What happens when one of the most innovative and experimental movie directors of contemporary films hits a dead end with a detective-like time-bending thriller that doesn’t seem to add up as a cohesive piece? The answer, my friend, is Tenet.
Christopher Nolan’s most recent film seems like an interesting exploration of how time works. Aside from that, the movie seems very hollow, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that exploring new ideas is essential to creative endeavors. However, there is a difference between exploring interesting ideas and making a two and a half hour movie that doesn’t make sense.
Because I highly respect Christopher Nolan’s work, I want to avoid falling into the trap of just criticizing the movie; I don’t think there’s any point to that, although it can help us understand ourselves and our relationship with film. Instead, I want to analyze the reasons why I think the movie didn’t resonate with me.
By doing this exercise, I want to understand how a movie, even when bad, can help us imagine new ways of conceiving the world. After all, there’s beauty even in things that don’t captivate us.
Tenet: Overall Thoughts
Although there are some interesting things to Tenet, in general, it felt to me like a group of different interesting pieces that just don’t add up to one another. For a start, the story is just too simple. The movie revolves around a detective who happens to get involved in a mysterious case connected to materials that can defy entropy.
If you are not familiar with the concept, entropy is a hard thing to grasp. To be honest, I’m not even sure I understand the concept myself. What I do know is that it is a scientific concept used in physics, particularly in thermodynamics. It relates to systems and the energy in them, particularly in what refers to the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the irreversibility of physical phenomena. Thus, entropy is a form of keeping things in order throughout the fabric of time.
The plot involves a mysterious case of entropy defying objects, so the idea is in itself interesting. As in Dostoievsky’s famous quote, ‘ when God does not exist, everything is possible’, that entropy does not exist opens up the possibility for everything in time. The problem, however, is that, just like thermodynamic laws exist for a reason (to maintain order in the universe), so does storytelling follow some basic rules. Tenet, in an experimental manner, does not seem to comply with the latter, thus resulting in a strange experiment that doesn’t stand by itself.
As I’ve already mentioned, the movie’s individual parts do not seem to add up. The story moves in a flat manner, with nothing exciting or unpredictable happening. Characters do not seem to change in any significant way, and to make things worse, the explanation of the plot is unconvincing. Even transitions from one scene to another feel weird.
Luckily, not all is as bad as it sounds. There are things to the movie that are totally worth mentioning. These are, in short, the speculative idea that entropy can be somehow controlled, that the future influences the present, and that science can decipher the underlying complexity of the universe at a scale we can’t even imagine.
Trying to find new ways to depict narratives is necessary, especially for an acclaimed director like Christopher Nolan who has taken the art of filmmaking to new heights. Doing so does not seem like an easy task. As one moves farther away towards higher levels of abstraction in a movie, there seems to be little to which one can adhere. Keeping the glue in place to bring the pieces together becomes hard.
It is not surprising then, that Tenet fails to properly mesh all the different pieces of a movie into one coherent object. Due to the complexity of its topic, the movie ends up feeling like a pseudoscientific speculative experiment where it does not matter that things do not make sense. One gets the feeling that sense is being sacrificed in favor of exploring new ideas.
This is a totally fair and valid point. That directors explore new ways to tell their stories is probably a great asset, and something that should be highly valued in the film industry. As the scientific discipline achieves progress, it often feels that the boundaries of the science fiction genre are reaching their limits. So, looking for new grounds is even a necessity, one that not all movie directors are ready to embrace.
Christopher Nolan: Entropic Filmmaker
There are many movie directors who have influenced, in one way or another, my generation. Few are as experimental and risk-taking as Christopher Nolan. Having explored different themes and formats, Nolan has gained a reputation for creating mind-bending movies that shake the foundations of rationality (just think of Memento, Interstellar, or Inception, to name a few).
In a way, Nolan is an experimenter with entropy. His films can be described as entropy films because they do not deal with time and space in a conventional way. This can be strange, and sometimes even uncomfortable, but it pays off. Going out of our comfort zones is necessary if we want to be able to experience things outside normality, and if we want to imagine the what-ifs and the possibilities of existence.
Although I disliked Tenet (I left the theater unwilling to keep on watching, something I rarely do), I do think there is a lot of value in it, at least from an experimental perspective. Its strength lies in the fact that it is provoking, speculative, and can therefore help us imagine absurd realities. Tenet may not be among Nolan’s finest movies, but it definitely has a special place in his list of most provoking ones in terms of experimentation.
It is, ultimately, an artifact of what could have been.