Film (2020). Warner Brothers Pictures in association with Syncopy. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson and John David Washington. 150 minutes. Colour.
Tenet is a Time Travel action movie that abounds in visual symmetries and takes its title from the centrepiece of the Sator Square, an ancient Latin word-game which arranges five palindromes into a grid that reads the same in four directions.
A CIA operative (Washington) who refers to himself as "The Protagonist" is recruited by a sect of Secret Masters operating under the name Tenet. A Tenet researcher explains to him that the present is under attack by unknown foes from the future. These enemies, apparently angered by the Climate Change our era inflicted upon our descendants, seek to reverse the flow of global Entropy in the twenty-first century and thus establish Time in Reverse. As part of this campaign they have been seeding our era with objects that have had their entropy reversed so that effect precedes cause. This is called "inversion". The researcher demonstrates by opening her hand and "catching" a reversed bullet that springs up from where it had been lying dormant on the table. From the bullet's inverted point-of-view, she explains, she dropped it.
The future's pawn in their scheme is a nihilistic Russian oligarch Sator (Branagh), who uses arm-dealing as a cover for his true goal of collecting nine pieces of a backwards-travelling "algorithm" sent by the future, which when combined will reverse the flow of time. While Tenet's operatives believe this global reversal will collapse all time and space (see End of Time), their future antagonists apparently believe their own era will be unaffected or, like Sator, are proceeding anyway in a suicidal sulk.
The Protagonist teams up with Sator's estranged wife Kat (Debicki) and the mysterious stylish physicist Neil (Pattinson). In Oslo, Neil and the Protagonist locate a "turnstile" machine that reverses time for anything that enters, including a human. Two Mystery Men in masks and combat gear emerge from the two doors of the turnstile and tussle with Neil and the Protagonist before fleeing. Further exposition reveals that these were the same man, travelling both forwards and backwards in time. A human can also be inverted, in which case they will be seen as moving backwards by any observer living forward.
An undercover negotiation with Sator in Tallinn quickly devolves into a fight between Tenet operatives and Sator's goons to control the last piece of the algorithm that Sator needs to assemble his doomsday device. Failing to secure the algorithm for Tenet, the Protagonist and his allies follow Sator through a turnstile that reverses time for them all. As an inverted human, The Protagonist subjectively sees a world moving in reverse and he lives backwards until he can return to Oslo, where he realizes himself to be the Mystery Men. Still inverted, he fights through his past-self to reach the turnstile, "reverts" to the normal time stream and flees the scene.
From this point, the Protagonist, his allies, and Sator are all chronologically overlapping with their earlier incarnations. This gives the soldiers of Tenet time to gather and stop Sator before he can trigger his algorithmic doomsday device in Siberia. The Protagonist and Neil launch a "temporal pincer movement", in which the Protagonist's forward-moving military unit attack the algorithm's defenders, benefiting beforehand from the intelligence delivered by Neil's inverted unit who have experienced the battle in reverse. (The enemy, never seen or described, are presumably Russian mercenaries). Sator himself has subjectively moved further into the past, when he is killed by his time-travelling wife.
In the aftermath of the battle, Neil reveals that it was the Protagonist who set up Tenet in the first place, something the Protagonist will now do in his subjective future and the chronological past, making the events of the movie into a Time Loop. Echoes of the early work of A E van Vogt are discernible at this point.
Delivered in expository asides muffled by gunfire and a booming score, Tenet's plot proved baffling even to many audience members used to Christopher Nolan's sleight-of-hand. Stripped to its essentials, Tenet can be understood as a traditional action story told in a Z shape, in which viewers experience the same stretch of time forwards, backwards, then forwards again. Within this framework time is a closed loop – as the characters explain, "what's happened happened". In this way, Tenet raises familiar questions about free will, but dismisses them with the line, "don't try to understand it, feel it." The advice could have been levelled at the many viewers for whom it was unclear what had actually happened.
Along with Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), Tenet forms a loose trilogy of Nolan high-concept speculative fiction blockbusters; but as entertainment Tenet is the least successful. If Inception suggested that Nolan's inner dreamscape consisted of shoot-em-up sequences, this is reinforced by Tenet illustrating its temporal shenanigans with thin characters and a James Bond-style plot complete with nefarious Russians. By the film's final set-piece battle, Videogame logic has almost completely taken over, as a Red Team and Blue Team march through Siberian wastelands firing at faceless foes, with one character going as far as retrying the level.
There is a generic architecture of early twenty-first-century urbanism. It caters to global citizens, ensuring that their coffee-shops and airport lounges will be reassuringly identical from Paris to Shanghai. Tenet is set against that architecture and steeped in its ethos. "We live in a twilight world," says Tenet's nameless Protagonist as a shibboleth to identify him to allies, and as he fights his way across interchangeable plazas in London, Oslo, Kiev and Tallinn, the difference between the West and East, past and the future collapse together. All that matters is the algorithm.
Phenomenally expensive, and released in the midst of a global Pandemic when audiences were not inclined to congregate in cinemas, Tenet was a relative commercial failure. Whether this was the fault of the film or the natural outcome of the pandemic, it spooked studios enough that all 2020's subsequent blockbuster releases were postponed to the following year, and Warner Brothers signed a deal with HBO to release future films on that studio's home streaming service. Christopher Nolan had said that he intended the bombastic Tenet to stake a claim for big-screen theatres as the true home of Cinema, but the times were changing. [JN]
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