Tenet (2020) Director: Christopher Nolan
“Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”
Only Christopher Nolan could have created a film like Tenet. It is filled with complex theoretical physics, dry incomprehensible dialogue, a playful attitude toward nonlinear time, extraordinary special effects, and it leaves audiences feeling completely disoriented and bewildered. Admittedly, this was not my favorite of Christopher Nolan film –it is near impossible to follow the plot nor become too invested in the characters– however I appreciated Tenet for being a technical marvel. What other director could possibly stage fight scenes conducted in different time signatures? Tenet plays out like a palindrome, with an over-arching circular nonlinear plot requiring audiences to piece together a wholly elaborate cinematic puzzle. This film can be best explained by fellow cinephile Geeks –its exposition is eyebrow raising– though I prefer Mr. Nolan’s other movies like Dunkirk, Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Prestige, and Interstellar.
I imagine Christopher Nolan wrote this film as an experiment. What if a hollow protagonist without any background development could literally learn about his mission by a plan set out for himself by his future self? Perhaps we hear echoes of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence of the Same” in Tenet. The film opens without missing a beat, there is no introduction or explanation. Our protagonist, aptly named “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), is part of a CIA operation to retrieve a high-profile asset from a Kyiv Opera House (he is saved with a reverse bullet by a mysterious figure with a keychain backpack), but when the operation goes awry, The Protagonist takes a cyanide pill rather than divulge information to his captors. Suddenly, he awakens in a bed to find this was all a test of sorts. Now the CIA knows it can trust The Protagonist so he is reassigned to a top secret project called “Tenet” to retrieve highly volatile technology which has been sent backward in time and concealed –technology with the power to entirely restructure human life on earth. Later in the film, we learn that a female scientist in the future once developed a complex algorithm for time inversion, like Robert Oppenheimer’s development of the atomic bomb, however unlike Oppenheimer she began to feel tremendous guilt and ultimately decided to take her own life but not before she could encode sections of the algorithm into nine separate artifacts and scattering them at radioactive hot spots in the past hoping to deter anyone from finding them (why did she not simply destroy the algorithm and kill herself? Why allow the algorithm to exist at all?) The Protagonist learns about this capacity to invert time in such a way that the past can happen in tandem going forward with the present. Characters move forward in real time while the world begins to reverse around them. It is a dangerous activity which can apparently have deleterious effects on the body, it requires inverted oxygen to be breathed in order to survive. It is a fascinating glimpse into the idea of time travel. The Protagonist meets his mysterious partner who seems to know more than he lets on, Neil (Robert Pattinson) and they trace a variety of inverted assets to a Russian arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his distant wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Sator is a product of the Cold War who began this project after the fall of the Soviet Union –at this point I wondered if Tenet was initially an idea Christopher Nolan had created for a future James Bond movie.
At any rate, long into the future the drastic effects of climate change –raging fires, drying reservoirs, extreme weather– force future humanity to decide that they must return to the past by reversing entropy and essentially turning time backwards. Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branaugh) is tasked with inverting time so that humanity may now begin moving backwards rather than forward (he is paid via gold bars which have been inverted by people in the future). However, The Protagonist is tasked with stopping Sator, and in order to do so he uses Sator’s despised wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). The relationship between Kat and The Protagonist is ambiguous throughout the film but it all begins with a fraudulent painting acquisition. Throughout the film our unaware Protagonist later learns he has been alongside a cast of characters moving backward through time, in particular Neil. In the end, they rescue the macguffin while Kat surprisingly kills her husband before he can maniacally destroy humanity by detonating the now-unified algorithm. Neil departs to invert himself and rescue The Protagonist in the past. As they part ways Neil says this is “the end of a beautiful friendship” inverting the classic line from Casablanca. In an epilogue, The Protagonist breaks his word and travels back in time from the future to kill the CIA leaders who were apparently attempting to kill Kat or Max from the future. Thus concludes one of the most confusing movies I have ever seen.
Many fans have noted key words in this film which can be found on the famous palindromic “Latin Satyr Square.” There are numerous other fan theories, such as that Neil is actually the child of Kat and Sator (hhis name is Maximilien and if you invert the last part of his name and you get “Neil”). Neil shows us that characters are forced to merely play their part, feigning ignorance, so that The Protagonist can actually learn and experience his unfolding story, because knowledge is dangerous –“ignorance is our ammunition.” As of now, I am not really sure what to do with this movie. It is befuddling in the extreme although various online analyses have been helpful in attempt to decipher this cryptic puzzle.