Christopher Nolan’s baffling Tenet is the definitive pandemic movie of our time
With confusing timelines, patchy dialogues, and an ending that is also a beginning, watching Tenet is like being stuck in a time loop — much like this pandemic.
(Despite the Coronavirus pandemic, Christopher Nolan's much-awaited Tenet released in select theatres in Europe, USA and New Zealand starting 28 August. There is however, no news about its India release.)
254 days. That’s how long it had been since I watched a movie at the theatre. The film I watched back in December? The dreadful, pumped up on catnip adventure, Cats. Perhaps there was the premonition for what was to befall all of us. I watched Cats in a hysterical haze, piqued by the movie’s absolute lack of purpose, enthralled by its fly off the cliff and crash into the hillside and die spirit. If I’d known then that cataclysmic forces would shut movie theatres down across the world for many months, I would have picked a different movie. If I’d known that those very forces would plunge us into the depths of delirium, I’d watch Cats all over again, for research.
After 254 days, I made my way into a minimal capacity IMAX to catch Christopher Nolan’s latest titanic, Tenet, with my cloth face mask and hand gloves in tow. Nolan’s 11th movie has been the salve for movie businesspeople everywhere. With the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasis on social distancing, the movie theatre — the very place where you sit on a seat someone else just sat on, put your arm over the sweat-covered armrest, and bump elbows with strangers — was an early casualty. The summer was bereft of a blockbuster and the malls of cinemagoing shoppers. That was until Nolan sauntered in with Tenet, insisting that the movie release in a theatre and not on a streaming channel near you. The original release date of 17 July kept getting pushed with fresh spikes in COVID-19 cases, and this past weekend, the movie finally released in select countries with theatres promising to socially distance their viewers, by arm-twisting them if need be.
Call it elitism or fastidiousness, but Nolan has always been a big-screen filmmaker. He shoots his movies in 70mm, for the complete IMAX experience, and tells stories featuring convoluted, fantastical science concepts that are just hard enough to make you feel dumb. Usually armed with Hans Zimmer’s ear-splitting score, Nolan doesn’t just want the movie theatre experience to move you but grip you to your seats, leaving you gasping for air. Tenet is also that movie, except not for its brilliance, but for its ability to constantly remind you of the vicious drudgery of the global pandemic that is COVID-19. Tenet may pretend to be about time-inversion and reverse entropy, but it really is an analogy for the mundanity of our lives in the wake of the coronavirus.
Even the process of making your way to the movie theatre is riddled with so much anticipatory prep and expert maneuvering; the resulting tension feels no less dynamic than a Christopher Nolan film. That the very act of watching a movie can be life threatening makes the metaphor that much more ham-fisted.
First, that plot — or whatever I was able to glean from the dialogues (more on that in a moment). John David Washington’s The Protagonist gets recruited by an organisation called Tenet to stop the next earth-shattering war to take place. Except, this time, it’s not nuclear arms that will set it off but a weapon called The Algorithm, sent from the future, which allows its handler to set time inversion into action. This is not time travel, Nolan insists — it’s literally stepping into the past with time running backward. In this inverted state, bullets are shot into guns, cars move rearward, and people need masks to facilitate inverted breathing. Okay, then. The Protagonist, along with a co-operative Neil, an impish turn by Robert Pattinson must ensure that Andrei Sator, a Ukrainian sadist played by Kenneth Branagh’s thick accent, does not set The Algorithm in motion to reverse time and destroy the planet. Why does Sator want to do it? Because he’s a bad man with a god complex. With the use of a machine called the “temporal stile”, The Protagonist, Neil, and Kate, Sator’s abused wife, travel back and forth in time to try and foil Sator’s plans of destroying all humanity.
In Tenet, timelines bleed into each other and the same scene is revisited multiple times through players entering and exiting time periods. Just like my life, I said out loud at the screen. Much like The Protagonist who slowly and gradually gets sucked into a non-linear storyline, I and the rest of the world have been sucked into a pandemic-era state where each day feels like the day before.
What is Monday, and what makes it different from Sunday? What does a weekend mean anymore, and was I just wearing this t-shirt yesterday? In Nolan’s world, time is the ultimate weapon, and in ours too, time’s dull monotony and rerun has claimed many a tired mind. Yes, I said to myself, half-an-hour into the movie. I too have inverted time, relived moments, and forgotten how to breathe normally while staring at the ceiling in anxiety.
Intentionally or not, Nolan had made the movie of our time.
The post-production sonic mess further exemplified the relationship between the movie and the rambling confusion of my everyday humdrum existence. Nolan is infamous for drowning his actors’ dialogues with the din of a deafening background score. Swapping his regular collaborator Hans Zimmer — who was busy at work on Denis Villanueva’s Dune — for the equally reverberating score by Ludwig Göransson, Nolan ensures you hear and understand very little dialogue. Very well, I said, when I gave up trying to understand what the characters were saying half-way into Tenet; I have lived through countless zoom calls without registering so much as one word. Of course, I can watch this movie and nod my head along like an attentive viewer — working from home has more or less prepared me for this challenge. But what I did miss is the ability to turn the subtitles on, pause the movie to look at my friend, and go “Eh?”
The main theoretical (and philosophical) conundrum that informs Tenet is a concept called the grandfather paradox: can you go back in time and kill your grandfather? Because if you do then you wouldn’t be born, and if you aren’t birthed then your grandfather would live, therefore you would be born and, you get the drift. Pattinson’s Neil offers a way out of this confusion with the mantra “What’s happened has happened.” This! For the last several months, I have been wondering what it would feel like to go back in time and take the road not taken, experience the joy not derived, and do the things not done, so all this monotony would feel less dire. But whatever I or you have done or not, we are all in this pandemic together and, notwithstanding the glory of the past, are filled with nostalgia for a time potent with opportunity.
In one quick and confusing stroke, Tenet both subdued my anxiety and quelled within me a deep appreciation for another mantra — Que sera sera.
Like its title, Tenet functions as a palindrome — a theme I more or less live to prove. After the screening, I retraced my steps from the movie theatre: peeled off my gloves, unmasked my face, collected my breathing, and made my way home to resume another evening in the racket of fleeting summer cicadas. I fed food to my body and the cat, wore the same unwashed t-shirt from the day before, and staring at the ceiling, listened to Lovesongs, the Aniruddh Menon album for the 20th day in a row. Just like that, I move both forward and backward. The ending in Tenet is quieter and more meaningful than any other moment in the film, and so I hope, as I write this today, that when all this boils over, it will all have amounted to something.
In the meantime, I will continue to wonder why Christopher Nolan won’t just make a silent film, where both dialogue and meaning can be open to interpretation, much like the science his movies like to tout.
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