Watching Christopher Nolan’s Tenet: First Day First Show in India

In this sci-fi movie, forces from the future seek revenge on past generations for what they had done to the planet

WATCHING Christopher Nolan’s Tenet on December 4, the day it was released in India, was thrilling for more reasons than the movie itself. It was the first film I watched in a cinema hall in over 10 months. The last was Judy in which Renée Zellweger played the late American actress Judy Garland in a stellar role. Ever since I had started watching movies as a child, hardly a month has gone by when I did not visit a movie hall. But then Covid-19 changed everything about life, even our sense of space and time. Which is an excellent time to release a movie on the subject.

Tenet, it is said,was conceived by Nolan long ago, but shot only over the past few years, and its release worldwide was delayed by the lockdown. Like his Inception in 2010 and Interstellar in 2014, the 50-year-old celebrated British-American director has explored in this one, too, an esoteric and a cerebral subject: time travel. Nolan’s obsession with this concept had been showcased in Interstellar where the idea of time is highlighted as varying from space to space and planet to planet. Time is no doubt a deep and abstract concept. Just as his exploration of dreams and thieving through dreams in Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer Inception andmuch more mathematical and philosophical questions in Interstellar, we see Nolan attempting to tackle the theoretical concept of time, as well as its philosophical variant, in this much-awaited movie. This time, too, he has consulted noted American theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to verify elements of physics. But the director himself had made it amply clear in his interviews before the launch that this movie was not about scientific accuracy.

As a student of physics and as a connoisseur of his films, I found the movie a bit of a drag compared with Nolan’s earlier blockbusters that made us sit and think about profoundly intellectual concepts that have attracted philosophers and scientists alike since the dawn of time. To be fair, this film is not exactly about time travel alone. It goes beyond to talk about technologies that can invert an object’s entropy and therefore that of the whole world. Entropy is the order of disorder, which tends to increase with time. This is a very basic law taught in schools.   

Tenet looks at this imaginary inversion scenario in which humans can go back in time – through technology and the use of an algorithm. In a large-scale inversion, the whole world can go back in time and get destroyed. That is what some forces in the future want: the end of the beginning. While all this could be vastly inaccurate from the scientific reasoning of the time, the director shows a bit of promise when his characters talk about these powers from the future interfering in the present and past because they are angry about what the current and the past generations have done to the planet. They talk about the grandfather paradox, which originates from the thought that if people can travel backwards – that is, if the time ever becomes negative – they can go back to the time before their grandfather had kids and kill him so that they would not be born. This aspect brings us to the large political and social issue of mankind’s failure to reconcile with nature, its greed that goads it to make large parts of earth inhabitable for coming generations. The message here is a warning that humanity needs to shed the after-me-the-deluge urge.

In fact, it is the character called Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a shady (and, yes, exceedingly stereotypical) Russian billionaire and arms maker (with, as usual, a traumatic childhood in a stereotypical Russian town burdened by radiation from a stereotypical Russian nuclear facility), who tries to justify his contract with those powers from the future on whose behest he wants to destroy the past and present so that nobody will be born in the bleak future, a future in which oceans have risen and rivers have dried up because of man’s avarice. So, this whole argument of the future plotting to destroy the past is a tempting one.

Interestingly, there is a bit of Mumbai in the movie and a bit more of Dimple Kapadia, who plays the role of an arms dealer named Priya and who is tracked down by the key characters in the movie, the fast and furious former CIA agent Protagonist (John David Washington) and the very composed Neil (Robert Pattinson) who are employed by a secret organisation called Tenet to hunt down Sator who was involved in the stealing of an artefact in an opera in Ukraine. Priya is the one who supplied so-called inverted cartridges to the Russian oligarch. A scientist at Tenet had forewarned Protagonist while displaying these cartridges that what he is confronting is far worse than even a nuclear holocaust and that therefore his secret mission is to prevent a WWIII. Various familiar locations in Mumbai can be seen in the movie, especially those near the Gateway of India, Colaba and Breach Candy. For someone who had completely ignored the role played by Indian soldiers of the British Army in his movie 2017 Dunkirk – which is based on the historical WWII retreat of British, French and Belgian soldiers from this French town to avoid a total defeat against the German forces – Nolan shows more than enough of south Mumbai, including the tall Shree Vardhan Tower. Through Priya’s connection (Michael Caine), Protagonist and Neil are able to establish connection with the stunning wife of the extremely jealous Sator named Kat, a role played by Elizabeth Debicki, the 30-year-old Australian actor who is familiar to us from the TV series Night Manager and the movie Widows.

The rest of the movie, shot in seven countries, including India, Denmark, UK, US, Estonia, Norway and Italy, is a hot pursuit for Sator by Protagonist and Neil with the help of those who are part of Tenet and those who aren’t. There are wild road chases involving heavy vehicles, clever movements between the past, present and future through various means, including turnstiles in what we are told is a section of the Oslo airport, called Freeport, which is to help billionaire clients store and transport expensive artefacts and art. There is violence, characters coexisting in the past and present, talk of plutonium and radiation, Sator’s past (which is in the former Soviet Union where, and when it crumbled, the teenaged Sator got into the shady world of arms smuggling), and more of what is referred to as “temporal pincer movement”, a grand scientific explanation of people hopping from past to present and future and also coexisting in them.

Although some of the messages in the evidently high-budget movie – especially the future’s grudge for its past – are bold and political, one is left to wonder why dollops of monotony or clutter creep in as the movie progresses into the second half. Is it because we are used to watching movies differently thanks to Covid where we are used to fast forwarding or swiftly shifting to another movie as soon as a bit of boredom comes in? Or is it because the film is not as gripping as we expected it to be? Well, it could be a case of both.

Although the turnout at the movie hall where I went to watch the film was thin, which is also due to social-distancing rules in place by the cinema hall, it was made up by boisterous talk before and after the movie with young people taking selfies with great enthusiasm to share on social media and messaging platforms. The movie, produced by Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas, may not have risen to the hype or perhaps it is ahead of its time (although Nolan’s use of certain stereotypical characters in the film are painful to endure), but the experience of being in a cinema after a long while was exciting enough. 

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