For all that Christopher Nolan is a talented filmmaker, he’s one whose movies are declining in smartness over time and as their budgets grow. I talked about this in a previous blog, so go check that out if you’re interested in my full argument, but the simple version is that earlier in his career he was better at integrating the high concept ideas behind his films into the characters and themes.
In this post I’m going to focus specifically on how that impacts Tenet, and how the movie could’ve been better if it didn’t have gas masks.
That’s right. Gas masks.
No, don’t click away. I’ve got a point here. See, the gas masks don’t really doesn’t make much sense. For example, if air particles can’t interact with your lungs, then why can light? Why aren’t all the reverse characters completely dark? Why can heat? After all, your skin wouldn’t be able to accumulate heat since it would all be leaving. Why can sound?
And honestly, it’s fine that Nolan doesn’t address this. Technology and science don’t have to be exact beyond a certain point. He’s trying to write a story, and the reverse timeline tech is there to serve the story. And that’s the thing with the gas masks. They exist for a very specific purpose: to hide the identity of the reverse moving characters in the story so that it can be revealed later on who they are.
After all, if the same character met himself in a hallway, why should they fight? Won’t they trust that they aren’t doing something dumb? But how much more interesting would it be if the characters didn’t trust themselves to be doing the right thing. After all, the whole premise of the movie is that the future is waging war on the past. It would require a lot of plot and character changes, but it’s a way of incorporating the technology of the film into it’s themes and character development. After all, can we really trust ourselves? The protagonist could be a less assured character, one wracked by an identity crisis.
Our brains in the real world already work very hard to make us think we’re the same person. Because we really aren’t: we act different around different people, at home vs at work, among people of our culture and those not. And just think back to your own past. I know I can’t fathom some of the decisions I made in the past.
A Better Structure
Structuring Tenet like this would also make the viewer a more active participant in the story as they try to pierce together the mystery of what’s going on. There’s tension there. The mystery isn’t what will happen, but why what has already happened happened. Just as there’s a tension in Momento of not who killed who like in a normal murder mystery, but whether the murder the main character commits at the beginning of the film is righteous, there’s tension as the protagonist approaches moment zero when he reverses himself. The movie can play with audience expectations, nudge them at one point towards thinking they know why the reverse character is doing something, then plot twist it away.
This also goes some way towards fixing the grandfather paradox that time travel movies constantly suffer from. The tension of what will happen is usually undercut if we know what will already happen. We know the protagonist can’t kill himself, for example. But the tension is shifted from what will happen to why it happened.
This is a more interesting setup than what’s in the film, which is sort of an ambiguous and binary approach. The mystery of who the reverse characters are isn’t really that interesting because it’s a bit like chekhov’s gun: we know later it’ll be explained, and it doesn’t really affect how the characters moving forward in the timeline react. It’s really just there to be like, oh that was clever. It’s boring because it’s straightforward.
The structure of the film would also change. The protagonist wouldn’t just encounter himself once. From his perspective he’d be pursuing his reverse self, while for his reverse self it would be the opposite. There’s actually a kind of interesting reverse narrowing between the two.
Let’s use the example of hand to hand fighting. At the beginning of the film the forward time protagonist has a disadvantage because his reverse self has fought him and already knows his moves. But as he moves forward in his timeline he moves earlier in the reverse timeline and gains the upper hand. And this could extend to more than just fighting.
I’m not saying this wouldn’t be complicated to plot out. It would. It would honestly be a nightmare. But it would make for a more interesting and complex and engaging film. And just because something’s hard doesn’t mean you give up. And Nolan has made a name for himself of being a precise and intellectual filmmaker who’s movies are like clockwork. If anyone could do it it’s him.