[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Tenet.]
Digging into the ending of Christopher Nolan’s new movie Tenet is to also dig into its beginning. The film has a parabolic structure, as tipped off by its title. When you reach the halfway point of the movie, the characters themselves become inverted by time and start interacting with events from the first half of the narrative in reverse order. So, for example, when The Protagonist (John David Washington) is fighting with a masked soldier, we later learn he was fighting with himself.
The “ending” of Tenet reveals that The Protagonist’s impact reaches far beyond just being recruited for a world-saving mission. We learn that he recruited himself as well as Neil (Robert Pattinson), and even though we don’t see it, we can safely assume that the masked soldier who saved The Protagonist’s life at the opera was either The Protagonist or Neil. The narrative neatly folds on top of itself where you look at the first half with the knowledge that inverted people from the future are affecting events in the past. Of course, as with any time-travel narrative, you start to go cross-eyed if you try to start trying to untangle the various paradoxes, so it’s best to leave those aside.
The problem with this ending isn’t the mechanics (although they certainly make the plotting more convoluted and tedious), but rather the lack of thematic or dramatic payoff. The Protagonist is largely a blank slate. Washington plays him with a detached cool, but there are no character stakes there. That may be a throwback to classic spy movies, but it makes for a deflating experience as we have no reason to invest in this nameless character and time inversion illuminates nothing about his journey. If you take away the time inversion, Tenet is an incredibly basic spy story where a debonair agent globetrots around the world chasing down various MacGuffins and fighting bad guys.
I really wish there was more to the ending of Tenet, but there’s not. Sure, you can render it into some broad observation about what we owe to the future or trying to atone for sins of the past, but none of that is really grounded in character. They make for the basic (pardon the pun) tenets of save-the-world storytelling, but the lack of specificity renders any emotional impact inert. Watching Tenet reach its conclusion/beginning, you can admire the structure, but it has all the life and vibrancy of a math equation.
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