-making and artistic production more broadly is predicated on bourgeois values: they seek to inform and instruct culture, to direct the masses for whom they politically and personally, ultimately, hate. Nolan wants your money and adoration, and does not care for your interest in his films or worlds beyond their capacity to generate more for him. His film is the capitalist classroom, where a teacher imparts knowledge for those “clever” or accepting enough to keep up, and disciplines those who cannot or will not engage. In contrast, proletarian education sees that everyone, teacher and student, has something to offer, and that access to this knowledge must be given and taken by all. Proletarian film seeks to express and stimulate, to facilitate working and oppressed people elevating ourselves.
But whilst Nolan’s film offers us little more in thesis than posturing and admonishment, that does not mean that there is nothing to analyse. We should have little interest in rummaging around his text for presumed philosophical insight, but instead look to the political work being done. Nolan, a bourgeois writer/director with a singular distaste for those who earnestly try to understand his films, created Tenet, and in that we might find intimate details about the bourgeois worldview during these tumultuous times.
Tenet speaks to an apocalyptic moment. Scientists in our present day have discovered objects and information that have been sent backwards in time; they are ”inverted”. An inverted bullet shot is one that comes back into the gun, rather than out of it. The crux of the plot, however, is not the individual manifestations of this technology, but that there is something bigger coming: “the algorithm”, which once assembled marks the end of the world.
This threat comes from the future itself. The future has found itself in a disaster that threatens to end humanity (it is alluded to be the climate crisis), and they have decided that their solution is in the inverted technology that they have developed. They look to wage war on their past, presumably our present, to (somewhat ambiguously) solve the crisis in which they find themselves. The class dynamics of Tenet are fraught: despite a wide range of characters, they are exclusively cops, soldiers, art dealers and arms dealers (and one kid, who may or may not grow up into one of the cops in an awful fan theory). It is typical for Nolan’s films to entirely erase the masses from the picture, and yet he still manages to avoid characterising what he is left with. But whereas the working classes might be absent in the present day, Tenet’s future humanity is vitally capitalistic. It is the capitalist class who would be willing and able to wage warfare on their own ancestors for their survival. The capitalist class has long had its future: its property, wealth and entrenchment has allowed it to comfortably stride forward. The futurity of the working and oppressed people has long been robbed from us. We are rendered and relegated to the Present, focusing on getting through the day. To show us a “gritty”, “realistic” future is to show us a capitalist future. Time war is class war.
The device set to end this war, “the algorithm”, is ambiguous within the film, but interesting in what it alludes to. As we know from horror films, even the most generic depictions of evil can reveal political dynamics to us. In everyday language we usually refer to the algorithms that select the information that we see, manifesting primarily on social media. Like the platforms themselves, the influence of such algorithms seeps far beyond their immediate parameters and into what we feel, know, live and buy. Algorithms inform every facet of our lives, but occupy a sort of technological otherworldliness to those of us who depend on this technology. Even words like “Cloud” and “Silicon Valley” portray a physical separation between us and the technology that informs us. Technology that we rely on constantly, that is designed by capitalists to extract profits via, and yet technology that most of us do not intimately understand below the interface. The very governance of society rests evermore on large data sets and optimisation for a ruling class of capitalists, interested solely in profits and their defence and expansion. Nolan’s algorithm itself is a physical object: 9 parts, that collectively form something akin to an oversized sonic screwdriver. This is by no means a complaint - god forbid the algorithm was pictured on screen as a memory stick. But like our own grapples with technology in our lives and how it informs the daily class warfare of capitalism, Tenet’s most important depictions of violence are similarly below the surface. Despite the cartoonish objectification of the algorithm, the threat presented by the future is behind the screen, with the future and its people never actually shown on screen. The threat is not just the bullets, but also that which exists behind what we see in front of us.
Once highlighted, that the weapon is an “algorithm” becomes a clumsy allusion to something said with sinister tones, but also one that provides us with insight into crisis. Richard Sennett describes uncertainty as something that ‘exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism’. Algorithms, apocalyptic or otherwise, can be viewed in a similar light; they represent not a looming threat towering over us, but violence that seeks to supplant us from under the ground, within the wires, behind the panels or our very existence in time itself. Nolan needed to materialise this threat into something concrete for the language of film, but by doing so has reminded us of the physicality, materiality and by extension mutability of technology and our conditions. The “algorithms”, computer and data that shape so much of our lives seem to be unreachable. A physical object that can be obtained, lost, bought, sold, stolen and broken is something we might be able to overcome.
Cracking the Paradox
Throughout most of the film’s working logic, the algorithm might as well be a generic weapon. In one particular portion of exposition it is suggested that what the algorithm does is allow time to flow backwards, for the whole world to invert and allow the future to live out life in inversion across the past, avoiding the future crisis. This opens up for more possibilities, including the dissolution of our future happening in and by bourgeois culture, but in the film the algorithm’s threat is presented as little more than a doomsday device. There is a device, and everyone is going to die. We know that it’s coming from the future, but the way it is most regularly expressed by the characters is as simple annihilation. Neil, the Protagonist’s sidekick played by Robert Patterson, provides an explanation that everyone who has ever lived will die instantly (followed by an exemplary case of Nolan characterisation, having Kat add “including my son” to remind us of the personal stakes of this pan-temporal, instant and universal extinction).
Those with a touch of familiarity with time travel fiction will know of the Grandfather Paradox - if I was to go back in time and kill my Grandfather, would that not prevent him from having my parent who would have me who would do that preventative act in the first place? Nolan’s answer to this conundrum, which should undermine the very premise of the film, is fascinating: Neil simply argues that the future believes they have solved this paradox, and whether they have or haven’t is irrelevant because they are acting on that belief. There is an implication within sidekick Neil’s regularly stated phrase “what happened, happened” that solves the problem, by excluding the possibility of the future’s plan ever happening and thus resolving the paradox but rendering it an impossibility. This naturally kills all the tension because the threat is an impossibility, and therefore is only ever implied to be the solution in the film; if Nolan spelt this out for his audience to understand, he would be exposing his sloppy storytelling.
Nonetheless in attempting to solve the paradox Nolan articulates the mindset of the capitalists perfectly. Capitalism is dying; as we have articulated, it is hurtling towards its end point. The rate of profit continues to plunge ever lower, with inflation soaring and currencies crashing after the pandemic catalysed the bubbling crises. It is our belief that we are in the final time of capitalism. We see the Future’s belief in solving the Grandfather Paradox replicated in the present capitalist’s belief that capitalism will survive. Indeed, it is the same logic from the same class: the capitalist class truly, authentically believe that they will survive anything, and that there is no alternative other than their survival. They will wage wars and destroy land and lives for profit, or even for just the pursuit of profit, fruitful or not. Nolan correctly represents his class: they would wage war across time and in direct contradiction to the laws of cause and effect, in rampant belief in their own eternity, should they be able to. The bourgeois class, a death cult, believes in and celebrates its Divine Right of Kings, even as their palace crumbles.
Where is our salvation?
Tenet is in many ways a film about salvation. On screen, we have the pursuit to save the world and literally everything in existence. This task is entrusted to our hero, the Protagonist. Literally named after his function, one might get an idea of how much history, backstory, or development he is afforded when Nolan refuses to even name him. His characterisation is scripturally bare, helped only by a solid performance from John David Washington. Our other hero, Neil played by Robert Pattinson, offers that nihilistic answer to the troubles of the film: “what happened, happened”.
Tenet’s inversion cannot be mistaken with retroactivity. In other words, the events of the past don’t inform the characters anew; they are limited to only act as they would before. Bullets are shot by characters who know that they don’t want those bullets to find their targets, but proceed to shoot anyway because… what has happened, happened. For all Tenet’s promises and potential, it refuses to allow anything to bloom.
What we find in the text of the film then, is not a plight for a humanity to save itself by elevating itself in the present, but a resigned acceptance that the characters must act as they do. There is an ambivalence that comes with removing all emotion and motivation from characters, exacerbated by their platitudes about the inevitability of everything. They don’t resist the motions they go through, but placidly proceed. The audience feeds off this: like the characters, we just sort of accept that Nolan will take us where he takes us. We are asked to trust him and believe that he has the mechanics and ingenuity of it mapped out. The cast are asked to just go with it too. Pattinson described not knowing what was going on for “months at a time”, as did Branagh. Not only do we lose a connection with the plot itself, but we lose a connection with the tension of the film; at one point the characters note that if they're still alive, clearly the end of time has not occurred. This point is just sort of asserted; sure, they still need to do what they must to prevent the end of time. But the tension just slips away.
There is a deep irony to Tenet’s inevitable saviours. Despite the impossibility of not saving the day in the film, Nolan helped to secure his own failure in saving cinema. After three delayed release dates, Tenet was intended to reinspire the masses to cinemas after the worst (!) of the Pandemic was over: a huge, multimillion dollar blockbuster with action and the costume of thoughtfulness (better understood as a blank canvas on which the audience can project) that'll make the most of the big screen and respark cinema. It failed, making half the amount the far cheaper and less-hyped Dunkirk made (itself only a moderate success compared to others in Nolan’s history). Various films, ironically including the newest Bond film, have subsequently been delayed ever further backwards. Tenet’s critic score is slightly below the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, with both in the 70s. This is not very good compared to Nolan's other films; even The Dark Knight Rises is in the high 80s/low 90s range. All the same, the fact these reviews are fairly positive and yet people are not turning out to see it speaks to a moment of particular pessimism and inertia, naturally driven by the pandemic and our conditions. Public engagement with film is giving further way to private consumption. As cinemas struggle to stay relevant, in a time where theatres are falling behind streaming services and a pandemic is keeping people at home, Tenet was never going to succeed. Nolan was destined to fail.
For the deterministic logic of Tenet is that there is no choice, no responsibility, no emotionality. We see characters going through the motions to prevent the destruction of the world, whether they make sense or not. In Nolan’s worldview, this is all they can do. Everything is mundane, from travelling round the world, to talking to loved ones, to inverted technology: everything is met with blank expressions. “Don’t understand it, just feel it”, the scientist says as they explain the technology that fundamentally changes time and space, and threatens all life.
There is a far more communistic answer to the presented conundrum of Tenet, but it is one that Nolan could never consider. To reject the creation of that future ruling class in the first place, by rejecting our present ruling class. It is the survival and perpetuation of the capitalist class and their system that is driving us towards a future extinction.
If we abolish the capitalist class, we create a liberatory future.