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How Christopher Nolan's Entire Career Has Led to Tenet

How Christopher Nolan's Entire Career Has Led to Tenet

(04/12/2020)

We cannot wait to go back to the movies, and we're not alone! You're undoubtedly as excited as we are, and we know for certain that enthusiasm for the theatrical experience is shared by one of the most important filmmakers working today: Christopher Nolan. The director of THE DARK KNIGHT and INTERSTELLAR recently penned an essay about the value of cinema. We're all in luck, too, because his latest film will be in theatres soon.

Nolan's new movie, TENET, is his first since 2017's DUNKIRK, and it looks like a further development of everything we love in Nolan's movies. TENET stars John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a mysterious story that involves a secretive intelligence organization and the manipulation of time. Throughout his career, Nolan has consistently investigated a set of interrelated themes — time, identity, and memory — which set his movies apart from all others.

TENET looks primed to develop all these preoccupations even further. Here's why TENET appears to be the movie that Nolan's career has been building towards.

Time and Memory

Time and Memory in Christopher Nolan's Inception

The first TENET trailer is shy when it comes to revealing the plot, but it does lay out a few concepts. John David Washington plays an agent of some sort whose choice to die to protect a colleague thrusts him into a black ops collective with access to some really advanced tech. "You have to start looking at the world in a new way," Washington's character is told. He sees time seemingly reversing before his eyes, and sees the aftermath of a violent incident before it happens.

From his earliest movies, Christopher Nolan has been preoccupied with depicting time and memory in movies. His first big hit, MEMENTO, was based on an innovative use of time. The script is broken into small chunks that flow in disjointed fashion to put audiences in the headspace of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who cannot make new short-term memories. Nolan's command of the unusual structure — and the twisty, sometimes nasty events of the story — turned MEMENTO into a calling card that heralded a major career for the filmmaker.

Nolan has relied upon time as both a device a major theme ever since. INCEPTION nests layers of storytelling into a sort of Russian Doll structure that keeps audiences on their toes as Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) tries to deal with his own black hole of memory by implanting false memories in others. And, in DUNKIRK, Nolan recreated a collective memory of a pivotal moment in World War II by presenting three perspectives on the Battle of Dunkirk set in three different timelines.

Identity Is the Crux

Identity in The Dark Knight

Nearly all of Nolan's movies have identity as a central theme. In MEMENTO, Leonard's sense of his own identity is warped and rewritten by his memory limitations. "Memory can change the shape of a room," he says. "It can change the color of a car." And without memories, a person can change the nature of their own past and character. Likewise, Cobb's identity — and therefore his reality — is rewritten by his choices in INCEPTION.

DUNKIRK features a more macro vision of identity building, as British citizens take it upon themselves to help out in a wartime situation, thereby building and solidifying the image of their own national character. And it goes without saying that Nolan's Batman movies form a three-movie trilogy about identity-building. How else could we define a series of films about a guy who responds to tragedy by creating a bat-themed alter-ego?

TENET offers new possibilities for Nolan to develop his ideas about identity. When John David Washington's character leaves his old life behind he is effectively rewritten. What effect does that have on the man, and how does he deal with the changes?

The Culmination

Tenet as a Culmination of Christopher Nolan's career

We don't know exactly how TENET will develop and pull all these thematic threads together. We can say with certainty that this new movie will not be a routine thriller. Even the director's first feature, FOLLOWING, was an ambitious effort for a filmmaker with access to few resources. MEMENTO revealed an exponential growth in ambition and skill, as Nolan confidently led us on a complex journey.

Since the massive success of THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008, Christopher Nolan has enjoyed more freedom than most other filmmakers to combine lavish budgets and idiosyncratic scripts. Who else could have made INCEPTION as a puzzle box movie with a top-tier cast, or the uncompromising DUNKIRK, with its massive scale military recreations and stirringly emotional payoffs? (Tom Hardy's gliding fighter plane was the most surprisingly tear-jerking moment of 2017.)

That history gives Nolan great freedom for this new movie. Even before we sit down in the theatre, we know to expect something challenging and different in TENET. The director doesn't have to spend the film's first act establishing that he will be pulling off unexpected tricks; he can dive right in. We can't wait to see what surprises he has planned.



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All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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