Tenet ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


It’s been many months since I saw Tenet on the big screen – which feels amazing to say – way back in late August, back when I thought Connecticut was smart enough to keep this virus down … clearly not.

But as I said in my original review, while I absolutely enjoyed the film, I only really understood the big-picture aspects of its story, and even then there were a lot of chunks missing. I knew that I would need a second viewing to help get a more solid grasp on it all, and that only then could I have full confidence in my opinion of the movie.

Now that I finally have seen it again, I can say that I have overall achieved that clearer understanding I was hoping for. What initially was very vaguely defined in my head is now more concrete, especially regarding elements and scenes whose details I hadn’t been able to remember clearly. I also realized that it wasn’t just my own personal difficulties with rapid-fire information and ideas that were standing in my way; the concept itself really is that difficult to grasp. The way the two directions of time interact with one another in the same world, how that affects the people who invert themselves (that’s crucial to remember: the people and objects are inverted, but the world never is), how characters coordinate with one another across the two directions of time, the order in which things happened … or rather, the multiple orders in which they happen … It’s one of the most perplexing films I’ve ever seen, and I really wouldn’t blame anyone for either writing it off as total nonsense or not caring enough to piece it together. It’s not a case where most of it is meant to be vague and open to individual interpretation; the confusion is supposed to eventually make way for a clear-cut understanding of everything, which in some ways can be more frustrating to those who can’t connect to films they don’t understand.

As for how I personally respond to films that are so difficult to digest just to understand the basics of what’s happening, it can vary wildly. There are several films that I’m not a fan of partially because I couldn’t follow them, but others that I absolutely loved right away despite not understanding them initially. Why is that? Well, there’s not any one surefire answer, but I think what it ultimately boils down to is whether or not I feel compelled enough to want to understand the film. Does it have something that I can latch onto that’s immersive enough to make up for the confusion and non-immediate comprehension? In other words, can I feel it even without understanding it?

In the case of Tenet, I can very safely answer yes. The incredible mind-bending visuals, Nolan’s best action to date, the heart-pounding intensity, and the pieces of the ideas and story I could grasp were all so cool, used so creatively, and clearly had so much thought and detail put into them, that not only was it fun to watch, but I felt like I would be missing out big time if I didn’t manage to piece it all together, even if it took an entire second viewing or even additional ones … viewings that I’d partake in because I’ll enjoy myself, not because I’ll feel reluctantly obliged. Sure, Nolan being my favorite director who made my favorite movie certainly made it easier to give him the benefit of the doubt, but even without that, I’m pretty sure I’d feel the same way. I know the “Don’t try to understand it; feel it,” line has been mocked as an excuse for it to not make sense, but I think it holds merit because I did feel what was going on, therefore I wanted to understand it.

But that’s not to say that feeling can’t fade away if my understanding amounts to nothing, so I’m not just going to blindly accept that this movie makes sense just because I want it to. There have been films that I initially liked for the experience, but grew less connected to the more I tried to make sense of them. That hasn’t happened with Tenet; the more I think about it, the more pieces fit into place and the more I appreciate it.

You could point to a lot of areas as the key to understanding the mechanics of this movie. But my own biggest gateway revolved around how the turnstiles worked. And bear in mind, the explanations I’m about to share were written as much to confirm them in my own head as they were trying to explain to anyone still lost.

If and only if someone enters a turnstile to invert themselves, it means there are two versions of them in the world: one “normal”, one inverted. This is because time begins flowing backwards from their perspective from the moment they leave the turnstile … including the time that they entered the turnstile. Conversely, right before they enter, this means they can see what looks like themselves entering the turnstile backwards, but is actually their inverted selves leaving it a few seconds in the future. Additionally, characters will invert themselves, have their time flow reversed to bring them further into the past, and then de-invert themselves back to normal … the film says this isn’t time travel, but let’s face it, it is. Just not the kind we usually think of. But this also means that there could potentially be two versions of a character that are both “normal”, like with how Kat sees her future self jumping off the boat despite both versions being in un-inverted.

What makes this so hard to understand is that even though the past and the future are interacting with one another, no history is being rewritten and events aren’t being changed from what they initially were or will be. As Neil says, what’s happened has happened. So when the un-inverted Protagonist, for instance, fights his future self, that event is already set in stone … yet the future inverted Protagonist still acted on his own free will. There isn’t a linear cause-and-effect process at work here. In every instance like this, Event A had to happen because Event B happened, and Event B had to happen because Event A happened.

So, Neil is from the future, having used the double-inversion process to send himself to the past and team up with the Protagonist. He was sent by the future Protagonist, who founded Tenet after the events of the film (from his perspective; from some others’ perspectives, he formed it before the events of the film … still with me?). When he recruits Neil, it’s Neil’s first time meeting him, but not the Protagonist’s first time meeting Neil. But when Neil finds the younger Protagonist, it’s the other way around. Yet again, it’s not a case of one-way cause-and-effect; the Protagonist recruits Neil, so Neil can go back and help the past Protagonist, so the Protagonist could go on to recruit Neil, and so on. Everything that’s meant to happen has already been laid out, yet it’s still the wills of these people behind it all. Just as the Protagonist had to will the bullet to jump into his hand with the correct gesture, he had to take the right actions to succeed in the mission. You could say, “But what if he chose not to?” It doesn’t matter; he did choose to, therefore it happened. It happened, therefore he chose to. No matter how much normal and inverted time intertwine, what’s happened’s happened.

Embarrassingly, I hadn’t even picked up on the fact that Neil ends up dead on my first viewing. He had de-inverted himself in the middle of the fight, but after it was all over, he apparently went off to invert again, go back, and sacrifice himself to save the Protagonist as we saw earlier on. When the camera focused on his red strip, I really wasn’t sure what the connection was there my first time around. What can I say, I was too busy trying to comprehend everything else and I think my brain just got fried. But that’s a really bittersweet way for their friendship to simultaneously begin and end. The Protagonist now has to go on to become friends with the younger Neil, fully knowing how it will end (I presume he didn’t tell him, of course). In true Nolan fashion, these mind-bending ideas aren’t just there to dazzle us; they serve as emotional catalysts as well, even if the emotion isn’t as prominent this time around. The same goes for Kat and how she envied the woman jumping freely off Sator’s boat, only to then realize she herself was that woman. And of course, the belief in the nature of things and that it’s already predetermined that the world has been saved, yet the decision to act is still at the center. It’s putting faith in something you don’t fully understand and letting that drive you, showing that agency and destiny may not be so mutually exclusive. All of this is great whether you view it symbolically or in the literal context of the film, and adds much-needed humanity to a film after it took such a long time to show it.

From my understanding, Sator had discovered the existence of inversion at an unconfirmed point in time; it’s never stated whether his younger self did this before or after the “present day”. But in the future, he became successful in such dealings, building the technology he needs to craft inverted materials, go throughout time, and find the pieces of the algorithm needed to complete it. The last one is in the “present”, hence he crosses paths with our characters at that point. He then travels back in time to relive his last happy moment before killing himself to trigger the finished algorithm, so the team has to go to that same point in time to disable it without him realizing. This means that the movie actually concludes closer to the “beginning” than the “end”.

But it’s not just people we see inverted; objects and physical reactions are too, our proper introduction being the inverted bullet. Said bullet has its own "perspective" of sorts regarding how time and energy flow. We see how it appears to fly into an un-inverted person's hand and are told that from its perspective it was dropped. But this presumably works the other way: if the Protagonist were to, say, throw the bullet at the ground, the bullet would "perceive" itself as having been lifted up from the ground and into the Protagonist's hand. Because its entropy is reversed, the forces exerted upon it by un-inverted beings or objects to achieve a certain result are the exact opposite of what would normally be needed for that result. An un-inverted person making a reverse throwing gesture towards an inverted object would cause the object to come to them, as would an inverted person making such a gesture to an un-inverted object. Apply this logic to any such interaction we see in the movie, like stepping in a mud puddle or blowing walls off a building, and it all becomes a lot more sensible to follow.

It’s never clear how exactly these things get inverted; is it the turnstile again, or something else? In the climax in particular, it’s clear that the weapons and vehicles used by the inverted side of the army have also been inverted, and I’m a little annoyed that we never see that actual process on that grand a scale. That’s a new issue with the movie I have: it’s so overwhelmingly specific about many things, yet doesn’t even touch upon others that are equally important. But anyway, in this climax, their plan is to use a “temporal pincer movement”. The red team moves forward in time, and the blue team is inverted moving backwards in time. This means that as the red team is starting, the blue team has already finished and can relay information to the red team, and vice versa. The red team can also cover the blue team as the latter is finishing up and leaving, and vice versa. They can still coordinate during the battle, particularly when they both blow up different halves of that building at exactly the same time, undeniably the coolest shot in the movie for me. The entire battle is one of the most glorious things I've ever seen on the big screen. I can't even begin to fathom how it was all pulled off, from the setpieces to the effects, and of course needing to shoot people and things both normal and inverted at the same time, showing both perspectives and having to keep track of it all. I think this third act alone makes Tenet worth watching, even if just for the spectacle.

The temporal pincer movement was also very cleverly used earlier by Sator: it initially seemed he’d used it to get the briefcase from the Protagonist in exchange for what we didn’t realize was the algorithm piece. So the Protagonist inverts himself to try and undo that, not knowing that Sator really wanted the algorithm, had been inverted at that point, and therefore can now continue going backwards in time with the algorithm in his possession … At least, I think that’s right? I haven’t looked up any outside material, only rewatching scenes to try and confirm for myself. I could be very wrong about this whole part, so don’t quote me on this, but that’s what I took from it. I also may still be missing something when it comes to the red room / blue room scene. I understand the mechanics of what’s happening and the order(s) in which it happens, but I’m not sure what Sator was trying to do in the blue room from his perspective. He was told that the Protagonist already gave him the information, so maybe he was just trying to play it out to make sure of it?

I still stand by that the first half throws too much at you and doesn’t have the heart to make up for that. Or rather, too much too fast. Practically every other line contains a new piece of information, all of it said with the same level of importance. It feels like Nolan felt the need to rush through all the exposition in order to get it all out in a limited amount of time. His talent means that it works as well as it could, but “as well as it could” is still not great. Even Kat’s heartfelt lamenting of her life trapped by Sator felt like just another piece of the plot with how it was squeezed in between everything else. I’m sure I’m going to look up more analyses after posting this and be made aware of several key plot points I hadn’t even picked up on. Again, it’s not a matter of how much is being exposited, but rather how it’s replacing the story’s heart rather than accompanying it like Nolan’s other films. This is why if someone were to say they don’t care enough to try and figure the film out, I get it. I myself found plenty of reasons to want to do so, but an emotional response was not one of the biggest ones.

Tenet as a whole is not one of Nolan’s best movies. Even if you understand every single aspect of it, there are issues with how it sets itself up and how it acts coyer than it has to be with showing certain details. I could also bring up the sound mixing, but there’s a great video here that analyzes that better than I could. But its strengths are way, way more plentiful and prominent than its flaws, and I like it even more now than I did the first time I saw it. Honestly, I could easily watch it a third time; it’s just so much fun once it gets going, and I’m sure I’ll notice several new things no matter how many times I view the movie. Just like the first time I saw it, it has lingered in my head considerably days after watching, becoming more and more satisfying to think through and ponder over. It’s by far the easiest Nolan film to dislike if you’re not a fan of his, but I will always admire and appreciate what he’s pulled off here.

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