Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”

Academy Award Wins: Best Visual Effects

Director Christopher Nolan has spent most of his career imagining and entertaining various apocalypses, manifesting them onscreen via a series of big-budget action spectacles. He probably never imagined that the 2020 release of TENET, his eleventh feature film, would arrive in the midst of a very real one— an all-consuming “end of days” scenario for movie theaters and the medium of cinema, brought about by the devastating, still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the world that Nolan released TENET into was not dissimilar to one he might have devised for his own work. Early on in the crisis, empty grocery store aisles were a common sight, echoing the famine that brought about a dust-choked existence in INTERSTELLAR (2014). As weeks stretched into months, a collective sense of pulling together to overcome a shared challenge splintered into a bitter divide drawn along political lines, eventually culminating in a failed siege on the US Capitol that — at the risk of making of a reductive comparison to one of the darkest days in American history — was strangely reminiscent of the mass street brawls that marked the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

TENET, then, would become not unlike one of his own protagonists: an individual possessed of elite skill and considerable financial resources, tasked with nothing less than saving the world. In this case, the world needing saving was the conventional theatrical experience— the megaplex. When health restrictions ruled out the ability to sit in a dark, enclosed room with hundreds of strangers for several hours, the beloved ritual of moviegoing collapsed overnight. Theaters around the world closed their doors; some, like LA’s cherished Arclight cinema chain, unwittingly shuttering forever. Even as case numbers dropped in the summer, prompting several chains to open back up and test the waters, auditoriums remained empty. Desperate for revenue and starving for a government bailout that wouldn’t come for several more months, theater chains (and studios) came to see TENET as their last great hope. After all, if Nolan’s latest effects spectacle couldn’t lure audiences back to the cinema, what could?

As if saving the cinema wasn’t enough pressure, TENET also faced a challenge that Nolan hadn’t experienced since 2002’s INSOMNIA: making its money back. At $205 million, it wasn’t just Nolan’s most expensive original film, it was also one of the most expensive original films in history (1). Furthermore, it was the most expensive film ever produced featuring a person of color in the lead role. The stakes had never been higher, and theatrical distribution was the only way a budget this high could hope to recoup its expenses. Rather than dump the film directly to streaming services as other studios had done, Warner Brothers repeatedly delayed the film’s theatrical release in hopes that case numbers would improve enough for audiences to feel comfortable returning en masse. This prospect seemed increasingly unlikely as 2020 slumped over the finish line and the numbers of the infected were higher than ever. Unable to wait a year or more (as other high profile releases like FAST 9 or NO TIME TO DIE had done), Warner Brothers had no choice but to put the film in theaters and let it play to an empty house. Thus, it would seem TENET was doomed to be Nolan’s first financial failure before it even had a chance to prove itself.

Nolan could take some consolation in the fact that the film had lived up to his own exacting creative standards. As an intensely-cerebral, time-bending spy thriller, TENET possesses a Nolan-esque pedigree that verges on the quintessential. The ideas contained within had been percolating in Nolan’s mind for twenty years, only manifesting themselves as an actual screenplay in the last six (1). After the comparatively narrow focus of 2017’s DUNKIRK, he harbored a desire to return to the expansive, globe-trotting scope of his previous epics (2). TENET — inspired by the James Bond franchise and other spy thrillers that had so formative an influence on his youth — would suggest itself as an ideal fit. However, this was not to be Nolan’s take on a Bond movie; this was to be, rather, what he described as a “memory” or a “feeling” of the genre. Not a direct homage per se, but a pure intuiting of its mechanics from a broader exposure, with each of his key collaborators bringing their subjective experiences to the table in pursuit of something more original. 

Indeed, there’s never been a spy picture like TENET, what with Nolan’s signature manipulation of chronology as a core plot point. It’s easy to make light of the general concept— “Nolan just discovered Avid’s ‘reverse’ button” — but it’s clear that he is after a much more complicated understanding of time as it relates to physics. Despite soliciting guidance from his INTERSTELLAR consultant and Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist Kip Thorne, Nolan is the first to admit that scientific accuracy is not the goal. Nor is TENET about the concept of time travel in the way that pop culture understands it, grounding its central idea in the concept of reverse entropy as a way to assign backwards chronological travel to individual objects rather than our timeline as a whole. The end result is as intellectually elusive as it is viscerally engaging; a two-and-a-half hour embodiment of an expositional character’s exhortation to TENET’s hero: “don’t try to understand it. Feel it”.

Like a true spy film, TENET zips around the world in its chronicle of The Protagonist, a rather cheeky moniker given to John David Washington’s elite field operative who is tasked with preventing a future war his handlers only know about because its detritus is peppering our present. Washington, son of the great Denzel, plays down his celebrity lineage to deliver a star-making turn all his own as the unflappably cool, enigmatic hero. He’s emotionless, but not cold; the embodiment of the word “spook”, he seemingly has no personal life to speak of, having devoted the entirety of his existence to the shadows. When a counter-terrorist operation at a Ukrainian opera house results in his capture, The Protagonist attempts suicide by cyanide capsule to avoid giving up crucial information to his captors. The afterlife that awaits him on the other side is a bit unexpected, to say the least: after waking up in a tanker in the middle of the ocean, the mysterious stranger at his bedside (INSOMNIA’s Martin Donovan) recruits him for a top secret mission with an enigmatic code word: “tenet”. The word is also the name of an equally-secret organization that has been collecting various objects evidencing a state of reverse entropy; that is, they move backwards. The organization believes these objects to be the detritus of a devastating war in the future, and the only way to avert it is for The Protagonist to track down a Russian oligarch named Sator. 

Played with an icy intelligence by fellow director (and DUNKIRK performer) Kenneth Branagh, Sator is a nasty piece of work— a cruel, abusive, nihilist with the financial means to satisfy any earthly desire. There’s two things his fortune can’t buy him, however. One is time, as he’s slowly being consumed from within by terminal cancer. The other is love; unable to earn the affection of his wife, Kat, he’s opted for her fear instead. As the film’s chief feminine presence, the 6’3 actress Elizabeth Debicki quite literally towers over her co-stars as Sator’s kept companion. She’s a professional art appraiser who effortlessly glides through high society circles, none of whom have any idea about the bitter abuse she endures for the sake of her son. She proves a valuable partner in The Protagonist’s mission, granting him access to Sator’s inner circle at great risk to her own life. Robert Pattinson’s Neil is another valuable asset to The Protagonist. Cavalier, laidback, and rakishly disheveled, Neil is an elite agent for Tenet who seems a little too well-equipped to follow along with the mind blowing revelations of the mission at hand. His laidback attitude balances rather nicely with The Protagonist’s buttoned-up focus, leading to the warmth of unexpected friendship that counters the aesthetic coldness frequently levied against Nolan by his critics.

As the gargantuan scope of The Protagonist’s mission becomes clear, Nolan’s supporting cast responds in kind, giving the audience a handful of additional characters who each contribute another piece of the central puzzle. Aaron-Tyler Johnson goes full commando as Ives, a brusque, hipster-bearded special ops officer who helps The Protagonist acclimate to the unworldly working conditions of a reverse entropic state. Dimple Kapadia, a prominent Hindi actress making a rare appearance in an American studio picture, plays Priya, a wealthy, Mumbai-based arms dealer who counters the moral bankruptcy of her profession with a warm elegance and matronly demeanor. Nolan mainstay Michael Caine makes a brief cameo as the bespectacled Crosby, a British intelligence officer who conveys early intel about Sator. Jeremy Theobald, the protagonist of Nolan’s lo-fi debut FOLLOWING (1998), also makes a brief cameo in the same sequence, playing a buttoned-up concierge and waiter at Crosby’s dining club.

TENET reunites Nolan with his INTERSTELLAR and DUNKIRK cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, with those prior works becoming a platform upon which to further experiment with large-format filmmaking. The pair switch confidently between 65mm and IMAX film, the latter deployed primarily for action sequences and awe-inducing establishing shots. Also like all of Nolan’s prior films since THE DARK KNIGHT, the mixing of formats would require a constant switching of aspect ratios— 2.39:1 CinemaScope for the 65mm and 1.43:1 for IMAX (further matted to 1.78:1 for home video). Beyond setting a personal record for the most amount of IMAX footage shot at 1.6 million feet (1), TENET doesn’t attempt to expand Nolan’s stately technical aesthetic beyond the reverse conceits required by the narrative, choosing instead to deliver the weighty big-screen experience that we’ve come to expect (and demand) from him. Whether mounted to a crane, a helicopter, or atop the operator’s shoulders, the camera maintains its dogged focus on spectacle and scope as the characters push the story forward. The familiar stone & steel color palette of Nolan’s previous films gives TENET a washed-out, earthy feel, while pops of red & blue are used as visual signifiers of the flow of time— a reference to the Doppler shift, which points out how light moving away from the observer takes on a reddish quality due to longer wavelengths, whereas the shorter wavelengths of incoming light reads as blue.

There’s a case to be made for TENET as Nolan’s ugliest film, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. Though the desaturated color palette certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of vibrant color, the deliberate choice to shoot primarily in the Eastern European city of Tallinn, Estonia (1) imbues the film with a grey, Brutalist quality reminiscent of the utilitarian edifices of the Soviet era. Supplementary locales like Mumbai further add to this feeling, with a sweaty, overcrowded populace laboring underneath the shadow of Priya’s looming residence— a needle-like high-rise built for a single family that serves as a physical embodiment of globalism’s treacherous side effect: runaway income inequality, which has paved the way for a handful of billionaires like Sator to bend society to their exploitative whims. Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley uses these unfamiliar locations to his advantage, subsequently fashioning a kind of abstract urbanity that anonymizes their surroundings akin to INCEPTION’s monolithic cityscapes. This particular aspect finds particular resonance in TENET’s climax, which finds The Protagonist and his colleagues undertaking a massive operation in both conventional and reverse chronology amidst the towering ruins of a decimated ghost city that was once Sator’s home.

Though TENET benefits from the expected pedigree of longtime collaborators like Crowley, Hoytema, and Emma Thomas, Nolan’s partner in production as well as life, two other key figures — editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer — abstain from the proceedings, the former already committed to Sam MENDES’ 1917 and the latter turning Nolan down so as to score Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE (1). Rather than lament the temporary loss of valued colleagues, Nolan would take this opportunity to inject some young blood into the film, replacing Smith with Jennifer Lame and Zimmer with Ludwig Göransson. Known previously for her work on Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, Lee proves her editing chops are just as capable in the action arena as they are in drama or horror. She deftly handles TENET’s display of reverse entropy in action, helping us make sense of where (and when) we are in sequences that could just as easily be a cumbersome and confusing succession of images. 

Göransson further cements his reputation as arguably the fastest-rising star in film composing, creating a rather stunning original score that favors percussion and experimental electronic textures over conventional orchestration. Composed of crashing synth waves, aggressive drums, sirens, and dubstep-adjacent rhythms, the overall effect is not unlike having a bad trip at a warehouse rave… but in a good way. Indeed, the score’s most conventional element is a guitar accent that evokes James Bond without emulating John Barry’s iconic theme. The massive character of Görannson’s sound is even more impressive considering that its orchestral elements were recorded separately by individual musicians working around strict lockdown measures (1). For the character of Sator specifically, Göransson employs an inspired leitmotif that sounds like someone gasping for breath, musically reinforcing his terminal condition as well as the story’s conceit that one must rely on an oxygen mask while in an inverted state. The effect was reportedly achieved through heavy electronic distortion of the original recording, which funnily enough, featured Nolan himself breathing heavily into a microphone (1). To cap things off, Göransson repurposes the score’s unique sound as the backing track to a collaboration with rapper Travis Scott, resulting in an original single titled “The Plan” which boasts the distinction of not only being the first hip-hop song to be used in Nolan’s filmography, but also the first time that the director had used a companion single in conjunction with any of his works (1). Though it’s tempting to imagine what Zimmer might have contributed to Nolan’s latest opus, Görannson’s Herculean efforts keep us from dwelling too much on the elder maestro’s absence.

Beyond his demonstrable mastery of filmmaking’s technical conceits and the visual grammar of epic spectacle, the aura of “timeliness” that envelopes Nolan’s storytelling seems to be rooted in his ability to harness our modern anxieties and transpose them onto a gigantic apocalyptic canvas. Unlike the shock-and-awe, landmark-destruction porn engineered by disaster-movie contemporaries like Roland Emmerich, Nolan’s apocalypses are rather intimate, the sharp end of their spears angled directly at the individual even as the rest of the world hangs in the balance. Even without the threat of coronavirus looming over its release, TENET’s central macguffin — the so-called “algorithm” that Sator seeks to reassemble from pieces sent to our present by mysterious agents from the future — evokes the rapidly-destabilizing nature of the social media age. Just as Sator’s efforts are veiled under the guise of benevolent climate change reversal, so too are the data-based algorithms that build our timelines and newsfeeds being twisted away by bad actors from their original community and relationship-cultivating purposes in order to mislead, disinform, and divide; instead of connection, these algorithms are ultimately fostering isolation, siloing us off into our respective echo chambers and alternative realities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem, subsequently imbuing TENET with an eerie prescience that seems to predict the age of sickness to come. Images of The Protagonist wearing an oxygen mask that serves to sustain him in the face of an inhospitable reverse entropic state unwittingly transcend Nolan’s personal artistic fascinations to coincide with our new masked reality. Likewise, the aforementioned gasping leitmotif that Göransson builds into the score loses its impressionistic storytelling quality as it transforms into a breathless dispatch from hospitals overwhelmed by respiratory failure on an unimaginable scale. Furthermore, the isolating effects of a year in lockdown served to obliterate our collective perception of time, robbing it of meaning while entombing us in a suspended state of waiting— waiting for case numbers to decline, for vaccines to arrive, for our lives to resume. It was almost as if we had been “incepted” into one of Nolan’s films, with the strings that constitute our sense of temporal continuity and progression being manipulated by some unseen puppetmaster for reasons beyond our comprehension.

TENET’s exploration of reverse entropy, the latest snaking tendril in Nolan’s careelong fascination with the manipulation of time, also finds an oblique relevance in the broader cultural obsession with nostalgia. It seems in recent years, the comfort of looking back on supposed “better times” has become a kind of drug, and media conglomerates its dealer. Popular shows like STRANGER THINGS, or reboots/remakes/reimagining of beloved properties from our youth consume the media landscape, delivering continual hits of pleasure and dopamine. In recognizing and profiting off our collective desire to travel back in time, they have effectively weaponized our nostalgia against us, lulling us into willing complacency as the world burns; they keep us jonesing for the next entry, the next installment… the next hit. TENET recognizes this danger, building its backwards-moving story progression around the idea of reverse radiation as a byproduct of nuclear fission. In short, what’s promised to be the next great technological leap forward in civilization — the achieving of cheap, clean, and infinite energy via the replication of the sun’s natural processes on earth — is a double-edged sword that threatens to destroy our past & present even as it promises to save our future. The film repeatedly makes clear the perils of moving backward in time; it could be argued that our desire to do so is rooted in wanting to return to a simpler state than our complicated present allows. What TENET tells us, then, is that the past contains the seeds of said present; nostalgia is a false illusion that, while admittedly pleasurable, ultimately inhibits growth— and as the protagonists of our own stories, forward movement is the only way we will achieve our various objectives.

In the context of Nolan’s own growth, TENET is another prime example of the unique artistic traits that distinguish him as an undeniably compelling voice. The use of entropy as a means of manipulating time speaks to his reputation as a kind of “emotional mathematician”. He roots the fantastical in the practical, turning to physics, science and data as storytelling tools in their own right. At times, TENET is a touch too dense for its own good — I’m no rocket scientist, but I’ve at least been able to follow along with the various plot convolutions of Nolan’s previous films until now. The climatic “temporal pincer movement”, in which one team moves forward in conventional time using intel derived from a second team simultaneously moving backward, requires the closest of attention be paid to fully understand its narrative intricacies. To his credit, Nolan understands the intellectual unwieldy-ness of his setup, and the aforementioned scene in which the Protagonist is urged to “feel” the reverse entropic state instead of understanding it serves as an urging of his audience to do the same. It’s an acknowledgment that TENET is far more enjoyable as a visceral experience than an intellectual exercise, and the film is all the better for it. 

This loosened, near-self-aware approach extends to other signature aspects of Nolan’s artistry, such as the functional style of his characters. Though The Protagonist is well-dressed to the extent that anyone wouldn’t hesitate to call him stylish, his sartorial sensibilities are nevertheless muted and utilitarian; they favor shape and structural integrity over color or flash. His clothes speak to his singular focus on his profession and strategic advantage (a key plot point sees him need to wear an expensive designer suit to even gain an audience with Sator). At the same time, another beat sees The Protagonist casually dismiss a Tenet operative’s urging to wear tactical protective clothing before venturing outside in his reverse entropic state. It’s Nolan’s way of telling us to not take things too seriously, and it’s advice directed as much towards himself as it is his audience; a self-regulating bid to prevent TENET from being too obtuse for its own good.

It likely wouldn’t have mattered whether or not TENET was too convoluted or conceptually dense; it was the latest Nolan film, after all, and it would be the biggest hit of the year outside of Marvel. But this wasn’t a normal year. This was the pandemic year— the year of global crisis that affected all of humanity and yet seemed perfectly-engineered to imperil the most personal aspects of our individual lives. To Nolan, champion and defender of the theatrical experience, the forced closure of cinemas across the world was a direct attack against the core of his artistic being. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”, Harvey Dent famously intones in 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, and a figure who insists on audiences seeing his work in his preferred viewing experience while putting them at risk of exposure to a deadly, out-of-control virus could certainly be described as something of a villain. As other studios and filmmakers shifted gears, embracing a gradual shift towards streaming that had only intensified in lockdown, Nolan insisted that the cinema was the only place his new film could be seen. As such, the release was delayed no less than three times while case numbers ebbed and surged in relentless waves. In the end, TENET was indeed released theatrically, but only to the handful of theaters that were still open— most of them in international markets that had done a much better job controlling case numbers than the US. Considering all of that, its $363 million worldwake box office take should be impressive, but pales in comparison to Nolan’s billion-dollar track record. A disappointment, even one with several caveats, is still a disappointment, and the occasion of Nolan’s first true professional disappointment is cause for reflection on mainstream filmmaking’s high-stakes, unsustainable addiction to immense returns… which requires ever-higher production and advertising budgets to generate.

As the pandemic began to recede into the rearview of history, TENET has enjoyed the opportunity to be seen by more people, and for its many positive qualities to be embraced. A collection of generous reviews would sing the film’s praises, with The Ringer’s Keith Phillips notably proclaiming that its bungled release actually positioned it well as a future cult favorite (3). Nevertheless, the occasion of TENET’s release came coupled with an unexpected development. In their haste to embrace the newfound flexibility of the streaming age, Warner Brothers announced that their entire 2021 release slate would be available to subscribers on their proprietary streaming platform, HBO Max, the same day the films would hit theaters. In so doing, they ran afoul of the talent they otherwise proclaimed to value, robbing them of significant shares of theatrical revenue they had previously negotiated for. While this development came too late for Nolan to be personally affected, Warner Brothers’ spurning of the theatrical window was nevertheless a bridge too far— and presumably the end of the road with the studio that had been his home for most of his career. He publicly eviscerated their decision, even going so far as to call HBO Max “the worst streaming service”. It remains to be seen whether feathers can be unruffled, and the question of his next move is a rather large one. Whatever his next project may be, it will undoubtedly emerge into a profoundly-changed exhibition landscape; his lifelong quest to “save the movies” will face its biggest challenge yet. From our current vantage point, it’s unclear whether or not he will ultimately succeed, but one thing is certain: in trying, he is ready to risk everything.

TENET is currently available on 4K ultra high definition blu ray via Warner Brothers. 

Credits:

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Produced by: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan

Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema

Production Designer: Nathan Crowley

Edited by: Jennifer Lame

Music by: Ludwig Göransson

 

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. “Looking At The World In A New Way”: The Making Of Tenet (Blu Ray featurette)
  3. Via Wikipedia: Phipps, Keith (January 26, 2021). “‘Tenet’ Is Destined to Become a Cult Movie”. The Ringer. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved January 26, 2021.





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