Caution – this article contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen Tenet yet, maybe come back later.
School restarted last week, so my wife and I hightailed it to the cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet. Other commentators can tell you about the various merits of the film, its action sequences and its time twisting plot. I want to talk about it in relation to climate change. Obviously.
Tenet deals with a World War III scenario where the future is at war with the past. The future is meddling in time, sending back agents to assemble a time weapon that will erase our current era and change history. And at one point, in a single almost throwaway line, we find out why: “Their oceans rose and their rivers ran dry” says a key character, giving the future a motive.
For me, it flipped the film around in an uncomfortable way. Up until that point, the future was the aggressor. Our protagonist, the hero of the film, is out to thwart the time travellers. That line turns the dynamic on its head. It is the present that has betrayed the future. The actions and lifestyles of the present will go on to devastate the environment for future generations. Now, in an act of desperation, they attempt to rewrite the past to prevent the destruction.
The film doesn’t explore this idea any further. The protagonist doesn’t respond to the information in any way, or change his mind about his actions. It’s complicated by the fact that the antagonist is so obviously villainous, and we know we’re not supposed to root for him. But by preventing the future from altering the past, the environment is presumably devastated. The ‘victory’ in the film’s closing act ensures that the climate crisis unfolds unabated, and that those oceans rise and those rivers dry up.
Tenet opens up an interesting question about intergenerational justice. It suggests that the first shots in the time war were not fired by the future. It was the violence of climate change that forces them to act to protect themselves.
Having raised the question, the film then does very little with it. I wonder why. Perhaps there was more in an earlier draft of the script. Perhaps Nolan didn’t want to overload the film with an explicit environmental message. Or maybe the blink and you’ll miss it reference is the point.
Whether it’s on purpose or not I don’t know, but the way the question is ignored felt symbolic to me in itself. Isn’t this what we do all the time? We get a glimpse of the damage of climate change, and move on. We don’t take responsibility for our lifestyles and our emissions. We refuse to change the way we live. We don’t acknowledge climate change as violence, against the future or against people of colour in more vulnerable parts of the world. Instead, we see ourselves as the aggrieved party.
In response to non-violent protests aimed at preventing a climate catastrophe this week, Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned them as “a shameful attack on our way of life”.
What if your ‘way of life’ is a way of death? What if we’re not the good guys? What if our inaction means that the future is destroyed?