Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Christopher Nolan’s trilogy shares similar themes of heroism via the collective. More specifically the prevention of the end of the world while manifesting a better one for future generations.
Over his filmography, Christopher Nolan has never been shy of covering the ideas of justice, hope, and finding the humanity in people. As the director has aged, the philosophies that he has presented within his films have started to morph into something nobler. Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Inception (2010) make an interesting example of this.
Nolan presents Batman as the savior of Gotham who gives up his lavish lifestyle in pursuit of justice. He initiates a selfless act for the greater good; it’s the ultimate act of textbook heroism. But it’s a single person in these stories who save the day. Inception seems to be the true marker for change in his filmography. In true heist fashion, the goal of Inception can only be accomplished through a joint effort.
It’s only through the collective that Cobb and his team can succeed – even though they are still technically criminals. Simple enough, but with the plethora of ideas he has presented in his last three films, it’s clear that he’s in search of a better future for humanity. Whether it be exploring the lengths we will go for a single emotion, the importance of selflessly building a better world, and what it means to be present in a moment.
These ideas of humanity are also complemented by the themes of time and maybe how we don’t have much left of it if we as a species continue our apathetic attitude. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which consists of Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet, share similar themes of heroism via the collective. More specifically, the prevention of the end of the world while manifesting a better one for future generations. With the release of Tenet (2020), Christopher Nolan is fully invested in the idea that it’s the collective’s responsibility to save us from ourselves before it’s too late.
Interstellar (2014) follows a team of explorers who have to travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival. The film itself is a meditation on the power of love and how truly boundless it is.
I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.Brand, Interstellar (2014)
In the world of Interstellar major food supplies are running on empty. It’s the task of NASA to find a new earth that will sustainably harbor future generations. Our main character leaves his family to take part in this expedition, which causes a divide with his daughter. After traveling through a black hole, we end up on the other side of a multi-dimensional wall in a scene from the beginning of the feature (bear with me).
Interstellar tells us that even if we have to give up what we care for most, it’s always worth it when it comes to preserving the greater good. We should sacrifice what we want in pursuit of the preservation of humanity. Though Cooper’s act of leaving his daughter can be seen as a selfish one, it’s the love of his family that brings him back to the very beginning of our story. Cooper’s daughter Murph has moments of selfishness too, but both character arcs, just like the narratives, circle back around and interconnect.
It’s not just Cooper or Murph who ensure humanity’s survival but the collective effort of everyone involved. Cooper gave up his life to fly the ship, Romilly refused to go into cryosleep so he could finish the mathematics needed for the voyage, Murph forgave her father and instead chose to be inspired by his efforts and continued to get involved at Nasa, etc.
Dunkirk (2017) makes a particularly interesting marker for Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. On its surface, Dunkirk can definitely be viewed as a war film, but the war isn’t necessarily the focus of the story. The attention isn’t spent on the horrors of war but more so on the interconnected efforts of a group of soldiers on the British front.
Dunkirk has been criticized for its lack of characterization but that doesn’t seem to be what Nolan wants us to focus on. We don’t know these characters but the characters themselves are most likely strangers to one another as well. Though they all might be strangers, there is still an understanding of a common goal.
Even when Cillian Murphy‘s shivering soldier character refuses to return to battle, he is picked up and forced back to fight. Perhaps the greatest example of the power of the collective is when all the smaller independent ships join forces and sail their way towards the German dive bombers.
The film is a celebration of selflessness and a testament towards group effort.
On its surface Tenet is complicated, I won’t deny that, but for all its layered science and storytelling, there seems to be a brilliant message waiting to be found. Tenet follows (a) Protagonist as he journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.
In the world of Tenet, humanity has discovered a way to reverse entropy. What this means is world events from the past and future can be altered. In other words, time travel but something a little more complicated. This form of entropy control is weaponized in the future, which is beginning to affect the past. What our characters are trying to prevent is the complete annihilation of the human species.
We discover that this is being done because the present-day choices that society has made have doomed future generations. Sator, our antagonist, is trying to create a clean slate for future generations by destroying the present. Similar to Interstellar; Tenet’s message tends to get muddied by its in-world physics and science jargon.
Despite this, though, Tenet is trying to say that we need to be careful of our actions today and how they will inevitably affect not only our personal futures but also future generations in general. Nolan is not only meditating on the collective but the future of the collective as a whole. Humanity will not flourish if we do not take action today to help one another, whether that be preventing war, stopping global warming, and even giving back to the earth to stop food shortages.
Tenet is Christopher Nolan at his most maximalist form. It’s a piece of art that’s been in the making since he started as a director whether he knew it or not. It embodies his humanist beliefs, his production savvy, and the range of philosophies he’s presented in past works.
It’s an Expression of Faith…
Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is truly brilliant because they all focus on the betterment of our species, just in different facets. Science Fiction as a genre as of late has been plagued by cynical perspectives and seems to have lost a lot of what made it so important. Christopher Nolan is calling out to our species in his features so we may learn to act selflessly and with passion. What he gets across is not a new subject by any means, but for a major studio director to use his platform and his medium to demand better of the world is honorable.
Realistically, it won’t be a single hero who lifts us out of trouble – it’s going to take everyone’s combined effort if we want to create a better world. One of Tenet’s standout pieces of dialogue comes from Robert Pattinson‘s character Neil…
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, Tenet (2020)
This message stands out more than any other piece of dialogue in the film because it’s Nolan telling us the viewer exactly what he’s on about. We may not be able to change what has happened, but it’s vital that we do not let that stop us from moving forward in creating a better world.