Tenet is a brash, loud, rollercoaster of a ride.
Christopher Nolan’s $200m action spy adventure Tenet is hubristic, discordant and fiendishly complex. Audiences have been left confused and exhausted. But a closer analysis of the film allows for a useful discussion about the dialectics of class as the driver of climate Armageddon.
The film appears at first to be a fairly standard James Bond spectacle. We have an American protagonist with exceptional physical and intellectual capabilities attempting to prevent a Russian criminal mastermind, a narcissist, from destroying the world. There are fight scenes, car chases, concrete bunkers and ticking bombs.
The audience is bombarded with noise, almost incomprehensible dialogue and bizzare plot twists. The film requires close attention just as it resists interpretation. This is all deliberate. Tenet perfects and parodies the spy genre. And the message that is encrypted is a serious political and environmental one.
The word Tenet is a palindrome, and this obviously references the ability of the characters to travel both forwards and backwards in time: but much more importantly, this is a provocation to observe a parallax view of the plot and its meaning - to read the film against the grain of its genre.
The root of Tenet is the real and most important contradiction that faces humanity: we can either protect the status quo or prevent climate breakdown. The potential for civilisation collapse and human extinction within a few generations is explicitly referenced.
In the film, the present ruling class is increasingly entangled in a new cold war with the future ruling class - geographical colonialism becomes temporal.
The effect of this intergenerational class war is a hemorrhaging of hegemony. The moors of the spy action film are in fact severely stress tested, disrupted and in flux. Spy films are supposed to be comfortable, conformist and reassuring. Tenet inverses this promise.
A fixed and final interpretation of what the characters say, what actually happens and what various references mean is not possible. But this fact in and of itself is a manifestation in form of the content of an imaginary where our ruling classes no longer control meaning, control the narrative.
The form and function of the central opposition of spy-hero and death-villain is shattered.
The clearest entry point for this counter-reading of the film comes when the Protagonist is in conversation with Sator over a radio. The protagonist is trying to prevent a central-casting henchman from physically encrypting an “algorithm” that can be used by the future to reverse time, as the clock ticks down and we reach the film’s climax.
Sator explains that he is acting for a future society facing extinction because of both sea level rises and water exhaustion, that his actions will dialectically “trigger and avert Armageddon”.
The (supposed) hero accepts this version of events but argues that every person must act in the interests of their own generation, and not the human species in general. Sator accuses him of blind faith, of not understanding who he serves.
The fascinating thing about the film is that this proposition by the villain is validated by the evidence of the dialogue, and indeed the plot. We have indeed entered a “twilight world” where the good guys provide exposition but prove unreliable, deceitful, fickle, naive - contradicting themselves and each other.
Once we start to look for parallels and similarities between the hero and villain characters, we find them everywhere. The protagonist believes himself to be a secret services agent, pretending to be a nuclear weapons dealer but actually attempting to gain control of the algorithm.
What we in fact discover is that Tenet, which has recruited the protagonist, is a shadow organisation from the future that is acting directly contrary to the interests of its own ruling class, and indeed the survival of humanity. The precise inverse is true for our villain.
This mirroring between hero and villain is followed through into small details: an anonymous underling working for the villain steals a bar of gold. If you watch carefully you see an underling working for the hero also steals an identical bar of gold.
We are confronted with a dialectical identity between the protagonist and his antagonist. This unique feature of Tenet is difficult to discern, and extremely disconcerting.
The protagonist-hero benefits from his place in the structure of the narrative. His identification as an American, his repeated ‘virtue signalling’, and his act to save the civilian audience members in the opening scene all position him as the character with whom we are supposed to identify. As he asserts, “I am the protagonist”.
To compensate for this structural bias, we are presented with a hero that is false and a villain who has a point. Our protagonist is an empty cypher, an abstract universal. He has no back story, no human qualities. He repeatedly fails to maintain the ethical standards he professes to, he fails to identify his true master. His interventions results in Sator, his arch enemy, obtaining the weapon that can destroy all extant life.
Sator is the inverse, a real concrete with human qualities. He is driven by jealousy, and is self knowing and honest about his own venal motives. He keeps on mission throughout. He knows which class interests are served by whom. He remains grotesque - this rotation of hero / villain renders both untrustworthy and dangerous.
The action scenes of the film demonstrate the same inversion, and disruption. The protagonist appears to be attacked by an antagonist in a gas mask and black uniform. The antagonist is traveling backwards through time, which makes for a stunning action film spectacle. But we later realise this antagonist is in fact the protagonist himself. The hero is locked in a literal struggle with his dialectical opposite, threatening to undermine his own mission on both counts.
Tenet rebels against its form and its genre. But fascinatingly it is tethered to our lived reality in a way that is deeply challenging to dominant defences of actually existing capitalism.
The film is predicated on a correct proposition that if our ruling class is successful in maintaining the status quo - the mission of our hero - then we are destined to destroy our natural environment, which sustains our civilisation and our way of life.
Tenet offers a hyper-real presentation of our capitalist present.
A Russian oligarch enriches himself through arms and nuclear weapons dealing while maintaining links with Moscow and British intelligence. His illegitimate wealth allows him to buy his way into the English aristocracy. He sets up a company that operates in the twilight “free port zones” which are tax free, outside regulatory powers and opaque (see Rushi Sunak's budget announcement this week).
The secret services - including a real life spy chief called Christopher Tenet - do more to spread nuclear proliferation as they act to prevent it.
The film is also replete with historical references that support the claims of the villain, but remain outside the knowledge of our hero. These actual historical events transmit a message forward in time that we are travelling inexorably towards the collapse of empire, civilisation and potential annihilation, just as we are told any action now will speak to the future.
The chronologically first event alluded to is the collapse of the Roman empire. Tenet (and indeed Sator) are words from a Roman palindrome which has been preserved for thousands of years. Sator is translated as “the sower” - the villain is the creator of a new, sustainable future. Sator’s son Max (presumably Maximilian) visits Pompeii, the site of the oldest extant Sator’s Square, reinforcing the signal that environmental catastrophe results in civilisation collapse.
The only real people named in the film are professors Richard Feynman and John Archibald Wheeler. These real life theoretical physicists posited that a positron is an electron travelling backwards through time - the scientific inspiration of the film. More importantly, both men worked as part of the Manhattan Project, the development by the United States of nuclear weapons.
This reference is reinforced when a central character, Priya Singh, talks directly about the Manhattan Project. She reminds the audience that J. Robert Oppenheimer feared that a nuclear weapons test could create a chain reaction and destroy the universe. He kept his counsel and the test went ahead. We are told that a future science invents a technology that can inverse time but - unlike Oppenheimer - tries to hide this technology. This is the backstory to the action of the film.
The Manhattan Project resulted in the detonation of two nuclear bombs by the US in Japan, destroying cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people. Feynman and Wheeler, united in their work, took opposing views of these events. Feynman went into a deep depression.
Further, a Societ spy working for the project smuggled its secrets to the USSR. The heroes of the American Cold War gave their mortal enemies the power and technology to destroy the world, as does our protagonist in the film. This failure to "suppress" and contain scientific knowledge emerges everywhere in the film.
There are other historical references that speak to a pending collapse of (capitalist) civilisation.
Sator is born into a secret Serbian city set up to build and host nuclear weapons. He is not the Communist demonic of earlier spy films. Instead, he is very much the creature of the collapse of this empire, and the new age of neoliberalism, enterprise, and the risk of human life in the pursuit of profits. The hero as possible CIA agent and the villain as CIA asset are both products of our capitalist age.
This brings us to the end of our film. In Bond films the villain reveals his plans, but is foiled by our man of action, and order is restored. This appears to be retained in Tenet. The protagonist at the end of the film has the technology to end the world in his hands. Sator is dead. Priya dared question the centrality of the protagonist and his final act is to shoot her. He says: “I thought I was working for you. But we have both been working for me. I am the protagonist”.
But the film again allows for an inverted, opposing, interpretation of events.
Firstly, the protagonist remains wildly off mission at the end of the film. He is supposed to hide the world-ending technology and take his secret to his grave. Instead, he is acting as personal bodyguard to an aristocratic woman - presumably because he has a crush.
The future ruling class would as a result have no difficulty finding him and regaining the weapon.
But wait. The protagonist has used Sator’s “turntable” to inverse and travel back in time. This means the final scene of the film is not the final moment in the chronology of events shown to us in the film.
The final (fictional) event shown in Tenet is in fact Sator getting his hands on the final piece of the algorithm, with the protagonist recovering from unconsciousness in an upturned burning / freezing car.
Indeed, the protagonist has once again failed to keep on mission and instead acted in the interests of the “damsel in distress”. His decision is described as “cowboy shit” by his own team.
After the accident he travels back in time, loses the algorithm to the villain - and starts to realise the import of what he has done. “Sator has the material. I handed it to him on a plate”.
Tenet has two diametrically opposed end points. One where the hero controls knowledge, and one where the secret technology will be transmitted to future generations.
And for me at least, I hope the hero has lost and the villain has won: that Armaggeedon can in fact be avoided.
Tenet is a brash, loud, rollercoaster of a ride. Many critics have found it to be deeply unsatisfactory, lacking in humanity, and without a clear message or philosophy.
But the audience is constantly challenged to pay closer attention, to watch the film over and over just as the characters themselves are able to revisit and observe past events over and over.
This way of storytelling demands scrutiny and then begins to fracture, and break apart under that scrutiny, reminding us of its artificial quality. The audience is distracted, confused, dissatisfied and left asking unanswerable questions about plot points and particle physics.
But the signal amid the noise is clear. Blockbuster spy films are a massive distraction, a slight of hand, that in this case and collectively bury real and urgent warnings about our political world.
Christopher Nolan returns to the message more explicitly put in Interstella. Humanity is now at a juncture. It could develop new sciences and technologies that are literally out of this world, escaping the bounded limits of a single planet.
But equally, and in opposition, we are close to destroying this planet, limiting our time here, closing down all and any future possibilities.
The actions and interests of the ruling class of the present is opposed to the very existence of the ruling class of the future - and indeed everyone else. This is the dialectic of climate Armageddon.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.