‘Tenet’ Inverts Transcendence, Folds It Back into Immanence – Brett McCracken

Rather than simply serving audiences a spoon-fed diversion that quickly satisfies but doesn’t nourish, Christopher Nolan makes films that demand more but also reward more. Tenet is his most demanding yet. At various points in the film—a globetrotting, James Bond-meets-Looper espionage puzzle—characters say things like “Try to keep up” and “Does your head hurt?” No doubt, Tenet demands active audience participation—and probably multiple viewings.

Like the paintings that figure prominently in its plot, Tenet invites viewers to examine and enjoy the film as if in an art museum—both on the level of technique (how’d they get that shot?) and also on the level of meaning (what’s Nolan’s philosophical point?). On the first level, Tenet is impressive. From the non-CGI scale (shot in seven countries; jaw-dropping set pieces) to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it editing to, most impressively, the “time inversion” tricks where multiple scenes play both forward and backward, Nolan’s filmmaking skill is on masterful display.

But it’s the second level—the level of meaning—that I want to explore. From a theological point of view, Nolan’s films are fascinating examples of what philosopher Martin Hägglund callssecular faith.” Though infused with religious ambience (e.g., Hans Zimmer’s church-organ score in Interstellar), Nolan’s films are characterized by what I’ve called “immanent wonder”—the non-supernatural “magic” that feels religious in nature but is explainable within the laws of physics or the horizons of human endeavor. With Tenet—a title that frames the film as an interrogation of belief—Nolan continues this motif, presenting a sort of palindrome vision of faith that folds back in on itself.

‘Are You Watching Closely?’

Insofar as it directly engages the theme of non-supernatural “magic,” Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige is the key to understanding his creative and philosophical project. That film begins with a question posed to the audience: “Are you watching closely?” It’s an invitation to active viewing and an admission that what follows is not magic but illusion—cinematic sleight-of-hand. Hugh Jackman’s character says as much: “What you’re about to witness is not magic. It is purely science.” 

This is a key to understanding Nolan. He leans hard into the historically close association between movies and magic, and he fancies himself a Houdini-esque auteur for a secular age. As I wrote in a Permanent Things essay on Nolan last year, the director is committed to the idea that audiences can still be surprised, wowed, and transported by the magic they see on the big screen (this is part of why Nolan insisted on a “big screen” theatrical release for Tenet, pandemic or not). And yet his version of movie “magic” is thoroughly grounded in materialism: 

It is magic shorn of transcendence and the supernatural; a scientific magic of the sort described in Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”). It is magic that exists to wow and amuse us, but wholly (and proudly) within what Charles Taylor would call “the immanent frame.” Some movie magic transports us beyond the immanent frame, leaving us spiritually unsettled and curious about the world beyond. But Nolan’s magic directs our gaze at the wonders here: the natural, the scientific, the human. It’s a magic that rejects humanity’s need for something supernatural, insisting instead that we are our own greatest miracle and that the “natural” is super enough in its own right. All the wonder we need is right here within immanence, the material and observable world. 

In Tenet’s case, the wonder on display is a theoretical future scientific algorithm that “inverts” time and allows people to move either forward or backward in time. Whether or not such a technology could ever exist is up for debate (could pre-modern humans ever imagine something like the internet?), but Nolan’s main point is that it does exist already—in the magical world of cinema. Tenet, like any movie, allows us to go forward and backward in time, revisiting past events multiple times, from different perspectives. We can’t do this in real life, but we can in movies.

‘That’s Just How We See Time’

If a painter works with oils and a sculptor works with clay, a filmmaker works with time. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said the essence of a film director’s work is “sculpting in time.” Few filmmakers are as masterful in this art as Nolan. To dizzying and mind-bending effect, his non-linear films mold time into all sorts of dramatic contortions and durations. Sometimes he reverses time (Memento), jumps forward in jolting chasms (Interstellar), or—as in Dunkirk—weaves three temporal segments (one week on land, one day at sea, one hour in the air) into an increasingly tight spiral. Inception’s Russian-doll structure of dreams-within-dreams similarly plays with temporal sculpture.

But if his previous films manipulated time in ways that pushed the boundaries of narrative comprehension, Tenet takes it to the next level. From characters interacting with their future or past selves, to “temporal pincer movements” (whatever those are), “grandfather paradoxes,” and staccato dialogue that at times feels sped-up to 1.5x, Tenet is a Rubik’s Cube palindrome where time is a riddle. It reminded me of Arrival in its attempt to see time from a different, God-like perspective. Consider this exchange between the unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington) and a scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy):

Protagonist: “But cause comes before effect.”

Barbara:  “No. That is just how we see time.” 

Protagonist: “But what about free will?”

Barbara: “. . . Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

Time is an existential paradox, a conundrum we feel more than we understand. If time is wholly natural, why are humans constantly longing to slow it down, speed it up, or stop it entirely? Sci-fi dreams of time travel, or cinematic fantasies of the sort Nolan creates, are expressions of the human urge to transcend temporal limitations. The Dylan Thomas line that figures prominently in Interstellar captures it: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And yet the uni-directional, can’t-stop-or-slow-it nature of time remains an intractable reality apart from Christ (1 Cor. 15:50–57). 

As W. H. Auden once penned, “You cannot conquer Time.” 

Secular Faith

The unconquerable nature of time would not be a problem for humans if it did not also mean mortality. As Neil (Robert Pattinson) says in Tenet, “Time isn’t the problem. Getting out alive is the problem.” There’s the rub. Death is a necessary byproduct of time.

Christians construe the awkward existential “fit” of time as proof we were made for something else: eternity. We believe God “set eternity in the human heart” (Eccles. 3:11), which makes sense of why our hearts long for the ability to manipulate time. Further, we take comfort in the fact that this temporal world—and all of its death and decay—is not the end (2 Cor. 4:17–18; 1 John 2:17). 

The unconquerable nature of time would not be a problem for humans if it did not also mean mortality. But there’s the rub. Death is a necessary byproduct of time.

For non-believers like Nolan, however, human finitude—and our inability (outside of art, memory, and dreams) to transcend it—means this life is all there is. Instead of a cause for nihilism or despair, for Nolan it’s an impetus to urgency—to “rage against the dying of the light” not for one’s own sake, but for love, human perpetuity, and solidarity. This is where Nolan’s films evoke Hägglund’s notion of secular faith. For Hägglund, our choices in life can only matter if the “fallback/escape” of eternity doesn’t exist. If finite life is all there is, and death is absolute, then and only then do our temporal lives—what we choose to do with our brief time—matter in a meaningful sense.

“The depths of life are not revealed through faith in eternity,” Hägglund writes. “Rather, our spiritual commitments proceed from caring for what will be irrevocably lost.”

The idea is that denying an “after” life raises the stakes of this life and injects everything—every choice, commitment, relationship—with urgency. Such urgency is allegedly absent from religious people whose tenets about eternity may reduce their level of concern about the various crises (e.g., climate change) facing the planet.

Indeed, if you look at Nolan’s films (particularly Dunkirk or Interstellar), you can see this appeal to stop dreaming of a divine rescue and start working together to save ourselves from the threats we face. This is a clear subtext in Tenet. Humanity’s antagonists/villains are embodied in the abusive Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Andrei a likely reference to Tarkovsky, Sator a reference to the ancient Sator Square), played by Kenneth Branagh. He is villainous in part because he cares for nothing and no one beyond himself. Fellow humans (including his wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki), and the world at large, are worthwhile only when they serve him. As Protagonist says to Sator: “You don’t believe in God, or a future, or anything outside of your own experience.”

The film’s heroes, by contrast, manifest a “faith in the mechanics of the world.” In light of Nolan’s other films this probably means: faith in science, physics, human ingenuity, and collective resilience. Tenet’s heroes are somewhat bland and impersonal (it’s telling that the central character is a generic “Protagonist”), but perhaps that’s Nolan’s point: our call is not to individual glory, but to collective efforts to save the world.

But save the world for what? If there is nothing beyond this life, what is the ultimate end to which life, love, and struggle points? If the overall feeling one gets at the end of Tenet is somewhat uninspired (which is how I felt), it’s because Nolan offers no compelling answer to these questions.

Palindrome Belief

Dazzling as its “magic” may be, Tenet doesn’t point beyond itself and offers only a momentary, fantastical reprieve from the onslaught of unconquerable time. The real “inversion” of Tenet—and ultimately, all of Nolan’s films—is that its stretching upward toward the heavens boomerangs back to this world. Like the palindrome mirror of the word “tenet”—Nolan folds the upward gaze back onto itself in neat symmetry. It’s a twist on the T. S. Eliot line (from Four Quartets) that the end of all our exploring “Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

Christians also believe our longings, aches, and explorations for beyond illuminate the here. But not because they merely mirror this world back to us. Rather, the illumination comes by reflecting a reality beyond this world. It’s a supernatural reality unconstrained by the “mechanics of the world,” and thus one that prompts tenets of faith more radical and hopeful than those on offer in Nolan’s cinematic universe.

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