Will Christopher Nolan’s Tenet tempt audiences back to the cinema in the wake of a global pandemic?
CNA Lifestyle talks to the acclaimed director about the highly anticipated spy blockbuster being billed as the saviour of cinema – and how time is portrayed in it.
Whether you worship at the altar of auteur Christopher Nolan or not, Tenet is arguably the most important film of 2020.
Sure, it’s a Nolan film – which means it’s automatically a marquee event movie that boasts a big-name cast, an intricate story shrouded in secrecy and the pole position on the year's cinematic calendar.
But it's 2020, and we're living in a COVID-19 world. One where cinemas have been closed for months, streaming services reign supreme and many big studio films have been pushed back or eschewed a theatrical opening altogether. And thus all eyes are on Nolan and Tenet to be the spectacle film to coax audiences back to the cinema.
And rightly so. It is after all, as Emma Thomas – his producing partner and wife – says, “the most ambitious film in scope that Chris has made”.
Indeed, with an oeuvre that boasts massive hits like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk, Nolan has long been trusted to draw audiences out of their homes and into the theatres. But does he feel the pressure for Tenet to be billed as the saviour of cinema during these difficult global pandemic times?
“All I can really take responsibility for is making the best film that I can,” Nolan told CNA Lifestyle. “I think cinema is bigger than any one film one way or another. I think people tend to simplify things a bit, particularly in a time like this."
He continued: “I'm just very pleased that the studio feels they can let the film play in places where theatres have been able to open. Obviously, that's not the release that we imagined when we were making the film. But then, the world is not as we had imagined it would be when we made the film and we had to adapt like, like everybody else.
"I'm just very, very pleased that audiences around the world are beginning to be able to respond to the film because for me as a filmmaker, the film is not finished until the audience gets to see it and tell me what it is that I've done.”
Nolan is well known for keeping his film story details close to the vest, preferring audiences to discover the twists and turns of the plot as they are revealed on the big screen. But what really is Tenet all about? And will people understand it?
Nolan has faith that his audiences will.
In describing the film the best way he can without revealing any spoilers, Nolan explained that “the story takes on ideas of time and how we experience it, interacting a science fiction component with the classic elements of the spy genre”.
Most people see time as an unalterable dynamic of our existence. But in the hands of Nolan and his films, time becomes a compellingly tractable thread, able to be bent, twisted, juxtaposed, or in the case of Tenet – inverted.
“Often, these types of characters (in espionage thrillers) are portrayed as being very hard and cynical. Yet, there is a degree of selflessness and self-sacrifice to what they do and what’s expected of them that speaks to a different set of ethics and an accountability and responsibility to their fellow man,” he said.
“John David Washington and I both felt that we had an opportunity here to tap into those attributes more, as a motivation for him doing the most extreme things, all for the greater good.”
Thomas thinks that a story like Tenet “emerged from (her husband’s) brain at just the right time” because everyone, in some way, shares Nolan’s fascination with time.
“We’re all a little bit obsessed with time, aren’t we? It’s something that, whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever your life experience is, you know you can’t do anything about it. It rules you," she said.
"I can’t really speak for Chris, but that’s my perspective on it. It’s interesting because, given the fact that time is universal, it’s also something that you feel very subjectively: You know, kids feel time very differently from adults. I feel like it’s speeding up immeasurably. And then, during this pandemic, our perception of time has been a whole other thing … days have felt like weeks and months have felt like minutes. It’s been very weird.”
She added: “‘Tenet was so challenging, I don’t think we would have been able to pull it off 10 years ago”.
Interestingly, it turns out that the notion of inverting time is not outside the realm of possibility for modern physicists. The law of entropy, which, in the most basic terms, states that all things trend toward disorder.
“Every law of physics is symmetrical – it can run forwards or backwards in time and be the same – except for entropy,” Nolan explained.
“The theory being that if you could invert the flow of entropy for an object, you could reverse the flow of time for that object, so the story is grounded in credible physics. I did have (physicist) Kip Thorne read the script and he helped me out with some of the concepts, though we’re not going to make any case for this being scientifically accurate. But it is based roughly on actual science.”
In fact, Nolan points out, the visual medium of film is, in very real terms, the only manner in which specific facets of Tenet could have been accomplished.
“The thing about the camera is that it actually sees time. Before the motion picture camera existed, there was no way for people to conceive of things like slow motion or reverse motion. So, cinema itself is the window onto time that allowed this project to come to fruition. It is literally a project that only exists because the movie camera exists.”
Tenet opens in Singapore nationwide on Aug 27.