“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 150 minutes
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki
Having seen other people’s reviews of Christopher Nolan’s 2020 film “Tenet”, I am surprised to say that I actually understood it completely – the first time of watching it too! Maybe that’s because I have recently done a lot of work trying to understand time-travel theories, quantum mechanics, and paradoxes – but to me it all made sense. Other people have suggested that the film was visually great, but they did not know what the heck was going on.
After passing a test to see how loyal to a cause he is, our hero for the film, who is just called “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), is recruited to a covert spy/commando operation called “Tenet”. He quickly learns that a war is coming… from the future. The concepts of cause-effect in linear time are not necessarily true, and it’s possible for the future and the past to exist in the same plane of existence – time inversion. The Protagonist goes on a journey to learn who is threatening the war, and how to stop them. On the journey he meets various sources who point him towards a Russian oligarch called Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and with the help of Neil (Robert Pattinson) and the Russian’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the Protagonist soon learns that it is the Russian who is the threat, but he is not just threatening a war, he is threatening an extinction level event. He has been sent technology from the future in the form of a physical algorithm which will function as an entropy bomb. The people of the future want to reverse the mess that humanity has caused, and they are willing to risk the future and their existence (yeah, a grandfather paradox). It’s up to the Protagonist, Neil, Kat, and the soldiers of Tenet to save time and existence.
Summary in 180 characters: “Travelling backward and forwards in time, the Protagonist has to learn quickly to stop an existence level event.“
A bit of random info
The concepts that the film tries to use should be taken with a pinch of salt. Director Christopher Nolan says as much in interviews stating that the science isn’t completely accurate. It’s got to be seen as entertainment with theoretical science loosely used. By its own nature theoretical science is just theories anyway, so how accurate can a best guess actually be? The film suggests that reversing the entropy or someone or something is possible, resulting in time reversibility. It uses versions of theoretical science concepts including the “one-electron universe”, “annihilation theory”, “Maxwell’s Demon”, and the 2nd “law of thermodynamics”. In addition, it uses other paradox based theories like the Grandfather/Bootstrap paradox as well as the Novikov theory too. After almost melting my brains trying to dissect the “Terminator Timelines” and reading about these kind of theories a few weeks ago, I’ll spare you an amateur science lesson here. You didn’t come for the science, you came for the film review, but feel free to look back on my other blog for more info on time-travel if you want it (click here).
The Sator Square
Do you need to know this? OK, well the Sator square is a palindromic square that dates back thousands of years – in short, it reads the same which ever way you look at it. It’s been doing the rounds on the internet since the film was announced and you probably won’t be able to search for the film without seeing the carving. The words in the Sator square all appear in the film: Sator is Kenneth Branagh’s character, Arepo the painting forger, Tenet is of course the organisation and title of the film, Opera is where the film starts, and Rotas is the name of Sator’s company.
About the Film
“Tenet” is the kind of film you might typically expect from Nolan. It is visually impactful; the sound is gigantic; and the cinematography, effect, and camera work were all top-notch. The acting is fierce and firm, and of course everything stylishly cool too. There is just about enough explanation to keep the audience engaged, but it never really goes into too much detail so it can sometimes alienate some audience members – take for example “Memento” (2000), “Inception” (2010) or “Interstellar” (2014) – it is like those as far as a coherent linear story is concerned.
The point I worked out the ending to come was when The Protagonist was fighting against a masked man near the “turnstile” in the Free-port. When Neil chased down the 2nd masked man who was running forward and then came back with a weak excuse, I had a feeling that I would be back for more. From there on in I was happy to watch it all unfold and see if my theory was right, and it was. Therefor I saw the cracked wing mirror during the car chase, I could see how the interrogation was unfolding. I’m not saying I understood the film to be cool, far from it, I’m just lucky because I enjoy random science and time-travel is one of those things I like to try and understand in films. In this, Nolan tries to give visual and audible clues, none more so than some of the colour themes, red and blue. Red is a forward’s timeline, while blue is an inverted timeline moving backwards. The 4 main characters (Protagonist, Neil, Kat, and Sator) all go through Red and Blue timelines at different times, while being uniquely set on their own path too. Also, keep an eye out for the colour of clothing too, that’s a clue to the time direction as much as the lighting is.
The Protagonist for example, he is initially in a red timeline. He goes through to blue when Kat needs to be healed. By the climax of the film, he is back in red to help in the battle to stop Sator from gaining victory. And, although Neil is helping in the Protagonist in the red timeline, he initially came from a blue timeline. So, while the Protagonists journey is just starting, Neil is coming to the end of his adventure.
Earlier on I mentioned the Sator Square palindrome. If you haven’t guessed already there is more to that in this film than just the words being used. The film too is a palindrome, with scenes which are themselves palindromic. Take the car chase or the battle at the end for example.
They are the present and future happening at the same time but in two directions, but are part of the same event. Think bigger – The Opera event happens on a 14th, Sir Michael Crosby (Caine) mentions that on the same day as that happened there was an explosion in Stalask-12. So the film is going in a forward direction, but then Kat gets shot. The Protagonist takes her through the turnstile and backwards through time, back to the 14th. So, the beginning and end of the film happen together – which ever way you look at events in “Tenet“, forwards or backwards, it tells the same story. Does that hurt your head?
As the protagonist John David Washington is great. He’s a combination of James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and all the one-man super spy commando’s that have been seen in film. He’s sharply dressed and able to handle himself in any situation that he walks into. I was impressed with him and found the performance and character engaging. On the other hand, I’m not Robert Pattinson’s biggest fan but he is OK as Neil for the most part in this film. He plays a good side-kick/buddy who knows more than he should and always seems to have a trick up his sleeve. One of my bugbears about Pattinson is that, not just here but in other films too, he always looks like he can’t be arsed – like he doesn’t really want to be there but might as well be because he hasn’t got anything else to do. Like the Protagonist, Neil gets to look dapper in nice suits and seems to be equipped to handle every situation he finds himself in.
Kenneth Branagh is great as the Russian bad guy with Elizabeth Debicki appearing as his downtrodden wife and eventual downfall. Branagh manages to command attention as somebody who has years of experience both in front and behind the camera would do. His mannerisms are as threatening as the delivery of his lines and he oozes menace. I kept listening out for weaknesses in his accent but I couldn’t find any issues and I quickly bought into his performance as Sator.
Debicki likewise is a magnet for the camera, the only time I seemed to lose her was when her character was shot and covered by blankets, the rest of the time she seemed to be center stage and handled it, and the character well. In some ways, it could be seen that although there is a plot and the protagonist, there are parts of the film where she is the central character – the protagonist constantly chooses to save or protect her, and she is one of the few people to get out of the whole thing alive and slightly better for the experience. Also appearing, although briefly, Michael Caine, Himesh Patel, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Fiona Dourif – so keep your eyes open!
I’ll be honest, this really isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. My wife for example, hates these kinds of films and decided to go to bed to read rather than endure a brain numbing two and half hours. She’ll happily say that it’s trying to be too complex in order to be cool, and that it’s not as entertaining as most films. She also had an issue with how unnecessarily loud the film was, and Robert Pattinson’s “gormless” expression and slug like eyebrows. I enjoyed it though – it was engaging and challenging, and it was a spectacle the kind I’ve been missing from film for a while. Adventures in different times streams are always complex, and “Tenet” is far from perfection. Like other films it has goofs and goes against some scientific theories – but it’s still a lot of fun and a hell of a ride.