Christopher Nolan’s Haunted Humanism
Ahmed Elbenni on Christopher Nolan
Interstellar is often read as a direct expression of Christopher Nolan’s theology of exclusive humanism, which always locates the transcendent in the immanent. Perhaps Brett McCracken summarized this interpretation of Nolan’s “secular faith” best when he argued that the director’s films evoke a sense of “immanent wonder” that “feels religious in nature but is explainable within the laws of physics or the horizons of human endeavor.” This is Nolan’s key filmic magic trick: Showing us that “there is more than enough miraculous wonder to be experienced here, in the human and the observable.”
Indeed, while Nolan is compelled by religious concepts like love and faith, he tends to articulate them in the language of scientific materialism—hence Interstellar‘s “thesis” that an emotion as seemingly intangible as love is as quantifiable as gravity. Nolan couples this philosophical naturalism with an almost religious reverence for human achievement. Consider Interstellar’s central twist: Humanity, facing extinction on a dying Earth, discovers a wormhole to potentially inhabitable planets. Its sudden appearance strikes NASA’s scientists as a divine act of salvation. Eventually, though, we discover that it was designed by five-dimensional human beings from the future. A transcendent force is revealed to be us. We’re our own saviors.
Yet TENET, the spiritual sequel to Interstellar, reveals that the numinous haunts Nolan’s humanism. His project of “immanent wonder” is internally compromised, predicated on a strategy of sacralizing the secular that ultimately undermines itself. In TENET, that strategy manifests in the dramatization of a theological problem present but unaddressed in Interstellar: the clash between free will and predestination.
TENET presents its free will debate in a religious register through its metafictional storytelling. This self-reflexive play is signaled by the name of its protagonist: The Protagonist. He, like most of his fellow characters, doesn’t just lack interiority—he seems almost aware of his own fictionality.
Early on, Priya (a member of the time agency Tenet) tells The Protagonist that reaching Russian oligarch Andrei Sator would require a “fresh-faced protagonist.” Later, The Protagonist calls the men that ambushed him “Antagonists.” When The Protagonist resolves to kill Sator, Priya objects: “He has to stay alive until we know his part in things”— until we know his part in this story. TENET’s characters, then, speak as though they are chess pieces on the board of the plot, existing only to fulfill the narrative functions assigned to them by an omnipotent but invisible authorial power. That they do not fully understand this power is a virtue, for “ignorance is our ammunition.” Tenet is therefore aptly named—its operations are premised on religious faith in an inscrutable cosmic plan. “You fight for a cause you don’t understand, with people you trust so little you’ve told them nothing,” Sator tells The Protagonist. “Your faith is blind, you’re a fanatic.”
The film demands this same fanatical faith of us viewers. Since we are limited to The Protagonist’s perspective, we have no choice but to trust that the inexplicable events unfolding on screen are part of an intelligible narrative design. This all serves to frame in religious terms the film’s central thematic debate: do we have free will, or are our fates predetermined?
Early on, one of Tenet’s scientists introduces The Protagonist to inversion by having him “catch” a dropped bullet. This prompts him to wonder if free will is as illusory as conventional notions of causality. “That bullet wouldn’t have moved if you had never put your hand there,” the scientist assures him. “Either way we run the tape, you made it happen.”
The film’s final reveal doesn’t affirm human agency so much as deify it. Tenet’s cosmic plan has a planner, but it isn’t God. “We’ve both been working for me,” The Protagonist tells Priya, moments before he executes her and the film concludes. “I’m the protagonist.” His “name” foreshadowed his cosmic centrality. It’s Nolan’s quintessential magic trick as plot twist: The transcendent Planner in which the humans believe turns out be human himself. The religious faith the film has cultivated in its viewers is directed back at them. We’re own saviors.
But this is too quick. Let’s pause the end credits and rewind. When an inverted Protagonist warns a past Priya against sending him on a mission that ultimately fails, she only chuckles in response. “If that universe can exist,” she says, “we don’t live in it.” Events are fixed, unchangeable. How, then, can we be our own saviors?
TENET concludes that we are at once passive actors in a cosmic drama and free agents capable of changing the world. We have free will, yet our fates are predetermined. This paradoxical view, known as compatibilism, suggests that free will is compatible with a deterministic universe. Compatibilism is the standard metaphysical stance of traditional religion, particularly that of the Abrahamic faiths. The attempt to reconcile free will and determinism is often theologically motivated—driven by the need to maintain humanity’s moral responsibility given the divine decree of an absolutely sovereign God.
As the film’s final reveal makes clear, The Protagonist’s present does not precede his future; it happens simultaneously with it. This model of temporality is known as eternalism, which posits a reality wherein the past, present, and future all coexist. World War II, the publication of this article, and 2121 all “occur” simultaneously. Time is akin to space; the riverbend is there long before the rower reaches it. An eternalist cosmology is often thought to deny free will, as it deems all events fixed. TENET turns this assumption on its head by predicating its compatibilism on its eternalism. The Protagonist makes his decisions based on the actions of the inverted Protagonist; yet the inverted Protagonist only exists due to The Protagonist’s decisions. Eternalism thus allows for the perfect coexistence—no, the perfect codependence—of free will and predestination.
So there is no contradiction between the scientist’s libertarianism and Neil’s determinism. Both are necessary for the coherence of a compatibilist universe. “Either way we run the tape, you made it happen”— and indeed, both forward and inverted persons make autonomous choices. Yet it is equally true that their choices are made in response to actions they have “already” undertaken. As Neil tells The Protagonist, “What’s happened, happened.”
In revealing himself as Tenet’s ultimate mastermind, The Protagonist also reveals himself as its ultimate pawn. All time happens “at once,” so just as the future Protagonist determined his past, so too did his past determine his future. In one sense, The Protagonist was always in control; in another sense, he never was.
The simultaneously humanistic and anti-humanistic tenor of this conclusion is characteristic of many religions, which place humanity at the center of the cosmos while denying it that centrality. What Nolan has done here is cinematically recreate a primordial dimension of religious experience: a binate sense of empowerment and impotence. “What’s happened, happened,” Neil says, after The Protagonist tries to stop him from walking to his death. “It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
Neil knows that he is destined to die, yet his death must come about of his own volition. This is no different from a Jew, Christian, or Muslim who believes that God decrees all things, yet he still must act to fulfill God’s decree.
Nolan seems to recognize the religious valence of this moment, hence why he has Neil pronounce faith not in God, but in the “mechanics of the world.” It’s a shrewdly evasive phrase, evoking the transcendent but consigning it to the realm of the immanent. It thus seems like a textbook instance of Nolan’s signature magic trick. Neil’s tenet, however, betrays the anxiety—and ambivalence—embedded in the modern Western divorce of “immanence” from “transcendence.”
Multiple religious outlooks can accommodate Neil’s faith in the “mechanics of the world.” The pantheist will accept it at face value, for God is the universe. The monotheist will understand it as an indirect reference to the Divine, who manifests His signs in the immanent world. Then there is the Deist, whose relationship with an impersonal, transcendent being is mediated by the mechanistic order of nature.
Neil’s creed accords with so many religious outlooks because most religious outlooks sacralize the secular and secularize the sacred, the immanent and the transcendent forever threatening to cannibalize one another. The Abrahamic faiths have long recognized the paradoxically intertwined character of both, hence their adoption of a somewhat panentheistic stance: God is beyond Creation yet present within it. The ways in which the holy and the profane can be conceptualized as identical yet distinct are seemingly infinite. One is reminded of Gustave Flaubert’s description of God: “Present everywhere and visible nowhere.”
Nolan’s project of “immanent wonder” is therefore a precarious one, for it erodes the natural-supernatural divide so key to the constitution of exclusive humanism. Reverence for the immanent world threatens to gather enough power to blow a hole through and beyond it.
TENET best captures the transcendental potential of Nolan’s creative-philosophical project through its depiction of an eternalist (and thus compatibilist) universe. In some respects that eternalism, the pulsing source of TENET’s religiosity, emerges from the medium of film itself.
TENET hints at this with the first words spoken after the title card: “Welcome to the afterlife.” While the film closes with Sator’s and Neil’s deaths, its palindromic narrative structure means both actually die in its opening minutes. The two we subsequently follow are ghosts, lively after-images marauding about the afterlife. In having The Protagonist first meet Sator “after” he drowns in Vietnam, TENET’s plotting dramatizes the eternalist metaphysics implicit in the medium. When we watch movies, we understand that “before” and “after” are illusions born of our limited perspective as we “travel” through what is in fact a preordained narrative. Every moment in a movie exists independently of, and concurrently with, the moment that follows and precedes it. What is a film reel, then, but a physical embodiment of eternalism?
Everything in TENET happens at once. Again, this is true of all films. TENET is so spiritually startling because it makes this truth part of its narrative. Its characters acknowledge it, live by it, even weaponize it. “Inversion” is, at bottom, a twofold dramatization of the filmmaking and film-viewing process. Not coincidentally did Tenet’s scientist explain inversion to The Protagonist by literally playing and rewinding a film of his actions. Anyone with a camera and a screen can practice inversion. We can see the ending before the beginning; we can see people alive after they die. We just need to edit, to rewind.
To watch TENET is to partake in this ritual, for the film assumes our ability to invert it. It demands infinite playback, and like a palindrome it never really ends or begins. Rewind the top half of the Stalsk-12 building exploding and the bottom half blows up. Playing a scene forward plays it backwards, and vice versa. We realize, as The Protagonist eventually does, that you cannot truly rewind the film, because like film—and time itself—it possesses no temporal direction. It just is.
Thus Nolan, through the conceit of inversion, develops a visual grammar of eternity. The greater our fluency in the grammar of inversion, the nearer our proximity to the perspective of eternity. To “see” eternity in this manner has been the dream of many devout theologians. Only God exists outside of time, and so only God can “see” time for the singular moment that it is. That inversion doubles as a metaphor for filmmaking implies the latent religiosity of cinema — the shared aspirational gaze of clergy and cameramen.
If TENET’s characters are filmmakers, its true protagonist is the most proficient of them: Andrei Sator. He likely takes his first name from Andrei Tarkovsky, who famously suggested that all filmmaking is “sculpting in time;” and he definitely takes his last from the Sator Square, a five-line palindrome of 5-letter words (including “tenet”) that some speculate symbolizes God’s omnipotence. Yet Sator is an unbeliever, condemned by The Protagonist for his faithlessness: “You don’t believe in God, or a future!” Faithless, yes, but also the most devout practitioner of the act that in this world draws humanity closest to God: inversion.
Consider the surreal scene where the inverted Sator interrogates The Protagonist by asking each question in response to its answer. Sator understands that his future is The Protagonist’s past, so he manufactures the effects that will yield his desired causes. There is something unhuman in Sator’s ability to think and see this way, and Sator recognizes this, hence his riposte to The Protagonist’s characterization of him as a madman: “Or a god, of sorts.” Only “of sorts,” because Sator’s manipulation of time, like that of The Protagonist he fights, does not ultimately protect him from being dominated by it.
TENET thus allows us to perceive something beyond human perception, to glimpse the shape of an invisible hand puppeteering events via the strings of free will. Nolan, through the purely immanent tropes of spy fiction—heists, interrogations, car chases—raises us to a transcendental vantage point and translates its empyreal sights into the visual vernacular of mortals. His materialism is no shield against religion; here, as elsewhere in his filmography, it is an instrument for it.
Nolan’s magic trick turns out to be very tricky indeed. His “immanent wonder” ultimately illuminates the sacred shadows of the secular. The cosmic vision he articulates and in which his characters have faith is human and beyond humanity. The resultant humanism doesn’t dwell far from Alija Izetbegovic’s: “If there is no God, then there is no man either.”
Perhaps Nolan senses this. Perhaps that’s why in a film where filmmakers can literally edit reality, he still doesn’t permit them to transcend time. For them, as for him, eternity remains unattained; humanity must reach for but never grasp godhood. One can’t help but see, in Nolan’s lifelong devotion to the cinematic simulation of eternity, an act of worship.
Ahmed Elbenni is a features reporter at the Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio, where he writes about religion, culture, and media. He was previously the managing editor of a weekly newspaper in Union, New Jersey. He graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, with a focus on intellectual history and political philosophy. You can find other samples of his work here and here. Tweets @AElbenni.