You can draw a chart of what goes on in Nolan’s mind and how that instances in the worlds of cinema and the one I share. That chart would then be superimposed on a chart of timelines and events in this film.
Nolan’s chart would trace an obsession with narrative reinterpretation plus cinematic storytelling. Because retroactive reinterpretation requires sequence manipulation, we tend to think he is obsessed with time, but there is a deeper driver.
How do you engineer ambiguity in cinematic stories, such that you destroy the lock of time on long form films? Nolan is out to upset how we think, just as Greenaway was. But instead of addressing a vanishingly small audience of art theorists, he intends to sweep up all of us. His presence in this film is no less than the geniuses in the future (in the story) who have been able to manipulate the binding of cause. Our job as viewers is to find an accomodation, much like our on-screen noir avatar, the Protagonist.
One of his techniques is to make the film ‘real’ by using practical effects, here in the five big action sequences: an opera house (in Ukraine), an airport (in Norway), a radically reimagined chase scene (in Estonia), a yacht (in Vietnam) and a battle at a nuclear installation (in Siberia). There are also action scenes in India that (puzzlingly) have no apparent time reversal, and some in London.
So let’s see if we can recount the narrative from the Protagonist’s view.
At some point in the future, we understand entropy well enough to know how to tip the balance between extropy (non-entropy where things self-organise) and entropy. Entropy in our world is global decay, within which there are cells that organise. Narrative is extropic, and in fact my professional life can be described as modelling situations as extropic urges and linearising them as narratives.
All we know about this future is that they have built machines that allow people and objects to be inverted, which is an extreme local inversion. A master scientist, Nolan’s alter ego, has devised a master ‘algorithm’ that can affect this globally, basically inverting the world. She may not be part of the group with the machines, and for reasons unknown has built and effectuated of this algorithm, dividing it into nine pieces, which will be assembled linearly. She has killed herself, but what that means for someone who lives in a loop-capable universe is unknown.
Is she Kat?
By unexplained means, these nine pieces have been hidden in her past — the present of the film — in nuclear facilities, only because they are guarded. The reason that this hiding process is unknown is that the only time travel method we know is moving back in time. For someone to carry these items from a remote future, they would have to live many reverse lifetimes. So some undescribed instant time travel must exist that transported these nine segments. Possibly the inversion portals we see will have been made by the future folks and transported back as well. Our Russian bad guy doesn’t seem to have any science assets.
There must be two forces in that future. Our trigger situation has those two forces recruiting their champions to play out the contest in the movie. One side recruits a Russian arms dealer Sator. We have his version of why he was selected, but it is unlikely this is the reason. At any rate the future communicates with him by text messages. He sends them and they sit for centuries to be later read. The responses on inverted devices sit for an identical several hundred years. How this is linearised sequentially where each side only reads the next message is unexplained.
The future makes Sator rich, but through an unlikely path as arms dealer. Dealing arms to terrorists has nothing to do with the plot, and we have to chalk that one to conforming to the Bond movie formula. Sator, we later learn has terminal cancer; his intent is to kill himself at the same time he destroys the world, accomplished by assembling the nine components and burying them for the future to trigger. Everyone we see in the film believes this will destroy the world. He thinks his future sponsors want a reset from climate change.
I have not yet seen ‘Oppenheimer’, but I believe it deals with this same uncertainty, that detonating ‘the bomb’ had two possibilities. It could instantly destroy the universe, or in a few decades make the planet uninhabitable. Should this Oppenheimer (with fictional individual power) have refused to assemble the components?
Another force in the future recruits our protagonist (we’ll call P1) who long before the film has established an entropic special forces unit that have their own inverters. Neil, who we will meet, is one of this crew, and a friend of P1. P1’s mission is apparently to prevent the assembly, which we see him accomplish. What happens after what we see is tantalising. We already know that several inverters remain on both the Tenet and Sator sides. And that quite possibly a universe where entropy/extropy balance can be managed could be pretty handy. At any rate, we don’t even learn of the existence of P1 until the end of the film. What we see is a P2, the instance of the original Protagonist in the unperturbed universe as the film begins.
Sator is depressed because of his damaged relationship with wife and their child, which forms a subplot situation that sometimes dominates. The wife, ‘Kat’, had a likely affair before the film with an art forger we never meet.
Because we are seeing Kat’s version, we see the forgery.
As an aside, I think much in Nolan is a love letter to his creative partner and wife. Don’t discount that when coming to this.
Posted in 2023
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.