Out of all the movies Christopher Nolan has made, Tenet sticks out like a sore thumb. At first look, nothing appears to be out of the ordinary. Warner Bros. and Nolan’s production company, Syncopy, collaborating on a mind-bending blockbuster with a plot filled with twists and turns that will be vigorously debated until the end of time? That’s an average Tuesday for Mr. Nolan and his crew. Yet, Tenet remains a bizarre object of fascination. Some attribute that to its controversial September 2020 release during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others attribute it to the film’s cerebral nature. And who knows what to make of the film’s strange cult following that’s developed in the last few years? At the center of this maelstrom lies a cold truth – for better or worse, Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s boldest experiment.
Tenet Stumbles Backwards Into Theaters
As with the majority of his works, Christopher Nolan conceived the idea for Tenet long before it was anywhere close to becoming a reality. After the release of Interstellar, he got to work on the script alone, a rare move from a filmmaker known for writing with collaborators such as his brother Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer. Warner Bros. fully backed his vision, giving him an estimated budget of $205 million to shoot the film with as many practical effects as possible, a standout being the crashing of an actual Boeing 747 airplane. Nolan gathered a crew of notable industry talent, such as actors Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Pattinson, Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, The Mandalorian) and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Nope). Meanwhile, up-and-comer John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) was cast to play the lead. All the ingredients were there for a surefire Nolan smash.
The prologue shown in front of IMAX screenings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker helped build some audience excitement as well. However, we all know what happened next. The COVID-19 Pandemic put movie theaters, and the world as a whole, on lockdown. A large swath of studios sought to cut their heavy financial losses by releasing some of their films online, Warner Bros.’ own streaming service HBO Max leading the charge. Christopher Nolan was the holdout. He insisted on a theatrical-only release for Tenet, a move that many decried at the time. To the naysayers, it simply wasn’t safe to go back into cinemas yet. No amount of videos of a masked-up Tom Cruise proclaiming “Back to the movies!” would change that. After what one would assume were heated discussions, Tenet got a slight delay from its original July 17, 2020 date to a slow rollout beginning August 2020.
Nolan’s Tangled Web (AKA THE PLAN)
It’s ironic that Tenet was the film that got pushed so hard to be the first big tentpole to release during the pandemic because it’s not exactly audience-friendly. Its premise isn’t exactly easy to explain, but we’ll have a go. Tenet follows a CIA operative, known only as “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), on a mission given to him by a secret intelligence agency from the future known as “Tenet.” The protagonist must prevent the construction of a machine that will destroy time itself by the Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). He teams up with Neil (Robert Pattinson), an agent of Tenet, to get the pieces of the machine, aka the “Algorithm,” which involves the Protagonist and Neil “inverting” their own entropy to travel backward in time. To the people moving forward in time, they look like they are physically moving backward.
While inversion is somewhat of a hard concept to grasp – made more difficult by wrinkles like “the inverted have to breathe their own air” or the actual physics of how things like explosions work if you’re inverted – the concept itself leads to what Nolan does best: breathless set-pieces. Moments like Neil and The Protagonist having to hold their breath to break out of a room flooded by halide gas, The Protagonist fighting an inverted soldier as he himself moves forward in time, or even seeing the world through the inverted eyes of The Protagonist as everything moves backward make for damn near the strongest blockbuster spectacle you’re ever going to see. Hoyte Van Hoytema makes a meal out of the brutalist, gray architecture that The Protagonist finds himself scouring through in his missions as much as he does the sweeping tableau of boats racing in the ocean.
The 65mm/IMAX cinematography of Tenet is what the big screen is made for. Not to mention, Ludwig Göransson’s bonkers score pulses with an electronic rhythm flourished with the reversing of certain instruments that’ll get even the most stoic moviegoers bobbing their heads along. Yet, Nolan’s visual ingenuity regrettably loses a lot of its jolt when audiences cannot understand what’s going on. For all the glorious sounds the movie has to bring – not the least of which is Travis Scott’s de-facto theme song for the film “THE PLAN” – the sound mixing puts the dialogue at a muffled, sometimes incoherent volume. Despite the marketing campaign’s touting to see this film in a cinema, Tenet can perhaps be best understood at home with subtitles on. Even if the dialogue was crystal clear, loads of haphazard exposition are still bound to fly over the heads of a large portion of viewers.
Learning to Love the Temporal Pincer Movement
Christopher Nolan expects you to catch on quickly and consistently keep up with new knowledge throughout Tenet. Although visual cues help, like red symbolizing going forward and blue symbolizing going backward, how can anyone expect the idea of a “temporal pincer movement” – two legions of fighters, one inverted and simultaneously informing the other team moving forward of how their future will unfold while on a different mission – to be easy to understand on first viewing? Or a car chase where one of the characters is going backward through time and being given advice on how to navigate a situation from someone going forward at the same time? It’s absolutely not user-friendly, but that’s kind of the method to Nolan’s madness.
And this is where a grand defense of Tenet can be mounted. The moment where the movie really begins to click is when The Protagonist, under the urging of the wonderfully over-the-top military commander Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), goes through the process of inversion for the first time. He speeds through the car chase he was just in, only this time backward in another car, showing a new perspective of events. Furthermore, he goes to the airport from earlier in the film where he must un-invert, or revert, himself and ends up discovering he was the inverted masked man who fought, er, himself earlier in the story. This makes Tenet a palindrome structure, something that is the same backward as it forwards. The movie then opens itself up to several rewatches, a series of “chicken or the egg” paradoxes involving time travel slowly revealing themselves.
Yet Another Tenet Theory
This strong “rewatchability” factor is enough to make the brain melt, and that’s what makes Christopher Nolan’s Tenet so damn appealing. All sorts of revelations come about on multiple revisits. A single throwaway shot of a trinket on Neil’s backpack reveals him to be the one who saved The Protagonist at the beginning of the film, as well as the inverted soldier who gave his life to save The Protagonist just a few minutes before the shot, recontextualizing the entire story as their last adventure together. Some have taken it way further, scouring for clues that Neil is actually the daughter of Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Or even more out-there theories posit that the scientist who shows The Protagonist inversion, played by Clémence Poésy, is the very same who ends up accidentally inventing inversion by reverse engineering it through her discoveries.
It’s a playground for the galaxy-brained, so there’s no wonder Tenet has garnered a loyal following who pore over every frame of the film. Heck, there were even theories before the movie came out, the most famous of which was that Tenet was going to be about preventing the tragedy of 9/11 due to the name of a CIA higher-up around the time being George Tenet. Audience involvement was always an entry-level requirement for Tenet. Therefore, an engaged audience wasn’t really a hurdle for Nolan’s film to overcome upon release.
There are some, accepting the topsy-turvy nature of the plot, who still take issue with the characters in the film. To some, The Protagonist is barely a character. Sure, he’s played dutifully by the incomparable John David Washington, getting badass moments or lines (“I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago”) in quick succession, but we don’t know much about him. The villain Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is incredibly one-dimensional, wanting to destroy the world because he’s dying. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, once again finely acted, doesn’t get much definition outside of being abused by Sator or reclaiming her independence from him.
A Secret Love Letter to A Classic Franchise
Now, follow me here – these choices are deliberate because Christopher Nolan is making a James Bond film. Or, rather, a film about him saying goodbye to making a Bond film. On that second point, be patient, because there is a larger idea at work. Nolan’s love for the Bond franchise is storied. “The influence of those movies on my filmography is embarrassingly apparent. And so there’s no attempt to shy away from that. I love the films” Nolan has said, indicating his interest. Nolan has also expressed a hesitance to do so as he is wary of working “within the appropriate constraints because you would never want to take on something like that and do it wrong.”
There’s no question that The Protagonist is Nolan’s stand-in for James Bond; the suave secret agent – effortlessly cool but also slightly anonymous. Neil represents Christopher Nolan himself, a massive fan of James Bond who due to that lack of creative control is unlikely to ever make a Bond movie. Not to mention, Neil bears more than a passing resemblance to Nolan. Neil, or our writer-director, takes The Protagonist, or James Bond, through an adventure in only the way Nolan can make it.
There are of course the hallmarks. Scenic locales, firefights, a woman in trouble (Kat), a European madman villain (Sator), and fun supporting characters, like Martin Donovan’s CIA spook or Hamish Patel’s gleeful fixer, are all here. Though Neil takes The Protagonist, just as Nolan takes the audience, through a brainy, discombobulating maze of theoretical science scattered with paradoxes. And at the end, Neil says goodbye to his hero, as does Nolan, as the latter is far more concerned with keeping his authentic voice. Or maybe I’m grasping for straws? Maybe I should just follow the advice of a character early in the film and try not to understand the film, but feel it?
That’s the beauty of Tenet though. It’s Nolan’s most divisive film thus far, ranked far behind Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy by many fans. To these people, it means nothing but a headache. For others, it’s a deeply meaningful piece of cinematic work. To yet another, it could be deeply meaningful for a whole different reason. Tenet is an enigma of a film, the kind that only Christopher Nolan could make, and far less cohesive than something like his latest masterwork, Oppenheimer. However, that singular nature assures it will live forever. Did the experiment pay off? If the conversation still continues all these years later, the answer is an emphatic yes.