Spoiler Room: Tenet

It’s time to talk about TENET tuoba lkat ot emit s’tI. 

Christopher Nolan’s biggest – and messiest – movie yet stormed into theaters with the confidence that it could single handedly save cinemas around the world. Whether it’ll manage to do so remains to be seen; but considering the fact that the time traveling action and one thousand or so plot twists may drive curious audiences to mask up again and head out for a second watch in almost empty theaters, it’s worth discussing what the hell Nolan is up to in the first place.

Before I go any further, let’s get the basics down: The Protagonist (John David Washington) is a CIA agent on an undercover mission at an opera house in Kiev. He’s mysteriously saved from by a masked soldier with a red trinket on his backpack, and he notices that the soldier appears to be moving backwards through time. After he’s captured, he takes a cyanide pill to kill himself. He awakens from a medically induced coma to discover that the pill was a test, and he’s now recruited into a mysterious plan to save the world – and stopping something “worse than World War III”. Tenet is the name of the organization behind it. 

It’s at this point the film explains the idea of time inversion through science palatable enough for general moviegoing audiences to understand (thanks to Clémence Poésy in a minor role as a scientist). It’s in this scene that she explains “don’t try to think it, feel it” to the Protagonist in relation to time inversion – an odd thing for such a mathematical director like Nolan to say to his audiences. Maybe he knew we would all be confused? At any rate, it’s an invitation to shut your brain off. After a quick trip to London to meet a cameo-ing Michael Caine and a visit to Mumbai to talk time inverted weapons with arms trafficker Priya (Dimple Kapadia), the film brings us to the main crux of it: the abusive relationship between Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).  He controls her by using their son Max as a bargaining chip. Andrei is gathering these inverted weapons and pieces of something called “the algorithm” for unclear yet nefarious reasons, and the Protagonist and his ally Neil (Robert Pattinson) must find a way to stop him while working with Kat, who would much rather kill her piece of shit husband now, thank you very much. 

John David Washington in Tenet (2020)

When the film reaches its show-stopping climax, it’s revealed that Andrei is dying of an inoperable cancer. In his own words, he “made a deal with the devil” to assemble all nine pieces of the algorithm and set it off upon killing himself, which would result in a catastrophic level of time inversion. The entire planet would be reversed as time entropy would be inverted. It turns out that people in the future built the algorithm and sent it back in time for Andrei to assemble. Blaming their near-extinction due to irreversible climate change on the present, they want to reverse time and take the planet from the people living in the present. The Protagonist and Neil enact a “temporal pincher” operation at Andrei’s abandoned childhood city of Stalsk-12 (one team, red, moves forwards in time, and another team, blue, moves backwards in time) to capture all nine assembled pieces of the algorithm and scatter them again to make sure they’re never found. Meanwhile, Andrei and Kat both end up going back to the last day they were happy together, with Andrei intent on killing himself, and Kat intent on making sure he stays alive until the pincher is completed, and she can kill him her damn self. 

In the conclusion, the pincher is a success, Kat kills Andrei, and it’s revealed that Neil was not only a member of Tenet, but has been traveling backwards in time throughout the entire story. He was the soldier that saved the Protagonist at the opera house. When he leaves, it’s the end of a long friendship, but for the Protagonist, it’s only the beginning of one. The Protagonist realizes that he was the mastermind behind Tenet all along, and in order to make sure the events of the film happen, Kat must stay alive. He saves her one last time in London by killing Priya. Kat picks up her son from school, and the time loop is complete. 

John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Himesh Patel in Tenet (2020)

So what the hell does this all mean? It’s all kind of ridiculous, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Nolan is just as much of a mathematician as he is a filmmaker, but the actors wring out emotion from his icy script anyways. The most pointed emotions in the film come when the Protagonist asks Andrei why he wants to destroy the planet when he dies, even in spite of his son. Andrei snarls about how wrong he was to bring a son into a dying world. There’s an argument to be made that Tenet is about having hope, even when everything appears to be hopeless. Andrei gave up hope a long time ago, and in doing so made a treacherous deal that would kill everyone when he dies. It’s the ultimate form of selfishness. In contrast, the Protagonist has an enormous amount of hope, determined to save Kat and Max, and by extension, the planet. The world might be crumbling around these characters (cyphers? archetypes?), but Kat’s desire for freedom for herself and her son drives everyone to stop Andrei’s horrible plan. His doomer nihilism is halted by the belief in a better world. True friendships, parental love; this is why we strive for a better and brighter future. 

Perhaps that’s why “don’t try to understand it, feel it” is said early on in the film: only by feeling universal emotions can we understand it. 

It can be this, or it could be “haha time inversion go BRRRB og noisrevni emit ahah”. Dunkirk and Tenet represent the director’s move towards mechanic-driven spectacle, and though they might be lacking in deeply developed characters or achingly realistic dialogue, his march into big, loud, and kinda dumb means we’re in for more cinematic rollercoasters: big, bold, and fast-paced. That’s Tenet in a nutshell: a wild ride that might just have some basic but recognizable emotions behind it. 

Christopher Nolan in Tenet (2020)

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coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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