TENET: Christopher Nolan vs. Entropy

TENET is a preposterous film. The central conceit of the plot, the rapid-fire delivery of exposition through muffled dialogue, and the mixed-chronology action set pieces are all jaw-droppingly confounding. The fact that it functions as a movie at all is a testament to something, though I’m unsure how much that something has to do with Christopher Nolan’s intentions. I think it has much more to do with the intrinsic narrativization of the human species, the spontaneous application of story to organize a chaotic experience into coherent reality, and of course our conditioned reception of visual storytelling. Yet Nolan has earned enough good will from me as a viewer that I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Nolan is a paradoxical filmmaker. He’s an IMAX Auteur: his films evince a recognizable artistic vision with clearly telegraphed thesis statements, while also being inextricably rooted in big budget, blockbuster myth making. Nolan has garnered a reputation for making films with overly complex, even inscrutable plots, yet that really isn’t fair. It is true that Nolan is fond of high concept stories that explore big ideas through intricately plotted narratives. Yet Nolan is also unabashedly a popular filmmaker, and he goes to great pains to carefully communicate each twist and turn so that the plot points won’t be lost amongst the popcorn noshing. The tendency to over-explain plot points in Inception was widely noted when that film was released (I love Inception, but the ratio of expository to other dialogue in that film is deliriously high…this is not a bug, however, but a feature of Nolan’s particular style of filmmaking). Inception so cemented the public perception of Nolan’s films as labyrinthine mindbenders that when Interstellar was released the perfunctory reactions that it was “hard to understand” seemed baked in to the film’s reception. Yet like Inception, Interstellar also featured ample exposition to help keep the audience on track (i.e. the characters explain the concept of time dilation, then provide their temporal position relative to Earth at relevant points).

It is fitting, then, that Nolan has consistently engaged with the notion of paradox in his films. Logical, ontological, and temporal paradoxes are lampshaded in both Inception and TENET. Memento explores paradoxes of free will through the unreliable memories and self-perpetuating delusions(?) of Leonard Shelby. The duality of vigilante superhero and anarchist supervillain forms the thematic crux of The Dark Knight. Nolan himself came to embody the tension between hero and villain in the controversy surrounding TENET’s theatrical release. Nolan has positioned himself as a stalwart defender of traditional cinema, both of the medium itself in his insistence on shooting on celluloid, and his dogged determination to preserve the theater-going experience. Why wouldn’t he: after all, his preferred aspect ratio is IMAX; his movies aren’t just made to be seen on the big screen, they’re meant to be projected 7-stories high. And the stakes for TENET’s release were just as towering. With the film’s original release date impeded by the coronavirus pandemic, Nolan’s self-appointed status as cinematic savior was no longer framed by the debate between 35mm versus digital but rather an actual existential crisis for moviegoing as we know it. It was not a question of audience preferences or consumer trends, but whether the traditional system of theatrical distribution and exhibition would be either economically viable or ethically defensible in a world where social distancing is a public health imperative. Nolan’s unwavering commitment to a theatrical release was derided as quixotically misguided at best to dangerously irresponsible at worst (i.e. “to save cinema, Nolan will kill his fans”). With the less-than-stellar box office performance commentators are suggesting that TENET didn’t just fail to save cinema it outright killed theaters for good. Some of this seems like unduly harsh criticism, some of it seems like plain old schadenfreude, but it’s also understandable that Nolan opened himself up to these reactions.

In many ways TENET seems like the most “Nolan” movie yet, a distilled concoction of the filmmakers defining thematic and technical proclivities. Nolan’s preoccupation with time and chronology has been present since his debut film Following, which employed a non-linear narrative intended to keep the audience on unsure footing. Memento upped the stakes considerably, intercutting a reverse order central narrative with forward-moving vignettes, tying the two threads together in the final sequence. Inception introduced the notion of variable time scales running parallel to one another, culminating in a climax where several temporally distinct set pieces are stacked up and then collapsed. 

Interstellar played with the idea of time dilation but also revisited the nested parallel timeframes of Inception, to greatly diminished effect. The intercutting of Coop’s travails in space and Murph’s earthbound crisis simply does not produce the intended degree of tension and suspense, in part due to the in-universe logic that Nolan had established by that point of the story: as an audience, we know that the events of Murph’s story have already played out years before the events of Coop’s story that they are intercut with. Nolan tries to create a sense of urgency through intense editing and music but it just falls flat because, unlike Inception, there’s no interdependence among the plot threads. This disconnect is only compounded by the extreme temporal and narrative distance between the two stories: the fate of humanity hinges upon Coop’s mission, and he is operating in a timeframe where Murph is likely long dead and gone, so intercutting with Murph dealing with local effects of the corn blight just doesn’t resonate. Frankly, the attempts to establish high stakes in the Murph segment feel silly (“These people are coughing…we have to get them away from the corn immediately!!”).

Nolan took another crack at nested timescales and intercutting across parallel chronologies in Dunkirk. Essentially, Dunkirk is an attempt to build an entire movie out of the climactic falling-dominoes-of-collapsing-dreams sequence from Inception. It’s a cool idea, taking one of the most exciting and dazzling scenes from his filmography and expanding it to feature length. Dunkirk is technically impressive, of course, and mostly succeeds at creating and sustaining tension for its entire runtime. Yet ultimately the movie left me cold, and I found it to be a disposable entry in Nolan’s canon rather than essential. Dunkirk contributes nothing new to the War Film genre, it merely recapitulates the same bombast and patriotic bromides that we’ve seen countless times before.

If Dunkirk can be seen as an attempt to expand the Inception dream collapse climax to feature length, then TENET represents the effort to build an entire movie from the opening credits of Memento. Those credits culminate with a reverse motion scene of a bullet casing rolling along the floor before jumping back into Leonard Shelby’s handgun. In TENET, Nolan takes this most basic of cinematic special effects techniques, along with Memento’s essential structure of dueling forwards-and-reverse narrative threads, and spins a yarn about a generational temporal cold war waged across a series of spectacular action set pieces. It’s not particularly heady stuff but rather visceral, marrying the most fundamental of narrative stakes with the oldest techniques of photographic trickery in the history of the medium.

As was the case with past Nolan films, TENET’s release was met with a chorus of complaints that the movie was “hard to follow.” In this case the criticism centered not only on the convoluted plot and loopy linearity, but also on the sound mixing. Issues with audibility had cropped up in previous Nolan releases (i.e. Bane’s mask-muffled dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises, and Michael Caine’s deathbed confession being drowned out by bass reverberations in Interstellar). A preponderance of TENET reviewers reported that the confusing nature of the film’s high concept plot was compounded by dialogue being overtaken by the score or drowned out by other audio elements. Nolan’s sound design choices were alternately dragged as a careless lack of attention to detail or an exacting application of the director’s idiosyncratic auteur instincts. One of Nolan’s longtime sound editors described the filmmaker’s audio aspirations as a dense “punk-rock kind of vibe.” A Dunkirk sound designer suggested that the barely-audible dialogue was a calculated maneuver intended to force audience members to pay attention:

Although he concedes that “small dialogue details” may be difficult to catch as a consequence, he likes the fact that everything isn’t “served up on a plate” for the viewer. “You have to be on your toes to really get all the details,” he says.

I must admit, I love the idea that Nolan is deliberately trying to instill the effect of a McLuhanesque cool medium, as conveyed in the quote from this blog’s About page:

“A cool medium, whether the spoken word or the manuscript or TV, leaves much more for the listener or user to do than a hot medium. If the medium is of high definition, participation is low. If the medium is of low intensity, the participation is high. Perhaps this is why lovers mumble so.” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Perhaps this is why Nolan’s characters mumble so. If Nolan really is designing the sound mix so that the audience has to more actively listen in order to follow the plot, or to prioritize visceral or emotional engagement with the story rather than intellectual comprehension, then I have to commend the ambition purely on principle. At the very least, Nolan’s divisive sound design does seem to accord with another McLuhan maxim, that “art is what you can get away with.”

I’ve already mentioned that I’m predisposed to grant Nolan ample leeway with his filmmaking choices. I’m inclined to interpret his output generously based on his consistent track record, and in spite of more recent efforts that fell flat for me personally. I struggle to muster the same generosity of spirit toward Jonathan Nolan, his brother and frequent co-collaborator. Jonathan has contributed his screenwriting talents to several Nolan films, and received an Oscar nomination for his “based on a short story by” Memento credit, but his latest industry credits are as showrunner of HBO’s Westworld series. Westworld is a bad show, and has been bad from the beginning. But the third season of Westworld is an audacious exercise in empty spectacle. Westworld season three answers the question: what would a television show look like if it had no real characters, merely a semblance of dialogue, and only the barest suggestion of plot? It is a stunning realization of style over substance. It has all of the superficial trappings that we’ve come to associate with prestige television — a stellar acting ensemble, exorbitant production values, cinematic presentation — and none of the compelling character study or storytelling that defined the greatest examples of the latest television renaissance. Westworld season three seems almost avant garde in its decision to eschew traditional characterization and dialogue in favor of cardboard cut-out caricatures spouting cliches and claptrap. 

Now, a more generous interpretation of Westworld, one more willing to grant the creators the benefit of the doubt, might consider the series’ apparent shortcomings outlined above as some sort of savvy meta-commentary on contemporary culture and entertainment. Perhaps the paper-thin characters and meandering narrative are intended to critique the banalization of cultural expression in a media-saturated world. They may even betray an implicit deconstruction of the series’ origins as a re-imagining of a 1973 science-fiction movie, a subversive dig at the Hollywood trend of recycling existing properties and established brands. The show clearly seems to want to engage with genre conventions: the debaucherous amusement parks at the heart of the first two seasons are based around fictional worlds as presented in Western, Samurai, and World War II films. The third season even introduces a recreational drug called “Genre,” a plot contrivance that is both laughably insipid and frustratingly under-developed (like the proverbial restaurant whose food is terrible and portions too small). The writers also make obvious attempts to connect the escapism of genre entertainment to historical legacies of exploitation and colonialism (one of the amusement parks is themed around the British Raj). 

The problem is that Westworld simply doesn’t seem that smart. The narrative arc of the third season feels like the creators read Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and decided to ham-handedly insert her core ideas into their story about Audio-Animatronics gone wild. Yet these ideas — along with the ideas about sentience and artificial intelligence from the first two seasons — have been explored better in other works. Just as the series can only mimic the style of prestige visual media without being able to deliver the goods, it also can only suggest the form of critique without providing the requisite content. It’s a glittering simulacrum whose ostentatious superstructure belies its underlying insecurity that it has nothing to say. 

Christopher Nolan’s films have received similar criticisms to those I just levied against his brother Jonathan’s work, namely that they are pseudo-intellectual spectacle with pretensions to profundity. Yet I think that Nolan has demonstrated the ability to engage with ideas and evince a coherent thesis in his films. To be fair, the singular and self-contained nature of a movie allows for this sort of thematic focus much more so than an ongoing television series. Yet when Nolan pulls off his particular blend of big ideas and big budget action, the results are among the most engaging escapism that mainstream cinema has to offer. I saw Inception at a midnight opening day screening, and even on that initial viewing it was evident that the film was operating at multiple levels. The surface level story functioned as a slick fusion of high-stakes heist theatrics and mass consumption mindbender. The film’s psychological elements offer surprising breadth, from a dream-bound staging of the primal domestic drama, to blurring the line between perception and creation, along with admonitions against an overreliance on memory when dreaming up potential futures. Inception represents Nolan’s most successful synthesis of cerebral speculation and populist pyrotechnics. I think that the film’s most significant contributions to the Nolan canon concern the author’s attitudes toward his own artistic endeavors. This can be delineated by comparing the moviemaking metaphors of Inception with those offered in The Prestige.

Whereas Inception imagines the filmmaking process as dream weaving, Prestige poses the metaphor of “moviemaking as magic trick.” Here the stage magician’s tripartite illusion sequence of pledge-turn-prestige corresponds to the traditional three act structure of narrative filmmaking. Read in this way, Prestige suggests that in both cases an artist stages an illusion for the purpose of dazzling and delighting the audience. Yet there’s something unsatisfying about this formulation, it seems incomplete or even disingenuous. When Hugh Jackman’s Angier intones at the film’s conclusion that his obsessive pursuit of magical one-upmanship was motivated by “the look on their faces,” the moment feels unearned. It comes out of left field like a last minute retcon of the preceding plot. Throughout the film Angier’s and Borden’s rivalry is evidently fueled by passion, resentment, and personal ambition. At no point does the story convey that the dueling magicians derive a significant sense of satisfaction from the audience’s response. I don’t believe that Angier was driven by the looks on audience members’ faces, and I don’t believe Christopher Nolan is either. He puts far too much effort into provoking thought when mere spectacle would be sufficient for eliciting wide-eyed gawking.

Inception expands the meta-fictional thesis statement from The Prestige beyond an emphasis on ephemeral audience reaction to a suggestion of enduring emotional impact. Nolan’s thesis evinced by Inception is that the filmmaker’s work is to create an immersive and convincing dream world which the audience populates with their own subconscious projections and leads themselves to cathartic release and personal revelation. When Fischer experiences atonement with his father and realizes that his perceived failure to live up to Senior’s expectations are a self-imposed limitation of his own potential, the moment lands with the full weight of all the momentum accumulated by the film up to that point. The moment feels justified not only by the preceding plot but also within the broader context of Nolan’s filmography. Nolan is arguing that even though the melodramatic chills and thrills provided by the movies are objectively artificial — illusory dream worlds — the affective responses they stimulate in viewers are just as subjectively real as those triggered by real life events.

If The Prestige envisions pop cinema as an audience-enchanting illusion, and Inception explores the medium’s potential as a psychological dreamscape for working through personal emotions, then TENET stages the cinematic experience as a battleground between competing futures. I was immediately intrigued by the revelation that John David Washington’s character name in TENET was “Protagonist,” as it signaled Nolan’s intent to double down on his meta-investigations of film’s cultural facilities. After seeing the movie I am unable to discern a cohesive mission statement like his earlier films seemed to present. The Prestige suggested that the deeper justification for Angier’s covetous pursuit of the “look on their faces” was to make the audience forget the inherent misery of their daily lives through a temporary suspension of belief. TENET ups the ante to a war with the fate of the entire world at stake. 

So how might we go about disentangling the text of the film from the subtext? I’ve seen several reviews of TENET that suggest the character name of Protagonist is an indication of Nolan’s lack of attention to the human element in his films, evidence of his preoccupation with conceptual and visual acrobatics at the expense of grounded characterization. As if he couldn’t be bothered to come up with a name for his main character because he was too busy choreographing the special effects sequences. This is ludicrous. The main character of TENET is not called “Protagonist” due to some oversight or laziness on Nolan’s part. It’s a deliberate (and rather brazen) choice. It communicates that Nolan aims to draw attention to the artifice of the story at the level of the text itself, perhaps even to boil the story elements down to the most fundamental narrative components. It suggests an interrogation of traditional story construction, or a more psychologically inflected examination of how individuals are interpellated into subject positions within their personal narratives.

The significance of the Protagonist gambit is further muddled when trying to discern a political proposition in the film. On an ideological level the film recapitulates standard tropes of clandestine government agencies and elite military operatives working tirelessly to preserve the world as we know it. The central antagonist of TENET is a billionaire Russian arms dealer, and the film flirts with class consciousness when the Protagonist infiltrates the insular world of tax evading art collectors. Yet the film offers no explicit comment on economic inequality beyond repeated assertions that the 1% are much better dressed than the hoi polloi. A single line of dialogue delivered in the plot’s third act seems to suggest that the future’s war-on-the-present is retribution for the catastrophic effects of man-made global warming. This nominal gesture to the climate crisis could either be a key to unlocking the story’s political implications, or a banal and perfunctory concession to one of this generation’s great existential threats. On the Why Theory podcast Todd McGowan and Ryan Engley offer an extremely intriguing appraisal of the film’s philosophical merits vis-à-vis imagining a politics premised on re-interpreting the past to create the future.

Reviewers often approach Nolan’s films as a stark contrast between cerebral storytelling and slick special effects, but TENET’s narrative complexity is compounded by a corresponding confusion in its action scenes. The staging and editing of Nolan’s action scenes has been a noted weak point in the director’s repertoire since Batman Begins. The choreography and shot composition of fight scenes in particular has steadily improved across Nolan’s subsequent films. On paper, TENET’s ambition to build action setpieces around a forwards-and-backwards ballet composed of pieces moving in opposite directions through time is eminently alluring. Yet in execution these sequences are often frustrating and befuddling. The “freeport” fight scene that occurs twice during the film pits two opponents with inverse-entropy into close-quarters combat, an escalation of the shifting-gravity hallway fight from Inception. Again, the set-up is exhilarating but the execution is almost impossible to follow. It is a sort of visual corollary to the audio mixing issues mentioned earlier, requiring audience members to strain in order to make sense of what is unfolding.

As I stated at the beginning of this essay, TENET is a preposterous film. It represents a pinnacle of Nolanesque puzzle-making where the complexity of its narrative is matched by the inscrutability of its spectacle. Regardless of the issues I have with the film, I remain charmed by the fact that Nolan framed the stakes of the storytelling as a battle against entropy. There is something irresistibly romantic about waging a war as foolish and futile as a fight against entropy. It is far easier to tear things down than to build them up. And I think that this thematic element of TENET offers wide-ranging resonance with our contemporary culture. We are inundated with opportunities for attempting to reverse entropic processes, however fruitless those efforts may ultimately be. There are many potential battlegrounds for these struggles to play out, whether we are talking about climate catastrophe, personal decrepitude, pernicious political plots, or our ubiquitous online culture of cringe posting and hate tweeting. It’s a battle that I’ve attempted to recapitulate throughout this essay, attempting to avoid reactionary critiques and instead search for redeeming qualities in the works I’ve discussed. If TENET ultimately falls apart in its endeavor I am inclined to consider it a commendable failure. I also think it is significant that TENET establishes entropy not only as the basis of the struggle but also as the means of engagement, the weapon with which the war is waged. Several commentators have noted that TENET offers greater rewards upon subsequent viewings, that it is a magic trick that works better once you know how it was done. I like that idea and I hope that further contemplation will yield deeper insights. As it stands currently, TENET might just represent a tantalizing puzzlebox whose ultimate confoundment is the utter lack of underlying mystery. 

Oh, and the soundtrack slaps.

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