The return of the blockbuster in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
By Ben Rigney-Carroll, ’21.
Seeing a film in a real life theatre right now may not be the first thing on everyone’s minds as the world begins to settle into a new normal under ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, but the modern summer blockbusters have traditionally relied on theater goers for a successful run. Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s latest time-bending, science fiction action flick, has made its way onto the big screen after months of waiting and almost a decade of development.
—— WARNING: Substantial Plot Spoilers for the movie Tenet ahead ——
Tenet’s core principle is one that on paper seems to be a fairly simple reversal of the traditional time travel formula: what if we could move backwards in time instead of forward, experiencing events in reverse chronological order? Then, this idea is superimposed upon a spy movie, leaving the elements of fascination, wonder and complexity of time travel to be merged with the intrigue, dramatic flair and striking action of a classic Bond film. The combination of these two elements puts the central character, referred to by himself and others as “the protagonist,” against the forces of a foretold doomsday sent by an enemy of the future.
Beyond the stunning and awe inspiring set pieces, car chases, gun fights and espionage, the core of Tenet is built around the sheer cluelessness of our special agent protagonist. If any of the attempts made to summarize this plot without complete spoilers gave you a mild headache, you are now in the correct mindset to have just emerged from the first few sequences of the movie. The pace here is breakneck, so many of the why’s, how’s and when’s of the plot’s formation are quickly answered with more complex and visually stunning questions. Enemies and bullets alike are inverted to move against time, shown against the forward moving characters as if watching a video in reverse.
As water, bullets, explosions and falling objects move against the rhythm of the characters’ adventures, the biggest problem with Tenet is that it’s a massively complex plot, so much so that it’s almost impossible to build to its full value within one viewing. As viewers learn at the end, the story itself is actually going against time as one central character is at the end of his story, and the other is at the beginning, connected through the time they spend together over the course of the film. The idea is that like the title, which is a palindrome—meaning that it is spelled the same both forwards and backwards—the plot is both running from start to finish and finish to start simultaneously. Then, halfway through the film, it turns around to fill in all the bits and pieces left out of place throughout the first half, starting to build the understanding of the character in combination with the viewer at the same time.
Despite the difficulty it will take to swallow the first time around, the idea of Tenet is that it layers upon a foundation of basic knowledge but that it never strays too far from it’s core premise both with its subject matter and with the set pieces and events that are revisited as newly important plot points throughout the film. By moving forward in time, then backwards, then forward again, the film can take a look at a scene three different times whilst building new views on the events transpiring allowing stunning representations of the nonlinearity of time. It does this while simultaneously exploring events previously dismissed as phenomena as the actions of their future (or past) selves provides the viewer with an increasing understanding of the events taking place. This can cause a literal headache when trying to orient yourself as a viewer with the events of future time that are inverted, or the events of inverted time that appear to be going in reverse. It can be a dizzying experience.
With a pounding and tense score, a rewatchable plot, stellar performances by the key cast members, innovative and jaw dropping visual effects and layers upon layers of symbolism, complexity and sophistication, Tenet is a dazzling display of the time travel and action genres at their absolute high.