REVIEW: Tenet [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 150 minutes
    Release Date: September 3rd, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): Christopher Nolan
    Writer(s): Christopher Nolan

Ignorance is our ammunition.

We’re each the protagonist of our own stories. Whether we are the villain in another’s, a sidekick, or a complete afterthought, we push forward regardless onto the path we believe is righteous. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should blindly sympathize with an antagonist because they don’t know better. They often do. Antihero status isn’t therefore necessary to understand complexity beyond ego or hubris. We can hate someone trying to destroy the world without wondering about his/her motivations or the fact he/she wasn’t loved enough in their youth. Everything is based on cause and effect regardless of intent. Everything is a byproduct of what came before it. So that bad guy sometimes must put the world in danger in order for the good to realize it needs saving.

The storyteller’s job is to make us understand why. Oftentimes that means using flashbacks or revealing secrets at opportune moments to provide the type of clarity that transforms our thinking around any given action. We watch a scenario play out, rewind to see what was left out, and then reinterpret said scenario with that new information. Our progression through remains linear with a handicap that can either appear seamlessly airtight or conveniently manipulated depending on its success. It’s a process that we see all the time—one that writers have sought to subvert in inventive ways in order to make the familiar feel unique through structural changes and our perception of them. Writer/director Christopher Nolan has built his career on this illusory trick with Tenet proving his cornerstone.

It makes sense then that Dunkirk came first since his use of time there becomes a prototype for what he’s doing with it here. The idea with that film was creating parallel stories that seemingly combine to form a cohesive unit when they actually operate independently from one another at conflicting speeds so that he can separately wield their emotional and narrative power to the greatest effect of the whole. The next logical step would thus be to use that same technique and actually force them into being parallels despite that differentiation. By playing with physics and temporal anomalies, Nolan can feasibly create two inverted timelines that fold in on each other in a way that allows them to interact in the moment rather than solely via hindsight.

All he needs is a vague notion of cracking the “code” in the future and a turnstile that’s able to slingshot any object of choice back so it can move forward through its own existence while simultaneously moving backward to the existence it left. The beauty of science fiction is that you never really need to explain how it happens since that explanation would render it real. All you need to do is present it as possible and operate within the scope of the possibilities it creates. The mechanics of how a gun that vaporizes what it hits is inconsequential. That it can is what’s important. The same goes for the process of inversion that Nolan has concocted for Tenet. Its superficial, catastrophic potential trumps any unavoidable implausibility.

Enter Clémence Poésy‘s Barbara. She receives about five minutes of screen-time for the sole purpose of presenting what’s possible. There’s a bullet-riddled stone hanging in the distance with an empty gun in the foreground. She tells John David Washington (known only as “Protagonist”) to pick up the weapon, aim at the rock, and pull the trigger. The result is unexpected. A hole in the rock seals, the gun’s kickback is reversed, and suddenly a bullet is returned to the clip. How? The bullet went through the aforementioned inversion process. It’s visible to our perspective, but it exists on another. It’s there because it always was. Firing the gun provides the necessary journey that explained its hole. Cause already occurred. We simply can’t witness it until after the effect.

Nolan is ostensibly using time travel attributes without actual time travel. Effect can therefore happen before cause if both are joined within a paradox or a closed-loop system. To see a dead body is to anticipate a bullet. To see a totaled car is to anticipate the crash. And until Washington’s character can teach himself to think in this way—itself not an easy or constant thing since you can’t know what is inverted and what isn’t—he’ll be forever playing catch-up despite his success in always being early. And if he’s able to find the device that allows him to turn in on himself by becoming a mirrored version coexisting in the same physical space, he can accomplish anything. There’s one caveat: folding backwards isn’t instantaneous.

What this means is that while the ability to return to ten days ago is possible, you must live those ten days again to get there. I won’t begin to even think about how that necessity still allows you to interact with a world running the opposite direction (One scene has an inverted car driving backwards with the current while the person driving it is driving forwards against the current yet in both instances it’s going in the correct direction? Maybe I’m misremembering.) because doing so will only take me out of the plot that demands it to be true. Nolan gets around a lot of this, though, by inverting the people sent back again so they become in-sync and continue forward from that new point of entry.

All this to say that Washington is behind an eight ball he can’t even see that’s being controlled by Kenneth Branagh‘s Sator. He might not know what his enemy is actually doing with this technology, but he knows it’s bad since people on his side (Barbara) and the other (Dimple Kapadia‘s Indian arms dealer Priya) tell him so. His only move is to do whatever he can to stop him and learn on the fly. That means trusting a new partner (Robert Pattinson‘s Neil), caring about the collateral damage caught in the wake (Elizabeth Debicki as Sator’s estranged wife Kat), and listening to a military man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson‘s Ives) who knows a lot more than any of them. Actions beget consequences. Consequences beget actions. And the concert continues.

So while the confusion is daunting, having Washington’s character also be confused helps to prevent everything from frustrating us into quitting. Nolan does a good job dumbing stuff down and having Washington repeat what people tell him as he’s absorbing it so that we too can have everything reinforced in our own minds. Is the gimmick biting off more than it can chew? Perhaps. It’s a lot of moving parts for a rather simple narrative, but Nolan isn’t as interested in the latter when playing with the former proves much more fun. Tenet is thus all about the action and the conceit’s ability to render that action visible in two directions supplies an ingeniously built-in structure guaranteeing we’ll revisit plenty of scenes at some point in the future.

I would have loved if Nolan also played with his characters (naming one Protagonist carries so much potential as far as questioning the label’s legitimacy), but that probably would have added even more confusion. Instead he simply keeps appearances as straightforward as possible with Washington as good guy, Branagh as bad, and Debicki as the damsel in-between with reason to kill them both if it means finally being free. Such simplicity almost makes the confounding intricacy of the rest seem wasted, but I guess having more brainpower to wade through that chaos is a positive. And it’s honestly nice to get the full Nolan treatment in spectacle without the heavy emotional and psychological lifting. It’ll never be as memorable as his best works, but it’s undeniably entertaining nonetheless.

[1] © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon Caption: JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON stars in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “TENET,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon Caption: (L-r) JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON and ROBERT PATTINSON and in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “TENET,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon Caption: (L-r) ELIZABETH DEBICKI and KENNETH BRANAGH in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “TENET,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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