TENƎT (or "Tenet," 2020)


Dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is a master of opening scenes. The bank robbery scene in “The Dark Knight” is always mentioned, and some begrudging “The Dark Knight Rises” notes, but not the first shooting in “Dunkirk” or the first dream in “Inception.” He knows how to hook an audience in. For “Tenet” Nolan crafted one of the finest sequences of his illustrious career, starting in an opera house that looks vaguely militaristic, then killing all of the bass speakers in movie theaters with the first gunshot, echoing out across the packed auditorium. It’s downright frightening to experience and imagine seeing that as your first theater experience after a pandemic. A shock to the senses is an understatement, but Nolan knows this and uses his traditional maximalist filmmaking style. These long, wide shots clearly map out the environment while maintaining a breakneck pace and providing knowledge of the world without mass plot dumps. 

All of this is accomplished within the first five minutes of the film. That’s the efficient filmmaker Nolan is, he knows he has 150 minutes to bring you into a world, make it feel real, make the audience care, and it has to be entertaining. During these 300 seconds, we are introduced to our Protagonist (description and name), portrayed masterfully by John David Washington, who embodies the raw physicality required for such an emotionally disconnected role, while still caring about his work and the lives at stake. Concurrently Nolan is informing us of the stakes of the mission they are in, a nuclear device that goes beyond threatening the world, a rhetoric that is repeated by nearly every performer. The journey we follow the Protagonist on is intentionally a global one, showing every part of the world is affected by the actions of this one man and the company he keeps. His counterpart and emotional connections to the world are the supporting characters, Neil (Robert Pattinson), another spy and ally, and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the wife of the oligarch Andrei Sator (more on him later), who has plans to kill himself and take the world with him due to his communication with the future. That’s right people, we’re dealing with future tech. Except it’s not what we think, the explanation is fuzzy, but the gist is that the items sent back from the future move in reverse in our eyes. 

Tenet deals with grand concepts, including the idea of “inversion” which for the film, means that an object, or person, is moving in reverse according to our current understanding of time. Nolan’s definition of this is explained only in a way that requires the viewer to have a basic understanding of time and the ability to suspend belief, this writer has one of those and still thinks its explanation was as quickly said as can be, while still pushing the plot forward avoiding the mass exposition dump that many modern science fiction films fall into. For every protagonist, there must be an antagonist and Nolan’s latest choice is Andrei Sator, brought to life by Kenneth Branagh in a wonderfully menacing fashion. Branagh’s Sator is one riddled with disease, from the radiation to the god complex that leads him to the decisions he makes during “Tenet.” He’s a man who has lost control over his wife, not love. Sator is an animal, he growls, attacks, and thinks like one. He doesn’t see his wife as his equal, to him she is just a bargaining chip that can get him what he really wants: fear and power. 

At its heart, “Tenet '' is insanity. Not insane, it’s that in other departments, the score for one. Employing a student of his longtime collaborator Hans Zimmer (who was unavailable due to commitments to “Dune”), Nolan brought in new blood for his latest work and with it, a new sound. Ludwig Göransson was coming off an Oscar win for “Black Panther'' and quickly joined the new troupe Nolan was assembling for his newest epic. Göransson’s work has been widely lauded as a great experimental piece, it’s the use of electronic foundations that allows Görasson’s score to flow backward and forwards, acting as a palindrome for the film while setting the tone in every scene. The music interplays most with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s images that he captures on beautiful 65mm film, and IMAX because Nolan is a celluloid purist. His purist tendencies don’t stop there, Nolan has long been a champion of practical effects and he took it to new heights here, mass explosions, car chases in reverse and forwards through time, and the crowning achievement- crashing a plane through an airplane hangar. The flow of spectacle to story to it being intertwined is paced wonderfully through Jennifer Lame’s editing, another new addition (Nolan’s usual collaborator Lee Smith was preoccupied with “1917”) to the troupe that Nolan was assembling before the pandemic. Her work allows Tenet to work, and make cohesive sense during the third act.

The final act of Nolan’s time-traveling opus is a sequence in a Russian city that involves multiple teams from a shadow organization moving forwards and backward through time, allowing Nolan to play with his obsession in a literal sandbox. The fights are well laid out, and the time-keeping is done with a precision that feels like only Nolan could’ve pulled it off. As great as Nolan’s beginnings are, his endings are just as memorable. The conclusions to “Inception,” “The Dark Knight,” “Following,” and Dunkirk are four of the best endings in films of the last 25 years. Tenet’s ending is not up to these standards, but it does achieve Nolan’s longtime obsession- catharsis. It’s been an idea that permeates every film he makes, this longing for closure, and Nolan has been exploring what happens when that closure is ignored (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Dunkirk,” “The Prestige”), and what happens when it’s accepted (“Interstellar,” “Inception,” “Insomnia”). “Tenet” chooses the unforeseen route of allowing catharsis to present itself, but it’s up to interpretation. Meaning no theory is definitive, which means Nolan really just wanted audiences to debate for the next 100 years what the actual hell “Tenet” means.