Tenet (2020)

by Afra Nariman

Tenet (2020)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Stars: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh


Conceptually fascinating in its exploration of time and entropy; Tenet is a film that demands not only your constant attention, but also our active participation to get the most out of your viewing. And even then, it likely requires multiple viewings (and probably a background in physics) to fully grasp everything that is going on. Therefore, I obviously did not understand everything in its entirety; but I don’t think it is as convoluted a film to follow narratively, as it has often been criticized of being. That being said, it definitely has some flaws, which I will get to. 

Something understated that is prominent within Nolan’s filmography is the tension between ‘free will’ and ‘determinism.’ In Tenet this tension is presented in various ways, including its intertwined nature with the concept of entropy — in that the film illustrates the ways individuals react to the changes in their environment (and whether we are in control, or simply if our environment controls us). Moreover, it can be observed in the film’s ending, in which Robert Pattinson’s character says to John David Washington’s character:

“What’s happened, happened… It’s not an excuse to do nothing…”

To which John David Washington responds:


And Pattinson says that he would call it “reality.”

Although Nolan’s filmography has often explored this tension between free will and determinism; I maintain that he has made a concerted effort to not necessarily land on one side of the debate or the other — hence the focus on the final shot of the forever (or perhaps not) spinning top at the end of Inception. Here in Tenet, there is reality’s unforgiving, unknowable, and ever-shifting environment’s influence on our lives, and ultimately, on our actions and decisions; but there are also key moments of the characters seemingly making decisions rooted in free will, assuming the consequences, and ‘moving forward.’ In the ending exchange outlined above, Pattinson’s character essentially asserts that reality is reminiscent of being to an extent, determined; but that “it’s not an excuse to do nothing,” meaning that there is vital value in making a conscious decision to consistently exert your free will regardless of what may or may not be determined. 

Where Tenet struggles is in humanizing the concepts of the film. Because of the sheer complexity of the film’s concepts, it is understandable that there are flaws in its structuring and lapses in its “emotional” arc; though it generally encapsulates what it sets out to represent thematically. One of the main problems with the film, in my opinion, is that it does not leave room for reflection. Because of how complex the concepts are, it spends sporadic time having characters “teach” the concept to the audience, and then goes straight into the action scenes. While a film like Nolan’s Inception seems to strike a balance between concept and story, lesson and reflection, action and emotion; Tenet seemsto lack in the latter areas of each pairing just listed. In Inception, for example, the concept is grounded in the human effect that it has on the individual at the center of the film; but in Tenet, thatpersonalhumanized dimension is not constructed as strongly or significantly. 

Again, with the complex ideas featured — the concepts are not commonplace sci-fi tropes (i.e. Artificial Intelligence, Extraterrestrial Life, etc.) — Nolan probably does need to spend time explaining how the concepts work; but would just need to leave space for reflection instead of directly following each lesson with stretches of action, and would benefit from grounding the concepts through how they really impact the humans in the film (this is what, for me, makes a truly great science fiction film). Perhaps Tenet would have benefited from being constructed in the form of a miniseries, with more time to shape the story and to explore the concepts in greater depth. While the film presents the metaphysical conception of ‘time’ well and accurately, it could have benefited from adopting a more patient embrace of cinematic time (longer takes, space for reflection, showing more rather than simply telling, etc.). Essentially, Tenet is a good film that is very interesting in what it communicates; but could have improved on how it communicated.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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