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Cinema as Sermons- "TENET" - Predestination and Human Freewill?

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

Cinema as Sermons- "TENET" - Predestination and Human Freewill?

"We Live In A Twilight World. There Are No Friends At Dusk."

This quote is one said many times throughout the film. It is a secret code phrase (a plot device) used to gain access and makes sure the characters are talking to the right people.

Right up front Tenet is confusing, it requires you to think and yes requires multiple viewing to really understand it. Tenet is gigantic in scale and ambition. Spectacular in scope as are all of Christopher Nolan’s films. I personally think it is his best film, a true masterpiece.

If you like fast paced movies that make you think then plan on seeing Tenet.

Like other top directors who are artists, craftsman Ridley Scott comes to mind, Nolan’s films become more mature and refined in the telling. He is a grand storyteller.

Yet Tenet has become Nolan’s most controversial among die hard Nolan fans. Some see it as his worst, and some see it as his best.

Christopher Nolan is a secular humanist, not a Christian and his movies effect that as he seeks to understand time and our lives. As Christians we have a totally different worldview which means we can stand outside a secular frame and through Christ and the Holy Spirit as well as the Holy Scriptures observe creation and life differently. That does not mean we know more or less it means we don’t need to. Nolan appears to be agnostic yet there is no information to tell us if he is or isn’t.

Another interesting thing that gives us a look at Nolan’s creative process is the source of the Palindrome “TENET”. When the five-letter Latin words are read in line order horizontally or vertically or backwards or forwards or bottom to top or top to bottom, they mean: “The sower, Arepo, holds or works the wheels with care.” A different translation is: “He who works the plow sows the seed.” “The Sator Square” (Link to article here) is a combination of two things, a palindrome (words read the same backwards and forwards) in this instance line by line, vertically or horizontally and a Cryptogram (a key is required to understand the meanings).

The Sator Square
The Sator Square

With that said the movie starts out fast paced as CIA agent referred to as “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) is sent into a hostage situation at the Kiev Opera House to retrieve an artifact and a colleague. TENET is a time-traveling spy movie.

The 225 million dollar budget, 70 mm filming/IMAX was made to be viewed in theatres. And a lot was riding on it as one of the few movies released worldwide during the pandemic. I have seen it twice now at home, so I am surely missing some of the awe factor. Nolan does much of his special effects as mechanical real world effects, which on the scale of his movies is amazing. He filmed in seven different countries which is also seen on the screen in the variety of Earth-scapes.

TENET is a tedious movie and suffers from many of the same flaws you see in his past movies. Yet I am not so concerned about a perfect movie, as in life it is the imperfections that make life and art real and interesting. Underdeveloped characters, complex plotlines are some of his weaknesses on film.

Nolan is a craftsman; he has a God given gift of creativity that he expresses on the screen. Like other great directors Ridley Scott for example he has a filming style that is unmistakable. I am a big Nolan fan and have seen his movies multiple times. TENET will require probably five viewings on my part to further appreciate the movies finer points.

TENET is an organization that hires “The Protagonist”, along with Neal (Robert Pattinson) to retrieve and several Artifact(s) that if assembled are a physical representation of a mathematical Algorithm (nine pieces scattered through time and space) and exploded with a nuclear bomb would reverse the entropy of the world which would instantly annihilate everything as if it never existed! Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is the evil Russian weapons dealer who is working with agents from the future. Sator has pancreatic cancer and will soon die and has decided to acquire the Algorithm and take the entire world out with him.

At first all ‘The Protagonist” knows about TENET is the word itself, and a gesture involving the interlaced fingers of two hands, which seems to represent the collision between the two directions of time.

As I said there are a lot of twists and turns and having some knowledge of time travel fiction/movies helps to understand it. Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) is held hostage by Sator through their son. Sator then goes back in time to the couple’s happiest moments on a yacht off the coast of Vietnam, where he will kill himself and thus automatically set of the nuclear explosion and the Algorithm. Kat shots him instead, stopping the catastrophe, except… at the Russian secret city (where the bomb is) “The Protagonist”, Neal and two small armies of men are preforming a “Temporal Pincher” maneuver to stop the Algorithm from being destroyed by some of Sator’s men.

“The Protagonist” asks Neil who recruited him. Was it “The Protagonist in the future? Back in the movie during the airport heist, we see Neil unmask “The Protagonist” and assume this incident to be Neil’s recruitment. But at the end of the movie, it is revealed that the soldier who died during the film’s climax saving “The Protagonist” was Neil. Also, Neil rescued him during the Opera House fight scene, which points out he was already recruited a long time before. Confused yet?

Have I left anything out? Well yes quit a bite, so you will have to watch the movie to fill in all the gaps. O yes and pay attention to the colors Red and Blue throughout the movie, Nolan likes to use colors as metaphor.

From a Christian perspective TENET helps us look at a theological riddle: How do we reconcile God’s predestination of events with genuine human free will? Reformer John Calvin attempted to vindicate God’s sovereignty by limiting human free will, leaving us as either tools in the hands of our Maker or utter slaves to sin. For Christianity in general, the mystery of how to reconcile the seemingly unreconcilable is beyond the human ability to reason or understand.

Sator's motive is totally nihilistic as he has lost belief or faith with his greatest sin of having brought a son into a world he knew was ending. His motive destroy the world and all existence grows out of his hatred of self, his unwillingness to suffer, and ultimately the unwillingness to bear with the uncertainty of life, he lacks faith.

Video from Warner Brothers

"The Protagonist" toward the films end asks Neil whether they are mere pawns in the hands of fate. Neil replies, “‘What’s happened, happened.’ It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.” Neil affirms that they are merely fighting on the side of “reality.”

Running time backward and forward in time we get a glimpse of what might be God’s view from eternity. God perhaps sees everything at once. The interesting thing is our three heroes, come from the future, willing to recruit themselves into their own suffering and torture, willing to personally inflict on themselves miserable injuries and despair to the point of suicide in order to save existence itself. These are very humble and servant oriented lives. As they embrace of their own suffering, they become willing to see Creation, to look upon “everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” As Christians we come to understand that suffering is one way God makes us more Christ like. Although the characters and their past selves, moving through the present, do not understand what is happening to them and cannot yet trust each other fully. They ultimately must step into their suffering with faith.

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