Tenet (Part VI)

TENET (Part VI) The Practice of Worldbuilding

Onward to Part V

Time travel is as impossible as an Escher drawing. The staircase going up and going down cannot be the same staircase, nor can the mill wheel raise the water to fill the sluice to create the waterfall to turn the mill wheel. Escher drawings are cunning visual jokes that appeal the mathematically minded.

Despite disliking time paradox stories, there is one thing I like about time travel stories: It is the same thing I like about Escher drawings.

Given the logical constraint that the thing is starkly, simply impossible, what tricks of perspective and aspect can the artist employ to create the plausible illusion of the impossible being possible?

Certain themes and settings make the illusion of the impossible being possible more convincing. Establishing or, more to the point, not establishing the rules of time travel are part of the worldbuilding that can aid or hinder the illusion.

We have discussed the theory and practice of time travel at exhaustive length to show the possible ways the world in a time travel story can be built to attempt the illusion. Let us now, at long last, return to TENET to examine how Christopher Nolan practices his worldbuilding.

In this case, TENET avoids or outwits most of the problems of paradoxes by selecting the spy genre as the jumping off point.

And here I doff my cap in humble salute.

Instead of having to invent forced and unconvincing reasons why the protagonist does not know or cannot be told the crucial information, in the paranoid world of a spy thriller, such limits are natural. No one in the spy world is told anything he needs not to know, because the possibility of betrayal by double agents is reasonable and real.

Again, by telling the tale from the viewpoint of an agent who is not a time traveler seeking to find and to thwart the agents of the time travelers, the veil of ignorance can here be an iron curtain, and the reason why the ramifications of a grandfather paradox are not explored, quite reasonably so, are because no one in the agency knows. No time machine is available to perform such an experiment.

In the brief exposition scene with the scientist, the protagonist drops a bullet in his hand in reverse, and shoots a bullet in reverse. When he asks how he can pull a bullet backward into his grip if he decides not to drop it, the scientist merely tells him not to think about it. Likewise how and when the reverse bullets were first lodged in their bullet holes in the target range is not addressed. When they found there when the place was first built? Asking such a question would break suspension of disbelief, and so they are never asked.

But, again, in a spy thriller, the spy is not told more than he needs, and it does not matter for his mission how the reverse bullets work, any more than James Bond knows or care about the technical details of how Q made his shoe phone.

Any discussion of determinism versus free will is shelved, because the characters on stage do not know their answers in their make-believe world any more than do we in the real world. Quite simply, they do not know if their world is fatalistic, or is acausal, or forms branches.

When, late in the film, the protagonist gets his hands on a turnstile, and can reverse himself, and enter the timestream backward, it is in the middle of an emergency, and the clock is ticking down the moment when the enemy soldiers arrive in overwhelming numbers, so there is no time to test any theories.

The protagonist is warned not to enter a time-reversing turnstile until and unless he sees the mirror-version of himself walking backward into the exit as he reaches the entrance. But since, like a good soldier obeying orders, he never tries to do this, neither he, nor we, discover what would happen if he did, or even if he could.

And, again, we eventually find out that the antagonist wishes to avoid his fated death by slow radiation poisoning, and to obliterate the pain of divorcing his wife. By having an antagonist whose motive is suicide, the question of whether his meddling in the time stream is suicidal because it threatens his own self-erasure is a question the evil time traveler rightly never asks.

Finally, by making the protagonist a hard-core tough-as-nails spy guy with a license to kill, when he finally learns he himself is the shadowy figure running the agency who hired him, the question of returning to his own past and sparing himself the pain and danger, confusion and uncertainty of the events just played out in the film, likewise never comes up: because he has no reason to care about whether his past self suffered pain. He carries the memory of it, was shaped by it, and ended up here, in charge of the time machine, and hence of in charge of protecting the integrity of time from unseen saboteurs threaten it — the very work he has trained his whole life to do.

As I said above, I saw all the plot-twists in this film coming a mile off, all but one. If you meet a time traveler in a gasmask, he is you, especially if the gasmask is ripped away, and your partner sees his face while the audience does not, but he does not mention to you who it is. Likewise, if the car chasing you in the car chase scene has tinted windows, and the driver’s face is never shown. Likewise, when you find out who recruited you, and who runs the operation that tells you so little.

It is all you. But it is not necessarily all about you.

And if your partner is not present in the scene after the scene the viewer skipped, that is the scene where he died. And, sadly, when the partner you just met reveals that he has known you for years, if this is the first day you meet him, it is the day he breathes his last.

The ending of TENET is still satisfying in the way most time travel stories are not, because the sorrowful ending and sacrifice, if seen backward, is the beginning of a firm friendship.

In the final scene, Kat is reunited with her child, and she returns to a happy life, where time is not insane. The protagonist can only watch from a distance, until duty calls him away to endless intrigues and cycles. He can protect the innocent, and provide a happy ending to others, not to himself.

As in a palindrome, if the events are considered either backward or forward, the meaning of the film changes, but both readings support one theme. It is a theme that remains eternally meaningful: heroism is self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is heroism.

In sum, TENET is a film named for a palindrome because the film itself, in essence, is a palindrome.