Tenet Explained, Part 1: The Concept of Time and Intuition

The concept of time is a favourite and recurring topic in Christopher Nolan’s movies. Memento, Inception and Interstellar, as different movies as they are, share the common ground of exploring the phenomenon of time in different ways. Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s newest masterpiece, is an espionage thriller that delivers the director’s deepest approach on the subject so far.

What is Tenet?

First of all: Tenet is not a movie about time travel. There are no time-jumps like in The Time Machine or Back to the Future, in which a vehicle is capable of carrying people back and forth through time. Instead, Tenet works with a concept called “inversed chronology”. This means, as the scientist Barbara instructs the Protagonist (John David Washington), that the “entropy [of an object] runs backwards”. The noun “Entropy” stems from the Ancient Greek and means “a turning toward”, which in this context refers to the direction of an object’s physical processes. Hence, inversion allows for objects or living beings to change their direction through time – but only physically. Psychologically, or rather: internally, an inverted person will still experience herself and her surroundings in a regular, progressing manner. Only the movements of external objects are inverted – not the actual process of experience itself.

That’s why in Tenet we’re strictly following the Protagonist’s point of view. We see what he sees; we know what he knows. And our understanding of the events develops in the same way as his. We even experience the Protagonist’s inversions with him.

So, what is Tenet?

Tenet is the story of a CIA-Agent who participates in an operation at the Kyiv Opera that goes wrong. His Ukrainian teammates turn against him and torture him, but he manages to swallow a cyanide pill to kill himself before revealing any information.

The nameless Protagonist wakes up being told that the pills were fakes to test his loyalty. He is charged to join a secret organization called “Tenet”, with the mission to save humanity from annihilation. He learns that humanity is being attacked by the future through “inverted” objects – objects that travel backwards in time.

In the course of the story, he confronts the Russian Oligarch Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh, who is trying to get his hands on a piece of Plutonium 241. The Protagonist finds out that the Plutonium 241 is in truth the last missing part of the Algorithm, an artefact that consists of 9 pieces. Sator works with the Future to complete the Algorithm. With the Algorithm being connected to a dead man’s switch connected to Sator’s fitness tracker, Sator intends to destroy the present world when he dies, to save the future.

While Sator’s wife Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki) kills him, the Protagonist and Neil (Robert Pattinson) manage to save the Algorithm without it being triggered. In the end, the Protagonist, Neil and Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) split up the Algorithm in 3 parts in order to part ways and hide the parts – from each other and from any anyone else. Neil unveils that this whole operation is, in truth, a temporal pincer organised by the Protagonist, who had recruited Neil many years ago and has “a future in the past”.

This is a purposely simplistic description of the story, not taking into account the intricacies resulting from the various inversions and temporal pincer-movements. Actually, if one wanted to accurately describe the many temporal layers created by the inversions, one could spend a good 2 hours only trying to get the actual facts straight. And that leads to another fascinosum in Tenet. With inverted causality being the key concept of the movie, the high pace of the storytelling makes it quite challenging to catch up checking whether the events causally DO make sense.

The Concept of Time

As much as time has been a recurring topic in Christopher Nolan’s movies, he has, except for Interstellar, primarily treated it as the “form of inner intuition”, as Immanuel Kant put it. This means, in simple words, that time is the structuring shape in which all of our life experience becomes possible.

For the German philosopher, who revolutionized our whole way of understanding the world, time is not an entity or something that exists per se, independently from human experience. Instead, he claims that time is the concept that makes experience possible in the first place. In other words: time is the fundamental shape in which all of our life experience becomes possible. Everything we experience is experienced within the context of us being a stream of consciousness in time. Experience without time is impossible: not because we are in time, but because time is in us.

Kant’s position is called “transcendental idealism”. In simple words it means that we experience the world not as it is independently from our perception, but as we necessarily perceive it due to our inner predispositions, which, for us, structure the world into time and space. And we cannot know what reality really is without our application of time to it.

Nolan experimented with this concept of time in his second movie Memento. In this movie, he spins two narratives throughout the whole movie: one moving backwards (pictured in black and white), and one moving forward (pictured in colour). Throughout the film, sequences in black and white will alternate with sequences in full colour. This is puzzling for the viewer, and it requires quite some attention to figure out that we are presented with two different narratives which each have their own direction in time. These two narratives collide in a scene that begins in black and white and changes into colour.

In Memento, we are also confronted with the phaenomenon of transcendental idealism. We follow the protagonist Leonard Shelby, who suffers from a special kind of dementia that makes him forget everything after 10-15 minutes. The last thing he can remember is the memory with which he wakes up every single day: that his wife has been murdered and that he needs to find her killer to avenge her.

The common ground of Memento and Tenet is obvious, since in both movies we see the events unfold from the perspective of the respective protagonist. If that’s not enough, a look at Memento’s opening scene will definitely remove all doubt about a common ground between these two films: it starts with Leonard Shelby looking at a Polaroid picture that becomes paler as he waves it in his hand. From then on, the whole scene progresses in backward direction, with Shelby catching the pistol; and the bullet, lying on the floor, entering back inside the barrel of the pistol – exactly as in Tenet.

Faith in the own Intuition

In Memento, progressing through the movie, we come to realize that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, and that things in truth are not at all as he makes them appear to be.

In Tenet, on the other hand, we come to realize at the end of the movie that the Protagonist we’ve seen is a “fresh-faced Protagonist” – hinting that there might be another Protagonist who is not “as fresh as a daisy”, as Priya says. This would fit with Neil’s statement that the Protagonist has “a future in the past”. Hence, the Protagonist we see in Tenet is one who does not know everything he will know later in the past.

But exactly this is the point where the spark of the story ignites, and in two ways.

Firstly, both Memento and Tenet have a protagonist that obviously does not know everything he could or should know. Thus, they’re both acting out of a stance similar to transcendental idealism. We experience the world through the structure of time, but without knowing for certain whether the world beyond our perception is really as it is. In a similar way, both Shelby and the Protagonist act in faith that their world view is appropriate and representing reality in a reliable manner. The implications of this are crucial, since Tenet’s policy is “ignorance is our ammunition”, and “to even know [the war’s] true nature is to lose”. Consequently, the organization Tenet wants to win this war by putting the Protagonist in a position in which he doesn’t know the true nature of the war, and is thereby forced to rely on his faith that he’s doing the right thing. He is forced to rely on his own intuition. When the Protagonist is first confronted with the way inverted objects function, he comes to understand that the proper way to deal with these phaenomena is not through rational understanding, but through “instinct”.

Secondly, as a consequence of the subjective perspective in Tenet, we cannot rule out that we in some way also have some kind of an unreliable narrator, or rather an unreliability in the narration, since “ignorance is our ammunition” is the organisation’s literal tenet (tenet means “conviction, axiom”). This unreliable narration is played out throughout the plot – for example when Priya purposely misleads the Protagonist to give the Plutonium 241 to Andrei Sator, to make him reveal the other 8 parts of the Algorithm. But also the late revelation that the Protagonist is the true mastermind behind Tenet and the whole operation amplifies this suspicion.

As the movie progresses we get to understand that not only Neil, but also Priya knew the Protagonist before he met them in the story we’re seeing. The “gesture” of recognition, consequently, could actually be a signal for the other players to recognize the Protagonist’s state of knowledge. Because if he had been the “knowing” Protagonist, who was not “as fresh as a daisy”, he would simply have recognized them – like in the scene where the Protagonist is holding Priya’s husband at gunpoint without recognizing her.

At this point the question is, how many people actually knew him beforehand? This can, in part, be derived by the respective person’s reaction to him. We can fairly assume that everybody whom he encounters with the gesture already must have known him beforehand. Otherwise the gesture wouldn’t have been necessary. But also Andrei Sator’s question “Have you already slept with my wife?” can be revealing in this context. It raises the suspicion that Sator already knew the Protagonist and that he would sleep with his wife someday – later in the past.

“An expression of faith in the mechanics of the world”

Tenet, even more than Memento, is a story in which the faith in the own perception, or (as Kant would say) intuition, is examined as the principle of human action. As “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world”, the Protagonist is thrown back onto himself and his most fundamental convinction – his tenet. Seen from the future, the outcome looks like determined destiny and fate. But seen from the present, every decision is taken by free will and choice. “It’s not an excuse to do nothing”, as Neil puts it.

Neil possesses this faith. But we, after seeing Christopher Nolan’s earlier experiments with unreliable narratives in Memento, may still be doubtful whether in Tenet everything is really as it appears.

We’ll have to see what has happened in the sequel of the movie.

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