Of Time and Tenet: Christopher Nolan and His Universe

Little is known about Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science-fiction suspense epic, Tenet, except that it had been largely predicted by critics to be the film that could effectively dethrone the superhero genre as the king of this year’s summer blockbusters. That was until shelter-in-place laws delayed the film’s release three consecutive times. With a smaller-scale release now in the cards, excitement around the film—as well as theories and story expectations among fans—have only mounted to a breaking point. Will Tenet live up to those expectations? Can Christopher Nolan top himself as an auteur of mind-bending, intellectually infused action and breathtaking IMAX filmmaking excellence? Will Tenet include such Nolan-esque tropes as existential dread, speculative science fiction, and breathtaking visuals that combine state-of-the-art CGI with believe-it-or-not real-life stunt-work? And, just as importantly, will Tenet adhere to Nolan’s fixation with time travel and multi-verse theory? Fans and YouTube commentators alike remain chomping at the bit for more of the film’s closely guarded secrets, but the theories continue to mount … As the YouTubers at Masters of Movies explained:

While Nolan’s 20-year career has covered a wide range of themes and genres, there’s only one thing that manages to be more consistent in Nolan’s filmography than his casting choices, and that’s his clear fascination with the concept of time … Across all those films, Nolan’s has proven time and time again that’s he’s capable of slowing it down, speeding it up, reversing it, racing against it, transcending it, and shattering it completely.

The YouTubers at Little White Lies not only agreed, but added that Nolan’s time-centric cinema dates back to his earliest effort, 1998’s Following, which—even at its short running time of 70 minutes—managed to play with time as a narrative device in order to construct the first of what would become the director’s signature twist endings:

Time is an obsession in the cinema of Christopher Nolan. When dealing with this abstract concept, the question we need to ask is, ‘How does Nolan represent time through visuals, through sound, through editing, or narrative storytelling?’ … -In [Following], Nolan aggressively crosscuts four timelines 15 times around [in order to] create confusion and building up to a shocking climax. It confuses but, at the same it, he guides…

In their retrospective of Nolan, the YouTubers at Masters of Movies built off that observation, adding that while the time itself is the primary component in a typical Nolan film, it is his narrative structure and use of time is what created his filmmaking signature: the non-linear narrative story. Masters of Movies continued:

A recurring pattern through Nolan’s filmography is that he structures his films to present time through a particular perspective, which often leads to his films being presented in a non-linear structure.

Nolan’s unique hybrid of time manipulation and non-linear structures would continue to evolve as his popularity and budgets grew steadily over his next few mainstreams, allowing a subtle narrative voice that would culminate with 2005’s breakout tentpole hit, Batman Begins, and continue throughout his Dark Knight trilogy. In between each Batman installment, however, Nolan’s standalone thrillers would prove the testing ground for the development of his experiments with the nature of time, as YouTuber Little White Lies explained:

Nolan is always interested in heightening the urgency of time, or even doing away with it altogether. In The Prestige, time is filtered through the eyes of two magicians … two sides of the same coin, together do they part. Overcome by grief and driven by vengeance, both men, bearing the other’s mind through their journals, and we dive into this other story … This way, each level exists in the one before. Imagine if instead of journals, Nolan had used dreams … While Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception brought back the memories that torment Nolan’s characters.

According to the YouTubers at IGN, the films that punctuated Nolan’s work directly in-between Batman installments also developed the director’s mastery of utilizing the concept of time to disorient the audience’s expectations of narrative trajectory while also adding to individual characters’ growth and self-realizations. IGN stated:

Memento is a prime example of the form having a function—an entire film structured specifically to put you in the same shaky step of its main character.

On this theme, IGN continued:

The Prestige bounces back and forth through time, letting the audience try to figure out the tricks alongside the characters, and, as one man awaits his hanging for the murder of the other, the story literally has to be told that way—more proof that [Nolan’s time technique] isn’t just a gimmick and is much more evidently brilliant upon a second viewing.

At Masters of Movies, the YouTuber commented that even in Nolan’s most recent offering, 2017’s war epic, Dunkirk, time itself was as much a character at the soldiers depicted within the film, with the director using the concept of time to put his audience onto the battlefield along with his main protagonists. Masters of Movies continued:

[In Dunkirk], Nolan innovates with a non-linear structure told from three different perspectives: air, land, and sea. Nolan uses this type of non-linear and multi-layered narrative to create tension within the structure of the narrative itself, and while this may sound complex and overwhelming, it’s really quite simple and brilliant. The layout of the individual plot-threads which are all taking place over different periods of length and time are structured so that they build tension. Due to this, many moments that did not happen simultaneously or in direct succession are written and edited so that they appear to have done so; this clever structure allows what could have been a rather meandering story to build its tension much more cooperatively between plot-threads.

YouTuber Shane Bertram concurred, adding that with Christopher Nolan, time itself is not only portrayed as a standalone character but, depending on the narrative, can even be elevated to that of a story’s main villain. Bertram stated:

Considering that Christopher Nolan [uses time] so frequently, I think that we can gain a lot better of an understanding of the stories he tells us by taking a look how and why Christopher Nolan uses the element of time so frequently—especially, I think you’ll notice, as a force of antagonism in his films.

And although Nolan’s most popular films remain his three entries into the Batman universe, even those mainstream blockbusters integrated the director’s now-signature portrayal of time as a character. As YouTuber Shane Bertram continued:

…Batman’s aging is really the central theme of the story, his growing recognition that he can no longer continue to inhabit the symbol that he’s constructed. Just as Bruce himself states in Batman Begins, ‘A man can be destroyed but a symbol can’t be killed.’ And that’s exactly the story The Dark Knight Rises tells us: the story of a man who’s confronted by the fact that although time has not defeated the symbol, it has defeated the man. For all his ingenuity and brilliance and gadgetry and wealth he has access to, Bruce can’t reverse the effects time has had on his ability to continue his crusade against crime.

At New Rockstars, YouTuber Erik Voss theorized that Nolan’s upcoming spectacle, Tenet, will indeed continue that time-bending trend—at least as teased in the first series of trailers. In his in-depth breakdown of the first Tenet trailer, Voss commented that the actions taken by stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh clearly demonstrate that the new film is as much a story of time manipulation as it is espionage and science fiction tropes. Voss stated:

The conceit of this film, in which specialized operatives appear to use a kind of localized time manipulation to reverse the flow of time from their own perspectives, so that while time moves forward for them normally, everything else moves in reverse—and vice-versa … That way, they can kind of rewind time back to the start of a loop and evade coming danger.

The YouTubers at IGN agreed, concluding in their own retrospective of Nolan’s body of work:

Tenet seems like it could be a convergence of Nolan’s career-long exploration of time. It’s a shot in the dark, with the director’s notoriously secretive process to guess what the film’s concept of inversion is … but, we can look back on his work and shine a little bit of light to make it less of a wild guess.

Building off that observation, New Rockstars’ Erik Voss continued:

It’s also interesting that these big reversals in the word ‘tenet’ come half-way through the trailer. One theory that I really love is that this movie, Tenet, could, itself, be a palindrome in structure: reaching a half-way point and then, reversing back to its origin…

In concluding his detailed study of Christopher Nolan and his fascination with time concepts, YouTuber Shane Bertram summed up the importance of the time element, stating:

Personalizing the perception of time and the particular mark it leaves on each of his characters is really one of the secrets to why Christopher Nolan’s use of time in his storytelling is so effective. It’s the efforts in these films to show time as a constant presence stories to give it this consistent shape—and a weight—to develop it as a real, fleshed-out character.

That observation was echoed by the YouTubers at IGN, who added that Nolan’s use of time and its effect on the characters themselves are what make the filmmaker’s films so distinct and unique in their structure and suspense, concluding:

The vast passage of time, the distortion of reality, unreliable memory shifts, and non-linear stories—Nolan’s made a career out of time. At the center, though, are people.