Almer S. Tigelaar

A Little Bit of Everything

Tenet

Tenet was the first major blockbusters to hit the theaters since the start of the corona pandemic. Delayed several times, it served as litmus test to see if people could be drawn back to the big screen. This was of course before the upsurge in recent months. For the sound design, visual spectacle and immersion, perhaps only a theater viewing would have done Tenet justice. But what about the story? To better answer that question, let us start with the film’s director.

The rest of this post contains minor spoilers for Nolan’s previous 2010 film Inception. Spoilers for Tenet, beyond the first few minutes of the film, are hidden in click-to-expand sections (gray). So, you can safely read on if you haven’t seen Tenet yet.

Tenet’s Director

Some will recognize the name Christopher Nolan instantly. He both wrote and directed Tenet. Nolan’s life-long fascination in three keywords? Time, recursion and non-linear storytelling. Virtually all his movies include one or more of these elements. An early short, Doodlebug (3 minutes), already includes all of them. Though Memento really cemented this.

Explainer: The Key Elements Reflected in Tenet
1. There is the main time mechanic where objects or people can “reverse their entropy” and thus move backward in time relative to someone moving forward, and vice verso.
2. There are at least two points in the movie where a ‘temporal pincer’ move is used: a part of a team traveling backward in time, while another part goes forward. It is revealed at the end, that the entire movie itself is also a pincer move. One where Neil moves backwards through time and The Protagonist moves forward (from our point of view). This is a type of recursion (shorter pincer moves being embedded in a much larger one).
3. There are numerous non-linear elements in the movie, expressed through the time direction of the main character it follows: forward or backwards.

Nolan’s peak was in the late noughties. Where he released films that despite their layered complexity remained understandable. These include The Prestige, The Dark Night and Inception. It is that last movie, Inception, with which Tenet shares most. Of these two Inception is also the better movie. We’ll get to why later. Let’s first take a closer look at Tenet.

The Movie

Tenet immediately draws us into the action as the first few minutes we watch a terrorist attack unfold through the eyes of the unnamed protagonist of the movie played by John David Washington. He is also the main asset of the movie delivering strong acting performance, as does his co-star Robert Pattinson playing Neil.

We follow the protagonist on a journey. He learns that there is something weird going on with time early on. This revealing of a mechanic early in the movie bears resemblance to the first part of Inception. There we learn about the mechanic of entering someone’s mind through dreaming and planting an idea. We also get hints that doing so recursively is possible, but dangerous (the endlessly parodied dream in a dream).

Explainer: The Time Mechanic
In most time travel movies, someone jumps back to a particular point in time and moves forward again in time from that point onward. A good example is The Terminator where the Terminator jumps from the future to the present. This apparently has to involve both getting naked and a lot of electrical sparks. From that point onward the terminator moves forward through time, as do all the other characters.

In Tenet such a time jump is not possible, instead objects (and people) can change the direction they are moving in. When they go through a ‘turnstile’ they change the direction, which means they go backward in time from that point onward. That’s also why characters can see themselves going out of the exit of the turnstile as they are still approaching the entrance. This has the implication that it takes as much time to go back to a particular point in time (say from B to A), as it did to get there from that same particular point (from A to B).

The movie’s title, as well as some character names are taken from the Sator Square, which consist of five word palindromes. The mechanic thus also mimics palindromes, as they consist of the same number of characters in forward and backward direction, echoing that time has the same duration in forward and backward direction. During the last act both the blue and red teams set their watches to ‘ten’ minutes backwards and forwards, also yielding the movie’s title: TeneT (Ten written forwards and backwards). A further reference to the Sator Square.

Style & Flaw

Both Tenet and Inception are heist movies: the main characters needs to steal something for some specific purpose. However, where Inception allows its viewers some time to soak up the unconventional ideas it presents, Tenet seems to just rush forward through them. What doesn’t help here is the large amount of telling, instead of showing. This reliance on exposition does not help convey the movies’ ideas well on other than a rational level.

Let’s forgive all of that, since the main weakness of Tenet lies elsewhere. The movie makes many obvious nods to the spy genre, and an attractive lady is part of that: Kat. However, she is much more central to the plot than the average Bond girl, or so it seems.

Lead Characters

Let’s go back again to Inception. There the female lead character Mal (Marion Cottilard) plays a similarly central role as Kat does in Tenet. However, Mal’s personal story was very effectively intertwined with the movie itself. Affecting the main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Inception wouldn’t have really made sense without Mal.

The problem with Kat is what sets her part in motion. Her predicament doesn’t really get us to care for her, nor do her first interactions with the protagonist. This makes it all the less believable that he makes choices that reveal reciprocal care for her. This I think is the film’s main flaw: it is highly cerebral and misses several key emotional beats that were present in Inception.

Explainer: More about Kat
It is implied at the end of Tenet that the protagonist and Kat get into some sort of relationship in the future, but it’s not made explicit. Another theory floating around is that Kat’s son is in fact is a young Neil (Robert Pattinson), which would be interesting. Given that the connection between Neil and the Protagonist is the only one that does carry emotional weight.
Explainer: Interaction between The Protagonist and Kat
In the first interaction between The Protagonist and Kat, he essentially tries to blackmail her. And in fact he later again ‘tools’ her when he leaks the Airport heist, which prevents the painting from being destroyed. All of this to build his trust relationship with Sator at her expense.

Even in the end, he’s still tooling her to do something: kill Sator. Which is the point at which their interest align. All of it feel more like a business transaction than anything else, which is why the protagonist saving her at the end makes so little sense emotionally. There may be reasons in the future (see the previous explainer), but the audience can’t feel that now.

One nice thing about Kat though is her own character arc. Her diving into the water from the boat in Vietnam, sets in motion the events that lead her to separate herself from her wealthy husband. Which is by itself a nice nod to the grandfather paradox mentioned elsewhere in the film. So in that sense: she’s essential to driving her part of the plot. However, her interaction with the protagonist just does not seem to work very well.

The other relation in the movie, between the two male leads, does seem to work a lot better. Kat feels much more ‘tacked on’, which is shame since her actions are so pivotal to the plot.

Conclusion

I think Tenet presents an interesting time-related mechanic, that is re-used in novel ways as the movie progresses. That usage also gets increasingly more convoluted, and confusing, as the movie approaches its final act. I think Nolan overplayed his hand, with unnecessarily complex storytelling. He expects a bit too much from the audience in that regard. There also a noticeable lack of emotional depth that contrast with previous movies of his hand.

Understanding the plot feels like work. While I don’t mind a puzzle, I think for most people that will take the entertainment out of it. For a select group of others this movie will yield more and more when watched repeatedly. Lending itself to likely numerous explainer videos, articles and theories. Perhaps that’s what separates a regular blockbuster from a Christopher Nolan flavoured one. However, this does not take away that his previous blockbusters: Dunkirk, Interstellar and Inception were better structured, easier understood and resonated better emotionally.

What ultimately saves Tenet is that for the most part the protagonist’s goals are clear, the music and sound design are excellent, the visuals spectacular and engaging and the acting is strong. Looking back it did not exactly ‘bust’ the ‘block’ upon release. However, that has more to do with global circumstances than the potential of Tenet to attract an audience.

Tenet is an intellectually demanding and confusing mess, as well as an entertaining blockbuster with major immersive set pieces. Thus: a mixed bag, that may deliver depending on what you are looking for.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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