Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film conceptually to date, which is saying something considering he made Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Without spoilers, Tenet involves time travel, but it is a unique version of time travel—perhaps the most inventive form of time travel I’ve ever seen in a movie—and the most complex.
That seems to be the primary criticism people have of Tenet: it was “too complex” to understand. The movie made them have to think too much to follow the plot and various timelines. Tenet is certainly not a movie to have on in the background while scrolling through your iPad. The movie demands your undivided attention, as all art should. Another criticism leveled at Tenet and most of Nolan’s other films is that viewers didn’t feel anything emotionally for the characters—that Nolan cared more about the concept, action, and logistics of time travel than his characters.
That is true to some extent, but I don’t think it is necessarily a negative thing. Many people have this idea that the characters and their emotional journey are the most important part of any narrative story (be it a book, movie, or television show). While that can be true in some stories, it is not always the case.
There are many goals to have in telling a story. Making the audience care emotionally about the characters is not always the primary goal, and sometimes it is not a goal at all. For certain stories, all the creator may aim to do is make the audience think about something, not make them feel about someone.
I think that is what Nolan does in his stories, and that is what I do in many of my stories, which is probably why I love Nolan’s movies so much. He wants to amaze you with novel concepts and inventive story mechanics, blow your mind with plot twists, vex you with philosophical conundrums, and awe you with never-before-seen action scenes and set-pieces. And he succeeds wildly in those respects every time.
Do Nolan’s films have the richest character arcs? No. Because that is not his core focus. His movies (Like Stanley Kubrick before him) are often criticized for being unemotional, but that is not a flaw—it is a choice. If you don’t like those types of cerebral films, don’t watch them. Emotion is not the only reason to watch a movie. Some people enjoy solving puzzles (myself included).
Others criticize Christopher Nolan’s lack of character development and say he treats his characters like pawns. Well, guess what? They are pawns—as is every character in every movie. They are actors reading lines that were written for them. All fictional characters are essentially chess pieces.
If the only way for you to enjoy a movie is for the director to fool you into caring for fake people emotionally, and you are disappointed whenever a movie doesn’t deliver that experience, then that’s more your problem than the movie’s. In Tenet, Christopher Nolan wanted to make you think. To give you a time travel concept never done before with actions scenes never seen, to create a puzzle of a plot that can be made sense of—and he succeeded.
Ultimately, stories are about stories, not characters. If all you want is characters to care about, go out into the real world to find real “characters” to care for—family and friends. The purpose of fiction is to use story and plot to examine morality, philosophy, psychology, and the human condition. Good art does not prescribe the right answers but poses the right questions.
Sure, a story is more engaging when you care about the characters, but the characters should primarily be serving the story, not the other way around. The goal isn’t to create characters that are “likable” or to simply trick audiences into emotionally caring about the characters. The goal is to use fictional characters as tools to tell a meaningful story.
Making readers care about the characters is only useful as a means to get readers to connect to a deeper story. Characters are not ends in themselves. If you’re creating fiction to only care about the characters, then that’s just as much mindless popcorn as a pure action movie like Transformers. It’s nothing beyond emotional manipulation, just a different emotion.
At one point in Tenet, a character says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Some audiences took this as a meta moment in which Nolan was speaking directly to his critics. That may sound counter to my argument, but what I think Nolan meant was you should not overly analyze the movie while watching it. You should feel the film in the moment—focus on the visual awe, the score, the action and set pieces. Revel in the visceral spectacle of it all. Then afterwards and on repeat viewings think about the film and untangle the intricacies of the plot and theme—contemplate the meaning of the story. Because if a fictional story is a worthy piece of art, “the end” is just the beginning. That is both literally and figuratively true with Tenet.