Don’t try to understand ‘Tenet,’ just feel it

Mask up. Images courtesy Warner Bros.

9/10 God damn it’s good to be back at the movies.

A fresh-faced protagonist (John David Washington) is promoted from the CIA to an international secret society called Tenet. He is introduced to “inverted” munitions, bullets made at an unknown point in the future moving backward through time – they impact, then fire, then you pull the trigger. Tenet scientists are discovering more and more inverted objects, most of which indicate an apocalyptic global war is coming. The protagonist attempts to trace the munitions, hoping they’ll lead him to a way to save the future.

Tenet is big. It’s a big date circled on the calendar, made even bigger by the pandemic pushing movies back and by its central position in the process of theaters reopening. It’s got a big budget. It’s got big trailers. It’s got a big score with big booms for its bullets and bombs. It was shot on big, chunky IMAX cameras to roll across big screens.

It’s got big, massive, enormous action set pieces. Tenet was made at overwhelming scale. Every scene in this movie would be the climactic, CGI-heavy set piece in most others, and there’s barely any CGI to speak of. They went to seven countries, shot scenes forward and backward, used hundreds of extras, built a city in the desert to have a massive battle in and bought a whole Boeing 747 just to crash it.

Christopher Nolan bought a Boeing 747 just so he could crash it in Tenet.

If you decide to go, don’t go for the plot, don’t go for the Easter Eggs – writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan likes all his movies to be puzzle boxes, and Tenet is in line with this, but people focus entirely too much on that aspect of his work. It’s not about future this or inversion that, it’s not about whether or not Cobb is still dreaming. If you go, go for the big, bombastic, bughouse, batshit insane action production that only Nolan is doing right now. Shut off your brain, trust everything to become clear, and just feel the pulse of this 150-minute bomb on camera.

Tenet has long been speculated to be a stealth sequel to Inception, but it seems like most of that speculation was fueled by chuds who understand enough about auteur theory to follow a particular director but don’t understand that sometimes directors make similar-looking films. It is much more of a stealth remake of Memento, so much so that, once you realize it, Tenet gets a little predictable, but it doesn’t suffer for its predictability. Movies, and Tenet in particular, don’t need to be surprising to be good.

In addition to being a puzzle box, Tenet takes its name from a puzzle box – the Sator square, a fifth-order Latin word square considered to have religious and mystical properties. The film takes its title from the center word, its villain’s name from the first word and names independent agencies after the others. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons. 

Nolan likes his movies to be puzzle boxes, the plots of which can only be fully understood after having seen the entire runtime. His fans like to posit this as a particularly profound thing, but it isn’t – all movies, all good movies at least, require viewers to see every moment to get the full picture on its metaphors, Nolan just likes to apply that to his literal plots. Familiarity with his work will make Tenet much easier to get through.

Nolan is fascinated with puzzle boxes, but he’s also fascinated with behind-the-scenes technology – this is what gives Tenet its staggering scale. His love story with IMAX cameras started during the Dark Knight series and has carried over into his subsequent films, which is ironically not always a strong point. Production and behind-the-scenes decisions should come together like a puzzle just the same way its metaphors should and Nolan likes his plots to, but the enormous scale doesn’t fit Tenet or Inception nearly as well as Memento’s much smaller scale fits that film.

Tenet’s scale makes up for its imperfect fit to the movie primarily by being really cool.

The other big aspect that doesn’t fit in Tenet are its relationships. The protagonist – and these are character details that have been kept out of trailers, but I promise, they’re not really spoilers – the protagonist traces the inverted munitions to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and uses his estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), to get to him. Most of the movie’s character conflict is between the Sators, which is highly unpleasant. Tenet contains several scenes of graphic domestic violence, and you should consider this a trigger warning. Even having never been in an abuse situation myself, these scenes are difficult to watch.

What Andrei Sator does to his wife may be tough to watch, but it isn’t nearly as violent as what Kenneth Branagh does to the Russian accent. He sounds like a communist Foghorn Leghorn.

The protagonist appears to only see either of them as means to an end, and that causes a few legs to drop. Andrei, the jealous type to say the least, treats him as a romantic rival, and that works just fine, but the protagonist goes out of his way to save Kat at several points. My impression is that she is important to him and the movie completely fails to establish that relationship. It’s also a general weakness that the villain is the only fully formed character – Andrei Sator is the only one of the three with a positive goal and motivation, Kat and the protagonist just want to stop him.

Contrast this with Inception, which also hinges on its antagonist’s relationship to someone else – in Inception it’s the mark’s father, in Tenet it’s the villain’s wife – but Inception’s lead character has his own goals and motivations that relate to his own family, and those are what drive that film. Instead, Tenet’s protagonist is a passive and mostly disinterested observer of his own film’s central relationship.

Like much of Nolan’s work, Tenet is going to get better the more you watch it. That’s unfortunate at a time when even one trip to the theater might cost your life, but if you’re willing to run that risk, it doesn’t disappoint.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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