Tenet Is the Cinematic Equivalent of Play and Rewind Moving at the Same Time
“There’s a Cold War. Cold as ice,” Victor tells the Protagonist on a boat after the latter wakes up from a medically induced coma intended to fool the world that he’d died. “To even know its true nature is to lose. This is knowledge divided. All I have for you is a gesture,” and Victor (Martin Donovan) puts his hands together like a secret gang sign for bros, “in combination with a word. Tenet.”
That about sums up Christopher Nolan’s 11th and arguably most ambitious feature film. To attempt to know its true nature is a losing proposition and the best way to understand the story is by parsing bits of information in digestible chunks. Ambitious might be the wrong word to use for Nolan, whose fascination with time as a concept is something he’s strived to translate into cinematic terms ever since 2000s’ Memento. Non-linear storytelling has propelled several great cinematic works but the visual concept is the same: Everything moves forward.
As a director, Nolan wanted to translate the passage of time in a visual, visceral sense the same way John Gaeta and the Wachowskis froze it with Bullet Time in 1999 with The Matrix. In Tenet, Nolan employs what the film calls inversion, objects and people moving backward in time while the rest of the world continues to plod forward. It’s a visual that threatens to break the mind that is used to translating the passage of time linearly. When Nolan pits two characters together in a chronally disjointed fistfight, with one moving forward and the other moving backward, it’s both wonderful and confusing at the same time.
Essentially, Nolan built an entire film based on the central visual premise of having people and objects move forward and in reverse in the same frame. That’s it. Nolan didn’t even bother to give lead actor John David Washington a proper name —he’s just called The Protagonist. Tenet just wants people to see what happens when you press the play and rewind button at the same time. It’s a masturbatory directorial exercise to show that he could do what no one else had done. For the most part, I loathe directorial masturbation like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But Nolan’s exercise in stretching the limits of filmmaking is less about self-indulgence and more about creating spectacle. It’s not just forgivable, it’s commendable.
Nolan shot Tenet on 65mm film and IMAX. The director never intended for the film to be viewed in small scale. With the film’s theatrical release pushed back thrice because of the pandemic, Tenet became the first Hollywood tentpole film to get a theatrical release after the long shutdown. In the Philippines, where cinemas are closed indefinitely, HBO Go is the only legit way to see the film. This would drive Nolan crazy. Nolan doesn’t do anything small and the rest of the world watching it on tiny phone screens and television sets defeats the purpose.
But we take what we can because Tenet is one of those films that leave you thinking about it long after the credits. That is to say, it’s par for the course for a Nolan film. In simple terms, Tenet is about the Protagonist, who works for a super-secret organization that is in possession of physics-defying materials with reverse entropy that move backward through time as opposed to forward. It also has handy time travel machines called Turnstiles, which are like revolving doors where you go in moving forward in time and exit moving backward. “Don’t try to understand it,” quarter-Veela turned human scientist Clémence Poésy tells The Protagonist in a brief TED talk cameo, “feel it.” It’s good advice.
As much as the film feels like high science fiction, the whole shtick of a secret organization fighting antagonists (what else would they be called?) from the future who want to end the world is just window dressing. The reality is that Tenet is just Christopher Nolan’s version of a James Bond film. The big bad is a billionaire Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) because of course he is, and he’s married to an enchantingly beautiful but lonely woman (Elizabeth Debicki) trapped in a loveless marriage because of course she is. The Protagonist and frustrated Paris Hilton have instant sexual tension because of course they do. In fact, because this is a James Bond film, the Protagonist will do some remarkably stupid things that put the entire world at risk for the sake of one woman whom he’d just met except that this time, just for the hell of it, he’ll do it traveling backward in time.
If Idris Elba never gets the gig as James Bond, you can always watch Tenet and pretend John David Washington is an inverted bullet-shooting 007. Or would he be 700? Because people actually speak backward, too, and if you listen carefully you might hear some backmasked Satanic messages from the ’80s. There aren’t any, of course, but backward Russian doesn’t sound as threatening or angry so think of it as a plus.
That being said, the big difference between Tenet and a James Bond movie, aside from the obvious time-reversing hijinks, is the buddy cop angle with a bad hairdo Robert Pattinson, who plays the Protagonist’s sidekick Neil. Pattinson’s character gives Tenet the heart it needs because The Protagonist is too busy being badass and awesome to be relatable or lovable, and because Nolan vet Michael Caine—who of course makes a cameo—is too old to bungee jump off a Mumbai tower.
The one benefit of catching Tenet through a streaming service as opposed to a cinema is that you can keep rewinding scenes that you didn’t understand. You’ll need to do that quite a bit for Tenet not just because the narrative can be a little confusing but because there are scenes that make more sense when you watch it again and again. Nolan made sure to make Tenet a visual spectacle and a conundrum, with the epic finale being a large-scale encounter between forces moving forward and backward in time.
That’s why the director was so insistent on a theatrical release because we can only process so much inverted action and real-time action in our tiny, linear time-processing brains. With a bigger screen, it’s easier to absorb all the elements moving at once. Few action films are crafted with the kind of ambition and technical mastery as Tenet, and if only for that, it would’ve been worth the watch. Add in the semblance of a story, an endearing sidekick, and truly arresting action sequences, and you have a remarkable cinematic experience.
Tenet is now streaming on HBO Go.