A Film Review of
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
(Rated PG-13, 2020)
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The title of Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections on cinema is Sculpting in Time. For Tarkovsky, film as a medium offered a new and important power to the world of art. Through film we not only have recorded events, but also the power of the edit, which can assemble and reassemble events non-chronologically. He writes,
What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.1
The famously taciturn Christopher Nolan’s unwritten thoughts could also be called Sculpting in Time, though Nolan’s sculptures aim less at recreating life as much as creating Escher-like puzzle boxes that are utterly unlike almost anything we experience in reality. Think, for example, of the Penrose stairs Arthur and Ariadne climb in Inception (2010). This famous visual illusion is a trick of the eye that conjures an impossible set of ever rising steps. Like the feuding magicians in The Prestige (2006), Nolan is the consummate trickster, aiming to use the full power of cinema to beguile audiences with the cleverness of his construction projects. Tenet, now in many theaters nationwide, is perhaps the knottiest of his puzzle boxes. In fact, it may be too knotty for most viewers. It is also his most time-centric film. I’ll return to the film later. If you are eager to skip ahead, I have no control over your experience of the linearity of your reading. Skip forward and then return to this later. To quote Tenet, “I’ll see you at the beginning, friend.”2
Time and Experience
To achieve his tricky effects, Nolan has returned again and again to reconstructing the audience’s experience of time in his films, primarily by cleverly reordering the unfolding of time. The most famous example, and the most effective, is Memento (2000), Nolan’s breakout film, wherein the protagonist’s short-term memory loss is cinematically experienced by the audience through a masterful choice: the story is told largely in reverse. The main character’s confusion is mirrored by the audience, as cuts between sequences take us earlier in time, creating a sense of perpetual amnesia.
Though non-linear storytelling is found in all of Nolan’s films, the director’s fascination with playing with time has only grown stronger in his recent work. Even in one of his recent and fairly straightforward movies, Dunkirk (2017), Nolan assembles three stories that unfold concurrently in cinematic chronology, though the stories take a week, a day, and an hour in real-world time. Inception’s dream-logic creates a similar effect, as time slows down the further the heroes descend into the subconscious realm. We see a van falling at a snail’s pace into a river while time moves normally for those further down in the dream.
Interstellar (2014) offers the most straightforward linear progression of all Nolan’s recent films, with only a few elements of non-linear storytelling, though it shows the personal costs incurred by Eisteinian relativity. In one of the film’s most moving sequences, the main character, who is a on an interstellar mission, experiences the true cost of relativistic travel when he watches his children grow up in a quick series of video communications. Because of the nature of time distortion, his own life has been slowed to a snail’s pace while it has progressed normally on earth. The mechanics of the world, for Nolan, can be as strange and puzzling as a magician’s trick.
If Nolan’s movies were nothing more than a clever attempt to create a satisfying maze for the audience to wonder at, as the filmmaker leads us through it, he would still be worth considering as an artist to admire. However, there’s a philosophical element to Nolan’s filmmaking that elevates his work above many of his peers — though his abiding metaphysical interests may give us pause. In all Nolan’s work there’s an underlying darkness that drives his meticulous artistry and reveals his view of ultimate reality.
As I have written elsewhere, Nolan’s films reveal an underlying nihilism.3 From beginning to end, we see his main characters struggle for meaning in a dark and destructive universe. Though there is always a tragic nobility in the struggle, for Nolan, the choice is almost always between a disturbing truth and comforting lie. We see this in The Dark Knight (2008), as Batman chooses to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death in order to give Gotham hope. We see this in Memento as Leonard Shelby chooses to deceive himself to find a meaningful purpose in life. We see this in Dunkirk, when Cillian Murphy’s unnamed character is told that his cowardly action has not harmed a young boy (when, in fact, the boy is dead). We see this in Interstellar, when Professor Brand concocts a noble lie to give the people of Earth false hope. We see this in Inception, when Cobb leaves behind his reality-revealing totem, a sign that he has stopped caring if he’s truly escaped the dream world.
Perhaps the clearest statement of Nolan’s nihilistic worldview, and the point where it connects most meaningfully with his art, is in The Prestige. Echoing a line from earlier in the film, one magician confesses to the other the reason for his dedication to magic: “You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you…then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was…it was the look on their faces.”4
If we take this quote as a statement of Nolan’s own work, we might believe that his films aim simply at distraction; but there’s something more complex going on here. Nolan not only wants to dazzle audiences with impressive stunts and clever twists, but also to reflect on reality as he understands it. Nolan seems to accept the naturalistic assumption that the universe is a cold and ultimately hopeless place without transcendence, but, understanding this, to offer an immanent option for noble, tragic striving for meaning. Nolan’s ethos might be best summed up in Dylan Thomas’s lines, “Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,”5 which, it should be mentioned, are also quoted in Interstellar. Nolan’s heroes battle death in a dying world, and they often succeed, at least within the constructed time-frame of the film.
Returning to Tenet, Nolan’s cinematic and philosophical obsessions are all on display. The film’s conflict centers on a future technology to “invert” the entropy of objects and people, sending them back through time in the opposite direction that humans and audiences expect. The protagonist of the film, like the audience, is bewildered by the confusing effect. The film’s antagonist is working to enable mysterious future forces to reverse all time, likely ending life on Earth. As we discover, the antagonist’s motivation is his own impending death from cancer, and his reasoning is that if he is doomed; the rest of the world will be as well. In other words, the villain decides not to rage against the dying of the light.
As a time-travel movie, Nolan is committed to the notion of inevitability. This is not Back to the Future (1985) or Avengers: Endgame (2019). The past and the future cannot be changed. Much of the pleasure of the film will not be found in a first experience of watching, but in reviewing the movie to see how cleverly Nolan works within this deterministic framework to create an unexpected and momentarily hopeful outcome. After watching, I recommend reading various explainer pieces on the internet that untangle the various timelines.6 Unlike the magician’s trick, Nolan’s is far more satisfying after explanation.
Against the ethos of the villian, a central figure, Neil (Robert Pattinson) sums up his own opposition to trying to change the past in a way that is hopeful for his own story. Like Batman in The Dark Knight (fittingly, since Pattinson will soon play the cowled crusader), Nolan’s favorite hero is one who understands the bleakness of life in a dark world, but who refuses to give in. The closing dialog of the film encapsulates this sort of tragic nobility: “What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of fate in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
Together with Interstellar and Dunkirk, Tenet falls into a subset of Nolan’s films that can be described as “momentarily hopeful.” Though, like the magician’s tricks in The Prestige, the wonder the audience feels is only fleeting. For Nolan, the light is dying. All knights will succumb to the darkness. Our rage will die as well, given enough time.
Philip Tallon is an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2012) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016). He’s on Twitter: @philiptallon.
- Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art, trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austen, TX: University of Texas Press, 1987), 63–4.
- Tenet, directed and written by Christopher Nolan (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2020).
- Philip Tallon, “Christopher Nolan’s Dark Worldview,” Seedbed,July 20, 2012, https://www.seedbed.com/christopher-nolans-dark-worldview/.
- The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan (Burbank, CA: Touchstone Pictures, 2006).
- Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (1952), Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night.
- Sam Adams, “All Your Tenet Questions, Answered: We Finally Understand Christopher Nolan’s New Movie, Mostly,” Slate, September 3, 2020, https://slate.com/culture/2020/09/tenet-explained-christopher-nolan-movie-ending-spoilers.html.