Note: This article contains spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Tenet.
In discussions of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Inception has been the default point of comparison. There was a lot of speculation that the two films were related and that Tenet might be a “secret sequel” to Inception. Lead actor John David Washington even joked that Tenet was “an in-law to Inception,” elaborating, “They’re related by marriage. They get together for Thanksgivings, family barbecues, like that kind of thing.”
It is easy to see why journalists have made that connection. Both Inception and Tenet are set in a world that is recognizably modern, except for one major high concept that pushes away from verisimilitude. Both are essentially structured like spy stories and even take recognizable cues from James Bond movies – Inception riffs on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, while Tenet tends to draw more overtly from License to Kill.
However, thematically, Tenet is closer to one of Nolan’s more recent films. Tenet is clearly in conversation with Interstellar. This is most obvious in its manipulation of time. Most of Nolan’s films involve the distortion of time, but Inception is primarily concerned with the dilation or slowing of time. In contrast, both Tenet and Interstellar are stories about what it means to communicate across time. It is no coincidence that Nolan consulted with physicist Kip Thorne on both films.
Nolan is typically seen as a “cold” filmmaker. He is often compared to Stanley Kubrick, comparisons that kicked into high gear around the release of Inception. These comparisons are often grounded in Nolan’s perceived detachment from warmth or sentimentality. After all, it is possible to read films like Memento, The Prestige, and even Inception as incredibly cynical meditations on the human condition, stories about how people are broken and the world they inhabit is broken.
However, Nolan’s films have a strong humanist core. This is most obvious in The Dark Knight, where the Joker (Heath Ledger) succeeds in his corruption of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) but fails to convince two ferries to blow one another up. The Joker’s insistence that people “are only as good as the world allows them to be” is disproven. It’s more humanist than the ending of Wonder Woman, where humanity deserves to be saved not because of basic decency, but exceptional people.
Interstellar is similarly optimistic on the human condition. This might have something to do with the project’s origins as a film written by Jonathan Nolan to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who is traditionally seen (outside of exceptions like Schindler’s List or Munich) as a warmer and more sentimental director than Nolan. However, Nolan heavily rewrote Interstellar and its themes largely line up with the rest of his work, so it seems fair to explore it on those terms.
Interstellar offers a glimpse of America in decline. Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) must scavenge from Indian drones for essential supplies. Teachers (Collette Wolfe) and principals (David Oyelowo) believe that the moon landing was a conspiracy. As with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan seemed interested in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Nolan’s portrait of rural America quoted liberally from Ken Burns’ Great Depression documentary The Dust Bowl.
However, Interstellar was still a product of Obama-era optimism, which informed the pop culture of the era like projects like J.J. Abrams’ nostalgic Star Trek reboot or Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Interstellar believed that the future could redeem mankind. When the earth seems to turn against mankind, mysterious benefactors offer mankind an opportunity for salvation: They open a wormhole near Saturn to a system with habitable planets, and they guide Cooper to NASA.
It is eventually revealed that these architects are not aliens or gods, but future versions of humanity. At the end, as Cooper is taken into the Tesseract, he gasps, “They’re not ‘beings.’ They’re us.” The implication is that mankind has overcome the challenges facing it and has found a way to reach back into the past and guide humanity towards a brighter future. Interstellar is a story about how humanity is saved by nothing more than its own potential. It is a very utopian idea.
Tenet revisits this theme six years later. Like Interstellar, it is a story about the future communing with the present. The anonymous protagonist (John David Washington) is drafted into a hidden “cold war” to investigate objects streaming backwards through time – “the detritus of a coming war.” His investigations bring him to Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). “He can communicate with the future,” explains Priya (Dimple Kapadia).
It turns out that the future is very directly communicating with Sator. It has provided him with financing, information, technology, and munitions. As the movie develops, it becomes clear that the future does not have humanity’s best interests at heart. They are hoping to use Sator to destroy humanity. The protagonist points out that this would likely negate the future’s existence due to the grandfather paradox, but it appears that the future does not care.
If Interstellar believed the future could hold redemption, Tenet argues it might offer condemnation. Tenet is the product of a different world than Interstellar. Its future is bleaker. Asked to explain why mankind would hate its ancestors so much, Sator explains, “Their seas rose and their rivers boiled.” That is most likely just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. In the six years since Interstellar, economic inequality has worsened, global democracy has weakened, and polarization has increased.
Nolan’s films of the past decade have been increasingly concerned about the fragility of the social fabric. The Dark Knight Rises was a cautionary tale about the dangers of populism in the wake of the Great Recession. Interstellar offered a glimpse of an America that had lost its way but could still find a way forward. Dunkirk was the story of a massive communal event that could only be experienced through fractured and fragmented individual perspectives that only aligned for the briefest window.
Tenet pushes these fears to their logical conclusion, as battles between the past and future tear the present apart. It’s possible to see these skirmishes and the cacophony that they create as a reflection of this chaotic moment – the current battles fought over who controls the past and the future. Sator is the perfect villain of this story. He is a billionaire who lives on a yacht. He is a Russian who has integrated himself into the establishment, feeding British intelligence “rubbish.”
Sator does not care for future generations. He cannot see beyond himself. He plans to destroy the world rather than let it outlive him. In this context, it is worth noting who Tenet argues will save the world. The teasers promised that “time has come for a new protagonist,” and Tenet is the first Christopher Nolan movie with a minority protagonist. Indeed, the entire counter-operation against Sator and his allies in the future is orchestrated by a future version of the film’s nameless hero.
While it can no longer be assumed that the future will save us, Tenet remains an argument against fatalism. This is important in an era where scientists report that it may already be too late to save the world. Neil (Robert Pattinson) knows that he will die at the movie’s climax but insists that this does not absolve him of the moral responsibility to act. Such knowledge is “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world,” but it is not an excuse for inaction. Choice still matters.
Just as Interstellar spoke to the hope and optimism of the Obama era, Tenet embodies the anxieties of the present. Hope for the future will no longer save us. If anything, the future will likely judge us for our failures and our inactions. We have no option but to save ourselves.