By Ng Ka Wai
Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, TENET, is not your typical action film. Instead, it is fresh, captivating, and cerebral. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and corresponding dips in cinema viewership, many directors have opted to release their films on safer digital mediums like Netflix and Amazon Prime. But not Nolan. Having created other masterpieces like Inception (2010) and Dunkirk (2017), Nolan has carved out a name for himself that would call forth movie enthusiasts to catch his latest masterpiece; and boy did he deliver.
TENET follows the story of a nameless character, aptly referred to as the “Protagonist”, who trained with the CIA and who is later recruited by an organisation, TENET, to investigate a Russian arms dealer responsible for time-inverted objects. In his investigation, he uncovers the truth about the origins of these objects and works with the TENET, and another key character, Neil, to ultimately save the world from annihilation.
I was initially confused after watching TENET – admittedly not unexpected going into a Nolan film. In part, this confusion is due to how complex the movie is. It is a refreshing spin on the overused time-travel trope which has also surprisingly distinguished itself from other films that delve into the concept like Avenger’s Endgame or Terminator series.
TENET discusses time travel as time-inversion, which is not the typical view of time travel as typically defined by instantaneous transportation to the past (or future). Instead, time inversion is defined as: traversing of the past for which one experiences a shared reality with one’s past self, while still getting older (ageing in only a single direction). The duality between agents going forward and agents going backwards is what makes some scenes utterly bizarre.
One of the most unconventional plot devices that TENET explores is the idea of the Temporal Pincer Movement (TPM). Simply put, a TPM is the strategic movement of two groups of agents – a group of time-inverted agents and a group of “time-forward” agents – to achieve set goals by working simultaneously with information not otherwise possible with a singular time-directional agency. In both these groups, it is essential to recognise that whether they are going forward or backwards, they are aware of the time-inversion technology invented in and by the future: The Turnstile. For this reason, groups employing TPM tend to come from the future.
The use of the TPM happens twice in the film. The first time occurs during the Protagonist’s car chase on the highway when the antagonist and Russian arms dealer, Sator, utilises two separate teams to outmanoeuvre him. The second time occurs during the Battle of Starsk-12 where TENET soldiers assault the intended burial site housing the completed Algorithm, a world-ending device sought after by the Future. Most of the confusion stems from this last scene, so let me delve deeper into its significance.
The Battle of Stalsk-12 demonstrates the power that a TPM has. During the scene, both Red and Blue Teams work simultaneously to trick Sator into believing that his completed Algorithm is buried for the Future. They do this by travelling back in time from the moment after the Protagonist realises Sator’s plan. While still going back into the past in their inverted forms, TENET soldiers sieged the site as a recon unit for the Red Team, which continued travelling back in time till just before Blue Team finished their mission in the past (remember Blue is going backwards).
Subsequently, the Red Team is briefed of Sator’s plan to bomb the site to bury the Algorithm, and so to mislead Sator to think his plan worked, still allow for the bomb to be detonated but work to retrieve the Algorithm before the bomb goes off. The utilisation of TPM in this scene highlights the power that individuals had as agents with the knowledge they acquire.
However, we also observe that Sator had previously gone back in time to be with Kat at a time when he was most happy to finally commit suicide. Why is this? Before inverting back to this moment, Sator had just shot Kat in the past and retrieved the last piece of the Algorithm. He was confident that it had been buried because even before shooting Kat and the events at the highway; Sator would have received news about the bomb explosion at the beginning. The explosion showed that his future self and team successfully completed the burial, even if the retrieval of the Algorithm was still uncompleted at that moment.
The significance of the TPM as well as the time-inversion idea presented by TENET hence come into focus as themes that challenge a perceived causality and free-will we observe today. Throughout the film, you would realise that the characters were only observing a present already defined by future agents’ actions. The future in this aspect is fixed by events that already happened in the past. Similarly, the past is also preordained by the future. As observers, we are unsure what is the cause and what is the effect, only that they happened and, in a way, resembling a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Consequently, insofar as TPM is utilised at any moment, choices lack any real definite changes to reality due to the preordained nature of the future in this film. This, however, is not to say that choices do not hold any weight at all. Blue Team, having completed their missions, is contained within Blue boxes in recognition that the mere knowledge of knowing what happens to Blue could and would irrevocably change the sequence of events when agents make new choices. It is under this light that we can also appreciate what the Protagonist meant when he observed that: “Ignorance is our ammunition.”
TENET is a movie ahead of its time, and much of this sentiment derives from just how sophisticated it is. There is a certain sense that the film ended before it even began – an idea one can only truly grasp after watching the movie. To say that the film resembles Inception would be an egregious understatement. TENET is cerebral
, and it is understandable if you do not comprehend everything at first. I am sure almost no one did by the end of the 2-hour mark. It is one of those films where you have to take a step back before returning to think about it a few days later. It changes the way you view the world , and it questions some of our deepest assumptions.