October 24, 2020

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Tenet movie poster with John David Washington

Why Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s best work

Without a doubt I have been looking forward to Tenet for a long time. In fact, every announcement related to it has been subdued, as though it needed no further introduction. It was going to be the next Christopher Nolan movie. With a title such as Tenet it was without a doubt going to be a high concept movie similar to Inception. For a long time nobody knew what Tenet was about, the Tenet teaser showed cars flipping over only for them to reverse the flip and drive on. You had to see the trailer twice to believe what you had seen, and even then you do not understand the mechanism behind what is called ‘inversion’. The title Tenet itself is a reference to the Sator Square – a five word Latin Palindrome. Sator is the name of the villain and means progenitor while Tenet means he who masters.

Tenet with John David Washington and Robert Pattinson

Yet Tenet has more remarkable choices. The lead is played by John David Washington whom I had not heard of before. His sidekick is played by Robert Pattinson, accomplished but not a superstar (not yet anyway). This is a choice similar to Dunkirk which also did not have household names as the leads. Instead, Tenet is supported by a wonderful group of supporting actors: Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine and Martin Donovan just to name a few. While the viewer has no choice but to see the action from the point of view of the Protagonist, it is characters played by Debicki and Branagh and their toxic relationship that drive the story forward. Tenet is filled with strange personal relationships, though they may be bets described as connections. Pattinson’s character Neil brings levity due to his sharp wit. Lack of humor may also be a matter of contention.

Tenet Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh

Spiritual successor to Inception

As the film’s promotion suggested this was a spiritual successor to Inception I naturally had the inclination to watch carefully. As such I do agree with some of the criticism that the movie lacks humor, but that wasn’t the reason I went to watch Tenet. I wanted to be wowed by the director’s grasp of subverting our reality. Tenet is not a time-travel movie. It is just that events do not move with the forward linearity we are accustomed. Watching Tenet feels alien, as most of Nolan’s movies except Batman Begins do. Nolan managed to subvert my own expectations of Tenet. The trailers do not reveal much of anything. Instead, the action only slowly picks up, much like Dunkirk. We also often see the Protagonist in a difficult position from which he is not easily extracted. These are more similarities to prior Nolan movies.

Tenet action scene

So it is understandable that enjoyment is not reached by humor, but through suspense. Nolan has crafted a deeply intelligent world with Tenet, in part thanks to the extended set of very intense secondary characters. The Protagonist, much like the audience, is never certain if these characters will help him. Or if they did help when it just look as though they did. He is capable of holding his own though. The Protagonist has a vibe that nothing can hurt him, just like Dom from Inception or Joseph from Interstellar. Yet, halfway through doubt starts to settle in, just as with Bruce in The Dark Knight Rises he meets setbacks. What if he cannot manage to undue the dark plot by villain Andrei Sator (played by the always excellent Kenneth Branagh). It would be a catastrophic event in a world that looks just like ours. So no pressure!

Conclusion to Tenet

Tenet is a 150 minutes. As such I am not going to regurgitate the entire story. For that there are too many developments and subtleties to take into account. I myself will probably revisit Tenet next, after letting it settle in my mind. That will take some doing though, Tenet’s last scenes both settle the story and raise more questions. The final act of the movie is also not easy to understand as we see real-time and inverted time side by side. I was expecting something like this. Hoping for this, but it is still tough to understand. So, the bottom line. Tenet is a lot more complex than I thought. That makes it hard to understand, and perhaps less fun. But I will visit Tenet at least once more and I think I will enjoy it even more. I think that is why Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s best work.

Tenet is a movie of themes, even if that means it is lacking in humanity. Tenet’s world is cruel, beset with corruption, just like our own. The future may have something to say about that. Should an event as described in Tenet in the ‘real-world’ I shudder to think about the consequences. That revelation puts a dampener on enjoying the movie, similar to the Joker movie. It will take time to determine if Tenet will be as fondly remembered as Inception, or forgotten like The Prestige. Considering the ending this may also be the first movie besides Batman that Nolan has set up for a sequel. And so I bit adieu. I hope I have not spoiled anything. I don’t think so. If you want more content like this than don’t forget to fill in the subscribe widget on the right.