Christopher Nolan is Hollywood’s greatest showman.
In the 20 years since his reverse-chronological second feature, 2000’s Memento, the British-American blockbuster-auteur has emerged as an ambitious, M.C. Escher-esque storyteller. Toying with constructions of time and memory, Nolan’s high-brow crowdpleasers make money and win awards, which has earned him a rare reputation as both a hitmaker and a visionary.
But even as he’s become a more innovative filmmaker, the secret to Nolan’s continued success lies in his ability to deliver powerfully immersive experiences for moviegoers. His most recent blockbuster, a victim of its release strategy, is now streaming — meaning it can finally be recognized as Nolan’s most jaw-droppingly sensory spectacle to date despite its controversial debut.
When Tenet first hit theaters in August 2020, it buckled under the weight of being the first blockbuster to reopen multiplexes (way too early) during a global pandemic. For exhibitors, journalists, and audience members alike, the question of whether it was too soon to go back to the movies hung heavy over the film’s Labor Day opening weekend, and a $20.2 million domestic start wasn’t a magic number for studios, which consequently pushed other theatrical releases off their fall calendars.
Lost amid the historically strange circumstances of Tenet’s release was the experiential magnitude (and experimental genius) of Nolan’s film. A steadfast defender of the theatrical experience, Nolan always makes good on his promise to maximize the power of the big screen. And Tenet, an international spy thriller set in a temporal slipstream, is his most overwhelming ride to date.
Focusing on a secret agent (BlackKklansman’s John David Washington) tasked with preventing World War III, Tenet plunges its unnamed protagonist into the theoretical physics of “inversion,” or reversing an object’s entropy so it appears to be running backward through time (relative to an outside observer, that is). Joined by the debonair Neil (The Batman’s Robert Pattinson), who’s already familiar with inversion, the Protagonist must thwart the efforts of a villainous Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) to end the world using a device known as the Algorithm.
“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Radically, for a film that explores particle physics at length, Tenet does little to demystify its time-travel mechanics. Tasked with explaining inverted technology to the Protagonist, a scientist (played by the French actress Clémence Poésy) delivers her dialogue in such a cursory, listless monotone that all the talk of impending annihilation and debris flowing backward from a future war feels amusingly blasé.
Far more memorable is one instruction she gives the Protagonist as he struggles to get his head around inversion: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
That’s good advice for anyone watching Tenet. The world’s in grave danger, inversion holds the key to saving it — and before we go any further you should probably fasten your seatbelt.
Nolan’s chief inspiration for Tenet was James Bond and so his film is a high-stakes, globe-trotting adventure populated by impeccably tailored men of mystery. Heists, car chases, gunfights, military maneuvers, interrogations, and a nuclear button all factor into the plot, which centers on a trained government agent with a top-secret mission. Poésy’s scientist even serves as something of a Q figure in how she teaches the Protagonist to shoot inverted weapons, which catch bullets instead of shooting them. (Such technology comes in handy mid-mission, as the Protagonist and Neil reverse bungee-jump up a high-rise in Mumbai and inverted vehicles careen backward down a highway during a breakneck chase.)
Tenet references Nolan’s previous films too. Memento, told backward in a way that mirrors the main character’s anterograde amnesia, features a gun leaping impossibly up from a table and into an outstretched hand as emptied shell casings find their way back into the gun’s chamber. In Inception, a fight in a corridor intensifies when the hallway rotates 360 degrees, sending both adversaries careening from floor to wall to ceiling before they figure out how to use defying gravity to their advantage. Both scenes get a reprise in Tenet, as Nolan’s palindromic structure allows him to look back at his own greatest hits.
But by Nolan’s design, Tenet’s time-twisting narrative takes a backseat to the awe-inspiring experience of watching it (preferably on the largest screen available). Emulating the cold, crisp precision of its tactically trained characters, Tenet adopts a muted color palette filled with silvers and grays, though foreboding blues and reds give certain scenes a hypnotic underworld glow. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who made Interstellar with Nolan, is accustomed to working on a massive scale; everything from the opening raid on a Kiev opera house to an actual airplane crash was shot on IMAX cameras, giving Tenet an uncommonly grandiose feel.
But sound is Tenet’s weapon of choice. The director’s mixes are frequently concussive, drawing criticism for the way they overwhelm action and drown out dialogue. This practice reaches a high point (or an all-time low, depending on whom you ask) in Tenet, as interactions between characters are muffled by oxygen masks, encumbered by borscht-thick Russian accents, or lost altogether in a cacophony of explosions. Gunshots, plane crashes, and ticking clocks all possess a particular weight on Tenet’s sound mix, adding to the heart-in-mouth intensity of its action sequences.
Tenet’s sound editor Richard King put it best during a Reddit AMA:
"Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one. Like punk rock music, it's a full-body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette. He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience. If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix."
Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk score employed Shepard tones to create an illusion of endlessly ascending tension. To score Tenet, composer Ludwig Göransson relied on electric guitar and synth strings to create ambient, industrial-strength arrangements that sound constantly reverberant and dynamic, as if ebbing and flowing simultaneously. Cranked to 11, Göransson’s propulsive score is a symphony of action, intertwining orchestral and electronic instruments, then playing them in reverse to create inverted time signatures. The effect is massive and uncanny, as if the momentum of the film’s score is caught in a kind of suspended-motion centrifuge. In that, it reinforces the surreal aura of Tenet more effectively than the story itself.
Much of the dialogue in Tenet calls attention to itself, heightening the film’s espionage-genre flair in a way that feels coldly ironic, almost deconstructive or self-parodying. “There's a cold war, cold as ice,” intones Fay (Martin Donovan), the Protagonist’s CIA boss, in one early scene. “To even know its true nature is to lose. This is knowledge divided.” As dialogue, this is ridiculous and indecipherable. But as knowingly indulgent spy-speak, it channels the same pulsating mystery as Göransson’s score, drawing the audience into a musically metered game of shadows.
“All I have for you is a gesture, in combination with a word: Tenet,” continues Fay. “Use it carefully. It'll open the right doors, but some of the wrong ones, too.” As a palindrome, that codeword neatly embodies the film’s mirrored structure. As a plot device, it does nothing more (or less) than sound cool. That Nolan chose Tenet as the film’s title is fitting for both reasons; for all the expository dialogue aimed at demystifying inversion, the director leads with gestures, inviting audiences to feel his film sonically and visually before grasping its plot.
At this point in his career, it’s clear Nolan doesn’t always view dialogue as a way to clarify his twisting, labyrinthine narratives. He’s previously demonstrated, across 2001-indebted space opus Interstellar and the even more experimental Dunkirk, that he doesn’t even necessarily recognize the primacy of dialogue in storytelling. Instead, the director often intentionally submerges his script in the sound mix, providing a more immersive experience for audiences while challenging them to engage with the film first and foremost on a sensory level.
So secondary is Tenet’s narrative in all of this that its protagonist is never named (other than when he literally identifies himself as “The Protagonist”), nor is the true extent of his relationship with Neil revealed until they part ways at the film’s denouement. Tenet doesn’t necessarily reward repeat viewings, but on a narrative level it demands them. The non-linear nature of the film’s puzzle-box plot makes it impossible to piece together the motivations of all its characters until one has first seen their stories play out in the manner Nolan intends.
Such an approach asks a lot of audience members, but it speaks to Nolan’s unique pattern of pursuing his auteurist tendencies and box-office domination simultaneously. Few other filmmakers, even those of Nolan’s caliber, could get such original, big-budget ideas greenlit to begin with. But Nolan goes a step further.
An unusually brainy director who also studiously avoids talking down to audiences, Nolan prioritizes the dense audiovisual spectacle of his most narratively complex films. Beyond the intellectual, they exist primarily, and more accessibly, as experiences. Put another way:
Tenet is a vibe.
Tenet is now streaming on HBO Max.