Tenet (2020): A Mind-Melting Ride to the End of the World and Back(wards)
Tenet seems like the product of Nolan spending years reworking Inception (2010) in his mind—and by the end of the film I was convinced: the result is a better film.
Christopher Nolan must be a self-tortured perfectionist, because Tenet seems like the product of spending years reworking Inception (2010) into a better form in his mind: thinking of themes he wished he incorporated, simplifications that could be made to the reality distortions at its heart, and new depths of mind-bending complexity the plot could drop into off of it. And yeah, by the end of the film I was convinced: he has taken apart the pieces, re-assembled them into a fresh form, and the result is a better film.
Worth mentioning is the photography. It has a super rich, dark, highly cinematic look we’ve seen before in Nolan films. A highly stylised image you can sink into on the big screen.
The characters are written and performed with simple, extreme, almost mythological qualities that make them feel larger than life, as if they were forged in a superhero universe. It’s a subtle distortion from typical action/science-fiction character types, but one that adds flavour and gives a grander scale.
Dominating the film is the plot and the time reversing conceit it revolves around. Simply put, some events go backwards while others go forwards. A lot of footage is played in reverse, but with parts of it running forwards. This technique is used frequently, in almost all action sequences, and makes a strong impression—it is the film’s obvious talking point. It is both impressive and confusing, but as simple as playing footage in reverse sounds as a special effect, it feels fresh and original.
The reverse-time concept is also peppered with logical holes, if you think too far into things, but we are given a steer early on: don’t think it, feel it. If you can go with what you’re seeing on the screen as a kind of visual representation of a time-bending concept, you'll have a better time. Maybe the film’s time puzzle can be made sense out of, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be solving it while still in the theatre.
Alongside the time-bending shenanigans, the fourth wall is also broken. The protagonist starts referring to himself out loud as "the protagonist," for example (and that is how the character is credited). Other examples are best left for the viewer to discover. Again it’s a simple technique (this time used sparingly), but quite effective in creating the sense of reality breaking down, or coming to an end.
The soundtrack draws a lot of attention to itself. Some dialogue appears to be deliberately muddied, and the score can be jarring and off-key in a pretty aesthetically unpleasant way. It's not pleasing, but it does seem intentional. Like many aspects of the film, it seems aimed to irritate, perplex, and unsettle.
As the story develops it incorporates themes of global disaster, irreversible climate change, and impending doom, which, in the middle of a global pandemic, speaks to the times. The end of the world is being threatened in a very literal way in the film, but the more the nature of the threat is explained, the more relevant it feels to the moment. There’s no microbes involved, but the parallels are close enough to make your ears perk up. Maybe this reading is something the viewer can't help but bring to the film at the moment.
These themes also add substance—the obsession with the flow of time starts to make sense when we consider the plot (in a roundabout way) hinges around the moment in time where the fate of the world is determined. It is about the moment we often hear mentioned in relation to climate change: the point of no return, when the damage can no longer be reversed by any conceivable means.
Taken as a whole, Tenet is strange. It is both conventional and unconventional. A lot of its qualities will be seen as flaws by some. It’s an epic, stimulating, mind-rattling thriller, it’s an enormous plot puzzle, it’s a heist movie that fits in the tradition of the genre, it has science fiction elements that are quite conventional, and it has plenty of typical action sequences, though played largely in reverse. Conventions are distorted in such a way it’s hard to place the film.
At heart this is rock solid, high octane genre cinema, stamped with a heavy directorial fingerprint and pulling pieces of the art house into its orbit. It will evoke a reaction in the theatre, deliver what you expect from high-budget action, and make for a memorable viewing experience. You might not be certain what you just watched, but it is, certainly, a worthy reason to visit your local theatre if circumstances allow.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].