Disclaimer as usual: this isn’t a review of the movie, this is a review of its conceptual framework.

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

That’s a direct quote from the movie.

You cannot go back in time and kill your own grandfather (for whatever reason) because if you could you wouldn’t exist and everything in this reality happens for a reason. If this makes sense to you, then this movie is for you.

If that makes sense to you, then it reveals you have a deep set anti-scientific bias.

I’d usually now write to build toward that conclusion, but lets spoil it right away. Science is about testing knowledge, put it through the grinder to see if there’s something left at the end of the process. When you have a theory, a description of something, an anti-scientific mindset would operate to DEFEND that theory. A scientific mindset, instead, works to take it down in every way possible. If you prove the theory WRONG (or a more recent example), then you’ve learned something. An opportunity to move forward.

Most common understandings of science are the exact opposite: you work to prove things true. Nope, science works in reverse: you learn by proving things wrong. By drawing further distinctions and pruning. You move forward when you know you don’t know.

At the foundation of Tenet there’s a common theme I covered already many times. It’s funny because just a few weeks ago I was writing about Dark, and now this movie appears and it’s the same thing, all over again. From Arrival, through Dark, and now Tenet, we see the exact same structure being repeated without ANY variation. The “innovations” that Tenet brings to the table are exclusively “visual” and performative. The concept of time, and time-travel, is IDENTICAL. Just wave away all the obfuscation the movie throws at you, and you’re left with the same structure, and nothing new being said about such structure.

Tenet, just like Arrival and Dark (and Watchmen), is founded on a flawed premise. This is easily proven, and the example I use is a simple one that I’ve already explained. But let’s quickly go through it again.

Tenet is based on a concept of time, and time-travel, where “what’s happened, happened.” That means it pushes away hypothesis of parallel worlds forked by time-travel. There’s only one timeline, everything that happens has to be inscribed in that same time fabric. This consequently means that time is “fixed”, nothing can be changed, and every cause produced through time-travel is always already part of the flow. Nothing is ever being “added” to the time flow. If something appears to change, it only changed because of limited perspective and knowledge of someone observing. It’s illusory change due to perspective and perception. But reality, and time, are fixed. And of course all this opens the philosophical theme of free will and what happens to conscious choice.

As I said, this framework is flawed in its premise and is easily proven with a thought experiment meant to test the thesis itself. As in typical scientific investigation you have an hypothesis (“time cannot be changed”) and conceive an experiment meant to test whether it is actually true or not.

The experiment itself is much simpler than the tortuous machinations the movie throws at you: imagine a simple computer that uses as input two big buttons, labeled A and B. The computer is programmed so that if you press the button A, then the computer outputs a B on a screen, if you press B instead it will show an A. The opposite of the button you press. To contextualize this experiment to Tenet, just imagine sending a “protagonist” in reverse. Being in reverse, he experiences time in the inverted direction, so first he will see the output on a screen, and his memory will record the letter that appears on that screen. Let’s say it’s “B”. His instructions are simple. After seeing the letter on screen he will have to press on the input the letter that he saw on the screen.

That’s all.

If he sees a B on the screen, then he presses B, because that’s what the instructions he was given say. But if he presses B then his action OVERWRITES the future, and the screen will show A, as it is programmed to do. But if he went in reverse and he saw A, then he would press A, but this again overwrites the future. And yet, none of this can happen, because we’ve established as the premise that time cannot be changed. So no overwriting can happen.

It is not about free will, it’s about contradiction. You can replace the protagonist with an inverted mechanical object and the contradiction will take place just the same.

Here’s a new experiment with mechanical devices only. The simplest proof of how Tenet falls apart.

Tenet defeated

Let’s take two devices, one that is wholly normal, and proceeds linearly through time, that we name Billy. The other instead is reversed, and we name it Tom.

Billy, the linear time one, is equipped with a microphone, and programmed so that if it hears one beep, it activates a projector that shows the color red on a wall. If instead the microphone hears two beeps then the projector will show the color blue on the same wall.

Tom, the one that is reversed, is instead equipped with a camera and a sound emitter. The camera is pointed at the wall of the first device, and Tom is programmed so that if the camera sees the color red on the screen, then the sound emitter will produce two beeps, if instead the camera sees blue, the emitter will produce one beep.

Caveat: there’s a small loophole that can be exploited, and that wants that Billy doesn’t show anything, and Tom, not seeing anything on the wall, doesn’t emit anything either. This can be easily patched up with an added rule that if Tom reaches Time 1, as described below, without the camera seeing a color, then it is programmed to emit either one or two beeps randomly. This makes sure than in all cases Tom will see a color at Time 2, and so won’t have to use the random function at all.

Let’s establish then two discrete points in time. Time 1 and Time 2. They are labeled in linear order. So in common linear time first we have Time 1, and then Time 2 follows. Tom, in reverse, experiences Time 2 before Time 1.

Billy (normal), one beep = red, two beeps = blue.
Tom (reverse), red = two beeps, blue = one beep.

Since Tenet establishes that the past cannot be changed, and everything is inscribed already in the same timeline, then it means Tom, at Time 2 will have to perceive a color, because it has always already also proceeded to Time 1 and emitted a sound. But of course this opens the contradiction because if it sees red, then it emits the two beeps that will cause Billy to project the color blue, and so Tom cannot see red, it sees blue. But if it sees blue at Time 2, then at Time 1 it will emit only one beep.

Conclusion: this contradiction cannot be solved, because the fundamental principle Tenet is based on is flawed.

This proves not only how and why Tenet is flawed at its foundation, but that also the theme of free will is completely misleading and misplaced. There’s no free will involved in that experiment. Just two mechanical devices operating with simple rules.

(By the way, I also know the outcome of that experiment if it really took place. For example Tom will see red and emit one beep. This whether or not time is fixed. It will happen simply because either the timeline was changed, so proving the thesis wrong, or a change is still perceived even if it doesn’t really happen. This because it’s a matter of perspective and you are experiencing an inner loop where information is still flowing in a limited, occluded way. If your epistemology is solid then all these apparent contradictions will simply go away. So yes, the experiment will produce a PERCEIVED contradiction, apparently impossible to explain. Either the thesis is wrong, or time is perceived occluded and so partially. I will return on this theme of partial perception.)

Now, even if I proved that the concept of the movie doesn’t hold up to scrutiny it’s still a stretch accusing this movie of anti-scientific propaganda. This goes a step further, so let’s get to that point, since I’ve more territory to cover here.

All that I’ve explained above pivots around what’s generally known as the Grandfather Paradox. This is relevant as the most common solution to this paradox contains meaningful elements that have a lot in common with the movie (but the movie doesn’t propose any solution to the Grandfather Paradox, it quotes it, but it doesn’t address it).

The common solution is straightforward, you go back in time, try to kill your grandfather only to eventually find out that you only believed having killed him, but he somehow survived (Dark offers this exact example). Or maybe he never was your true grandfather.

All these different possibilities rely on one aspect: that the time-traveler’s knowledge is imperfect and incomplete. You think you’re going back and changing something, but that’s a byproduct of incomplete knowledge, you’re proven delusional. Things were always set in a different way, you just didn’t know.

This is where everything comes together. You can indeed write time travel stories, like Tenet, where what you see happening is coherent. Those scenes are thought and built to avoid contradiction. Precisely selected. But this also means that we see what the director decided to show. The concept itself only holds up for those specific scenes, it doesn’t hold up in general.

But what does it also mean? That Nolan came up with an interesting concept, then built a story around it to make it work and deliberately DODGE all the problematic questions it implicitly opens. The movie directly references them, like the Grandfather Paradox and the problem of free will, but these crucial points are left hanging, going unaddressed and untested because the movie selectively shows only what can work.

This “process” is essentially the sublimation of a fallacy: confirmation bias. You come up with a theory and only point at those elements that reinforce the theory while ignoring everything that proves it wrong. You make a movie so fast moving and confusing that no one has time to understand and ask questions. It works through distraction.

Its purpose is mystification. Smoke thrown in the eyes.

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” said the illusionist.

The Prestige.

These are all signs of a bad story and a bad writer. Even if writing is an artificial process, good writers test their ideas and themselves. Writing isn’t simply putting on the page what you precisely know to indoctrinate who’s reading, it’s about discovering it. If there’s something of value for the reader is because the writer is also pushing himself on. Writing as a process of challenge and discovery, to push the boundary. You write to understand, you write to see.

“[Y]ou start working on something, and you find you’re really writing something else. You thought you were going this way; in fact, the text [the muse] is going another way.”

This movie is instead written to flee, to dodge, to hide from, to look elsewhere as soon there’s an hint of a problem. To distract. It’s a movie of mystification so that you fall for the illusion without questioning it. And all transpires for the general public, since you can read everywhere how the movie is convoluted, hard to understand, and no one truly believes it’s worth the effort of puzzling it together. The process is not fun because it’s felt as stilted and artificial. All these aspects surface to be perceived by everyone.

Tenet is a manual of confirmation bias. It shows what confirms the premise, ignores everything else that would undermine it. It explicitly asks you to watch it uncritically. To feel the illusion rather than reveal it. All the important themes and questions are brushed away and replaced by distracting loudness.

If Transformers by Michael Bay is militaristic propaganda, Tenet is anti-scientific propaganda. But where the first is explicit, the latter is devious, shifty, because it tries to sell itself as something else. Something clever, well thought and thought provoking. If Transformers is candidly sincere with its message, Tenet is deceitful. Going as far as choking dialogues with loud music so that you can’t even hear what they say. Because otherwise if you’d focus enough you’d see the sleight of hand, the illusion for what it is. The movie is only parroting complexity and depth.

A scientific mindset is that when you have a theory, you test it. An anti-scientific mindset is that when you have a theory you only look for confirmations while pretending not to see all that goes against it. Tenet is deliberately built to dodge all important questions and only show what’s convenient.

Tenet is built like a BELIEF SYSTEM. They state a holy principle and then go out of their ways to avoid testing it. Just like magic or religion. Characters in the movie either don’t know what they are doing (imperfect knowledge) or deliberately try to replicate it to avoid the risk of contradiction.

Tenet is a RELIGION, founded on faith and fate.

But Tenet is also exemplary of modern mythologies, a product of its time. “Fake news” work because epistemology collapsed and people operate through confirmation bias. They find confirmations for what they already believe and find soothing, convenient. To reinforce belief and identity, because they always come before truth. COVID deniers and Trump’s propaganda are so cartoonish that they wouldn’t be believable in a book. But they are the future.

It’s funny that the other main theme of Tenet is the nihilism of society and collapse, because that’s precisely the future that Tenet builds toward.

We’re driven by culture, to save us. And what do we get, precisely in these complicate days? Mulan, a propaganda for the Chinese regime, whose main actress coherently supported the regime itself. Deliberately a (misfiring) marketing move to win the sympathies of mainland China, following the example set by Blizzard a year ago (money runs further than short-lived boycotts, and Disney is the incarnation of pure EVIL). And Tenet, a movie built on anti-scientific mindset.

At the exact same time, Trump was tweeting…

And what’s this “critical race theory”, that I’ve never heard before and that got Trump so fired up?

“argues that social problems are influenced and created more by societal structures and cultural assumptions than by individual and psychological factors”

Storytelling, counter-storytelling, and “naming one’s own reality”: The use of narrative to illuminate and explore experiences of racial oppression.

“Rather than marshal logical arguments and empirical data, critical race theorists tell stories – fictional, science-fictional, quasi-fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal – designed to expose the pervasive and debilitating racism of America today”

Storytelling, fiction. The culture that drives us. Those stories that tell you what and how to think. Those stories that make you feel before they make you think.

Modern mythologies, like Nolan’s, are the same old. Nothing changed. Modern mythologies are only lazier and sillier.

That’s why I’d support something bolder, like afrofuturism. From the last paragraph:

Afrofuturism has to do with reclaiming those identities or perspectives that have been lost.
“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”
Afrofuturism involves reclaiming some type of agency over one’s story, a story that has been told, throughout much of history, by official culture in the name of white power.
Because the ancestors of many African-Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands and stripped of their history like most slaves, any culture that has found its way into the Black lexicon is at its roots an Afrofuturist notion. It is at its heart reclaiming a past erased and creating a future based on that reimagined past.

Rasheedah Phillips writes about Black Quantum Futurism, a time-travel device.

A time-travel device to plant stories, mythologies, in the past so that we can have a different future.

Space-Time Collapse is an experimental writing and image series applying Black Quantum Futurism practices and theory to various space-time collapse phenomenon.

This inaugural collection explores possible space-time narratives and temporal perspectives of enslaved Black African ancestors, pre- and post-liberation. The slave ships and plantations themselves are traversed by the visionaries as chronotopes containing layers of different times, imprinted by the experiences of the people held captive therein.

The featured writers and visionaries attempt to visualize, hear, understand, and feel the experience of time overwritten — the rewriting of conceptions of the past, present, and future to a people displaced by the transatlantic slave trade. The works also examine perceptions of time and space in relation to Black memory, historical and societal change, systems and institutions, and technological development, and how these perceptions are sifted through or persist into the present. Some propose ways and tools for shifting the dominant linear progress narrative with alternative concepts and shapes of time.

If you look closely, there are traces here of Land-ian (Nick Land) CCRU accelerationism. Hyperstition: planting mythologies in the past to change the future.

Templexity, in essence, is the inherent nemesis that responds continually to modernism’s hubristically escalating negentropic reversal of the laws of thermodynamics. It is the radical externality of its defiance of the Void. When humanity plays with time, templexity is the whirls and eddies of disorder we leave behind.

All of this is more powerful and meaningful than Tenet’s sloppy time-travel and childish nihilism.

But obviously Nolan doesn’t know.


  1. Enlightening article!

    Concerning the mere screenplay, I’ve noticed a flaw that I consider really serious: when Kat tells the story of the quarrel with her husband, she tells that going away from the yacth she sees a woman diving. But in the ending “past”Kat sees “future”Kat when she’s coming back to the yacht…

    Am I confused, or is it really a flaw?

  2. People can fail to carry out instructions for all sorts of reasons, so if you instruct the time traveler to press B if he saw a B on the screen (in a scenario where the machine is programmed to show the opposite of whichever letter is on the button he presses), he may nevertheless have a moment of rebellion or temporary insanity or a muscle spasm or whatever that causes him to press A (the machine itself could also have some sort of malfunction for various reasons). I gave a thought-experiment to show there is nothing inherently paradoxical about the self-consistent timeline idea as long as you assume humans themselves behave in some sort of algorithmic way, by imagining an algorithmic way of generating these timelines in a simulated world containing intelligent software beings: https://scifi.stackexchange.com/a/78864/22250

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    […] why when I was writing about Tenet I converted my experiment, that was originally built on humans, to be performed by MACHINES. Because this isn’t a […]

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