Exploring A Film Wizard Named Christopher

by Travis Mateer

To counter my extreme sadness/trepidation on the 4th of July, I decided to rewatch a movie directed by Christopher Nolan, titled Tenet. Most people watch movies to be “entertained”, but not me. I watch in an attempt to better understand our present moment and to anticipate, if possible, where this crazy train is going.

Nolan has been on my radar for years, especially as it relates to the manipulation of time. Movies like Memento (2001) and Interstellar (2014) break apart linear time in fascinating ways as plot features, giving audiences much more complicated experiences of time as it relates to narrative development. Is this simply to entertain us, or could something more involved be going on here?

Before getting to Tenet, I’ll mention a few other Nolan movies relevant to my the cultural research, and that’s The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010). In The Prestige, David Bowie plays the role of Tesla during Tesla’s time in Colorado Springs–a very important location in my personal pantheon of synchronicities. And with Inception, the idea of the mind as a battlefield is taken to such an extreme, the very notion of how thoughts can be implanted in our consciousness is turned inside-out with a mind-bending, technological flare impossible NOT to be impressed by.

To start grappling with Tenet’s mind-breaking narrative, this GQ article is actually pretty good. From the link:

Despite what you may have heard, Tenet isn’t really about time-travel–it’s about time manipulation. Rather than jumping forward decades like Back to the Future, the characters are able to do something more like rewinding and fast-forwarding through time. This core idea is known as inversion, and it’s possible thanks to a new technology that can reverse the entropy of people and objects, but thankfully you don’t need to know what entropy is to get it. Inversion is explained around 15 minutes in, when the scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy) makes loose bullets jump off a table into her hands in order to demonstrate the concept to the Protagonist (John David Washington)–the bullets are moving backwards through time while the people stay stable.

Inversion becomes more complicated as it trickles into complicated action sequences, like the highway chase. Eventually, when we realize that the masked man the Protagonist fought down corridors during the Freeport battle was an inverted version of himself, it becomes clear that scenes from the first half of the movie involved characters who rewound from the second half.

Before continuing, I’ll note that spending TOO much time trying to understand the mechanics of “inversion” can distract a viewer from what Nolan is trying to do on the meta-level of Hollywood storytelling. That said, here’s some more from the article (emphasis mine):

Inversion initially doesn’t seem too dangerous. But it turns out that the unnamed creator of inversion technology allowed it to become weaponized into an object known as the Algorithm (referred to as “plutonium-241” for a large portion of the movie), which is capable of inverting the entirety of time itself instead of just individual objects. Regretting this, the inversion creator decided to kill herself, but not before she broke the Algorithm into nine physical pieces (MCU Infinity Stones, anyone?) and hid them throughout time. If stacked together to rebuild the final formula, the Algorithm would cause all events on Earth to start flowing backward. The inversion of the Earth itself is said to cause a catastrophic event that would destroy everything that ever lived, according to Neil.

Sator is part of a group that wants to acquire the Algorithm and reverse time in order to undo the effects of climate change and other devastation the present has wrought on the future. (Also, he’s dying and decides to take a melodramatic “if I can’t have it, no one can” approach.) This sets up Tenet’s core plot: the Protagonist must recover the Algorithm’s final piece to stop the end of the world. In other words, it’s essentially a fancy Bond movie, with Sator playing the over-the-top villain role.

The rationale of using this time-manipulation technology is interesting, and made even more so when you consider the timing of this movie’s controversial release date during the pandemic. Here’s a New York Times article about this curious aspect of Tenet’s injection into mass culture:

I’m dying to see Christopher Nolan’s new film “Tenet.” But would I actually die to see it?

These are the things we must mull about movies now that the pandemic has turned Nolan’s $200 million spectacle into a high-stakes test case. After months of being shuttered, movie theaters in many states have begun the tentative process of reopening. Still, with the number of coronavirus infections rising in the United States, it’s unclear whether those theaters can safely launch a would-be summer blockbuster like “Tenet” in just a few weeks.

A time-bending sci-fi flick starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, “Tenet” was long scheduled to come out on July 17, right in the middle of Hollywood’s most lucrative season. Then the pandemic hit American shores, states like New York and California began issuing stay-at-home orders, and spooked studios started shuffling their blockbusters out of the summer corridor. Only “Tenet” held firm to its date, the rare tentpole that wouldn’t pull up stakes.

But as that July 17 release drew closer, Warner Bros. finally blinked, moving “Tenet” back two weeks to July 31. This date would prove temporary, too: As coronavirus cases continued to climb over the summer, the studio hit “Tenet” with another two-week delay, this time shifting the movie to its current release date of Aug. 12.

This context is interesting to think back on now, especially when you consider the characters must where oxygen masks when they enter the “inverted” world of backwards-running time.

While the malleability of time is weaponized in Tenet, it’s the key to solving the future cataclysm of climate instability in the movie Interstellar, a movie I caught just enough of recently to rip my heart out and stomp on it as I sat next to my equivalent of the daughter motivation that drives Matthew McConaughey’s character to enter the blackhole.

Another reason I chose Tenet as the movie to watch while fireworks exploded outside is because Christopher Nolan has a new movie coming out later this month, and it’s very significant to a trifecta of posts I’ve written lately about Jack Parsons (which you can read here, here, and here).

What’s the movie about? It’s about a historical figure who is actually referenced in Tenet, along with the Manhattan Project that may or may not have broken time, for real. Here’s a promotional image so you know exactly what we’re dealing with:

There is so much more I’d like to get into, like Nolan’s work with the Batman/Joker narrative, but I’m going to wrap this post up in order to continue my hunt for a different, more local “algorithm story” for tomorrow. It won’t be as sexy as a protagonist moving through inverted time to save the world from a hostile future technology, but it will hopefully give you an idea of how we are ceding control in small but critical ways, to real algorithmic overseers.

If you appreciate my work, Travis’ Impact Fund (TIF) is one way to help me keep it going, and the donation button at my about page is another.

Thanks for reading!

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply