Neil : What the hell happened here?
The Protagonist: Hasn’t happened yet.
There are several directors whose work I admire, and several more whose heads I would love to just go and sit in for a day, just to observe their thought processes. Stanley Kubrick for his Space Odyssey, The ‘Bayhem’ going on in Michael Bay’s mind, James Cameron’s excessive attention to detail and Christopher Nolan’s Nolanised view of the world. With that in mind I cranked up the cinema and sat down to watch Nolan’s timey wimey action thriller ‘Tenet’
What Is Tenet?
Deep in the heart of Tenet sits a simple story, one of international espionage. The bad guy (a megalomaniac arms dealer) gets his hands on a device that would wipe out humanity, unless he is stopped. It is a story that has been played out time and time again on screen, be it in sci-fi series like Stargate Atlantis, major franchises such as Bond, or anything Marvel has thrown on screen in the last decade. What sets Tenet apart is that Nolan has made the story super complicated by throwing in ‘inversion’ or time travel, as it is otherwise known.
The official synopsis is vague at best…
Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
I think at some point Nolan sat down and watched ‘Time Cop’ and thought to himself, I can Nolanise this…
So, the plot now becomes:
A bad guy arms dealer obtains a device that can invert time, enabling him to travel forward or backward through timelines. Linked to this device is weapon that can destroy all of humanity. The arms dealer sends goons traveling both forward and backward through time, seemingly at the same time, obtaining the relevant parts to make this device/weapon go boom.
A secretive government agency cottons on to the fact that bullets appear to be arriving in the current timeline backwards. Anything and anyone traveling backwards through time gets inverted meaning we see everything they do reversed. The Protagonist passes a secret initiation and is given the word ‘Tenet’ to quote randomly and told to investigate what the hell is going on.
The Protagonist, in true Bond style, seduces the bad guys wife, tracks down the evil arms dealer, cooks up a plan to destroy the weapon and all while traveling backwards and forwards through time and being totally confused about the whole thing.
All this leads to a climatic third act that has inverted and normal timeline shenanigans going on and is a real visceral treat to watch.
Stand Out Casting
John David Washington as The Protagonist.
One of my favourite actors is Denzel Washington. Not only can he handle the odd action set piece, he is the master of dialogue delivery. His face off against the mighty Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide is an excellent example of what I mean. So, does this talent pass down to his son John David Washington? The answer is an emphatic yes. In Tenet, Washington has complex narrative, direction and action to master. His dialogue delivery is on point and not over the top. He looks very natural in front of the camera and crucially is believable playing the protagonist. Washington is also very adept at action set pieces, to the point that I thought his work had been reversed in post-production for the inversion effect. However, I was stunned to find out that he rehearsed backwards fight scenes and it is that is what we see on screen. Kudos must be given to both Christopher Nolan and casting director John Papsidera for getting The Protagonist spot on. I have a couple of niggles with The Protagonist character though, at the beginning of the film we see him interrogated by persons unknown. This includes teeth pulled out and a cyanide pill taken. A few frames later he is back in the land of the living and has had full cosmetic surgery (all his teeth are back). This is not explained, and I spent the first half of the movie wondering if I was watching some alternative reality take place.
John David Washington: Tenet Feature
Robert Patterson as Neil.
Paterson has come on leaps and bounds since the early days of messing around with vampires. In what can only be described as a literally passing of the baton, ex Batman director Nolan casts Batman incumbent Patterson as The Protagonists handler. It’s a role that basically makes Robert Patterson the sidekick to Washington. Literally following him about and helping him get out of whatever scrape they find themselves in. Patterson is super effective at playing Neil. Beat for beat matching Washington’s tone, personality, and stamina. It is a performance that bodes well for upcoming film ‘The Batman’. One major gripe I have with Neil / Patterson is the character’s smugness. Neil obviously knows what is going on with the inversion time travel but will not say a word. The end of Tenet reveals why he won’t say anything, but until that point you spend a couple of hours hating on Neil or screaming in your mind ‘just tell him for goodness sake’ The end reveal then becomes quite anticlimactic as a result.
Elizabeth Debicki as Kat
Debicki’s character is the one that really narked me the most in Tenet. Not Debicki’s performance mind you, as you can tell that Nolan has got the most out of Debicki. You can tell that she is putting everything into the character. Instead, what bugs me is that (Just like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kat is totally inconsequential to the plot. With a few very minor tweaks to the screenplay the character of Kat could be written out and it would have no impact on how the film ends. Left in Kat’s actions still have little effect on the outcome of the movie. This reduces Debicki’s character as little more than an abused trophy wife of a rich man, who has a revenge arc. She is beaten, slapped, betrayed and in one scene is portrayed as naïve and dumb. It the age of the post ‘Me-Too’ movement I would have expected Nolan to have come up with a stronger female character. With some clever writing it would not have taken much to have enhanced Neil’s character and had Debicki play the handler role instead of a stereotype wrapped up in a complicated plot.
Kenneth Branagh As Sator
Whilst Kat is the abused, Sator is the abuser. Fresh from being Poirot and Hamlet, Branagh has chosen to play Russian evil dude with a dying wish to blow up the past to stop the future happening, or is it the other way round? Either way he wants to blow up the world. Branagh’s performance is as hammy as you can get and at times has incomprehensible mumbled dialogue to deliver. Not sure if its intentional or a mistake in post. Again, Nolan has fallen back onto tropes seen before and is bringing nothing new to the bad guy table. Bad guy Russian – check, Bad guy ridiculously wealthy – check, bad guy has incompetent yet highly trained henchmen – check, bad guy has a complex about something – check. With all the implied time travel you would have thought that a more interesting character could have been developed. At least we can look forward to a slightly less hammy Branagh when he release Poirot Death On The Nile 2022.
Nolan has shoehorned in parts for several alumni.
Most notable is Sir Michael Cane. I smiled when I saw him on screen as its good to see Caine still acting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help think that he was playing a caricature of his previous work but he looked like he was having fun with it.
Much has been said about Nolan’s tendency to emulate the style and idea’s of bond films. People have compared Tenet to a Bond film with the trio of The Protaganist, Sator and Kat being Bond, bad guy, and bond girl. When I watched Tenet I made no such connection other than character stereotypes mentioned above and even thinking about it now, I do not believe that Nolan set out to make a bond style film.
Tenet Production Values
Nolan has employed Ludwig Göransson to score Tenet. Göransson has come up with a stark, sombre score not too orchestrated relying on synth style sounds for most of the score. Tracks like ‘Freeport’ come across as a hard listen with brutalist beats bouncing around the speakers. Bad guy Sator gets a theme that sounds like it’s a Michael Bay Transformers sound effect. Tonally Göransson has done a fabulous job but it’s a score that I will not be rushing to listen to separately from the film.
Tenet is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. (usually one of my favourite track formats as it is uncompressed) but unusually in this case its implementation is a bit of a mess. The mix seems engineered to emphasize explosions and other noises. Whilst this may work great in a multi million pound cinema screen with 100 or so speakers it does not translate well to the home setting with between 2 – 7 speakers. The result being that the 1st hour of the film suffers from very hard to understand muffled dialogue. Explosions are far too loud.
One thing that Christopher Nolan does well is cinematography. His framing of shots are spot on and the visuals he provides are usually nothing less than stunning and Tenet is no exception. Shot using 65mm and IMAX cameras, the wide panned explosions at the beginning of the film through to various action sequences and car chases are pin sharp and tonally spot on. Although the action scenes are fast moving, they do not leave you confused. Thought has been given to lighting and detail is literally dripping of the screen. Nothing felt jarring or out of place and that is saying something given the films premise.
Tenets UHD release looks fantastic, the formats that Nolan has used for filming lend themselves easily to 4K transfer. The 4K release uses the rather brilliant HEVC H.265 encode, so the crisp details transfer to both 4K streaming as well as physical media. Surprisingly the film switches aspect ratios from 2:20:1 to 1.78:1 occasionally and (presumably due to the different cameras used?) and this feels a little off-putting.
Watching Tenet, it is easy to see why it won several awards including an Academy Award for its Visual Effects. They are simply jaw dropping. Not the run of the mill explosions and general tweaks to shots, but the work done on the inversion. Bizarrely nothing looks like an obvious effect. Puddles unsplash, car chases involving inverted and standard time cars on screen together at the same time, a war that has explosions going backwards and forwards. I still have no idea how the VFX team created the effects without obvious green screen or digital work. A testament to Nolan’s vision
Also, I was memorised by the airport scenes. Trivia states that the effect was practical and an actual jet was used. My mind is blown!
Thoughts On Tenet
Released amidst global pandemic lockdowns, Tenet was hailed as the saviour of cinema. Christopher Nolan must have some serious influence in Hollywood to have still gotten this released when high value franchise like Bond baulked at releasing. As it happened it didn’t really save cinema at the time and actually influenced the likes of Warner Bros, Disney etc to go all in on streaming releases instead.
During an interview with CNBC, WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff explained how Tenet‘s box office performance played a part in getting the studio to commit to their 2021 plan.
“We learned a lot about the inclination of people to go to theaters when they’re open, obviously,” Sarnoff said. “What we learned through ‘Tenet’ is that the U.S. is not quite ready yet to fully reopen and have full engagement of fans back into theaters, hence this new strategy.”
I am sure the reason why Tenet did not save Cinema in the summer of 2020 will be the discussion of dissertations the world over the coming years, but here are my thoughts. I think it failed on two counts.
1: It was released in the middle of pandemic lockdowns. The window that cinemas had reopened for was frighteningly small.
2: Tenet is an original screen play. It only has Christopher Nolan’s name and audience goodwill to get bums on seats. No franchise legacy, no comic book adaptation. Very much an unknown entity. Make no mistake that Tenet is a high concept science fiction movie. It is a hard watch and may take a couple of viewing to really understand what’s going on. It explores new thinking on time travel, embraces complicated physics and at times that stress level is for most people, off the scale, people did not want to sit and concentrate. What they wanted was escaping switch brain off fun, of which Tenet is not. Wrong Film, wrong time.
Tenet is an absolute quandary to think about.
On one hand you have this incredibly well thought out, incredibly well-made sci-fi film, worthy of its awards. Tenet is written as a palindrome. Keep an eye out on every scene (especially the airport scenes) as by the end of the movie all will be revealed. This is why it takes people several views to understand the film.
On the other hand, you have a mess of a script, shallow depth of character and an over reliance on what’s gone before.
Age Rating 12A
Release Date 12 August 2020
Director Christopher Nolan
Staring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime 2h 30min
Budget $205,000,000 (estimated)
Box Office $363,656,624
Editor for Silver Hedgehog JJ
Images and Video: Warner Bros Pictures
Supporting Research Articles:
Like What You Have Read?
Subscribe & Share
[cp_modal display=”inline” id=”cp_id_2b99d”][/cp_modal]