Director: Christopher Nolan.
Now where to begin? Or more importantly, where to finish? Because I know this is a review I’m going to keep coming back to, to edit and update, possibly after watching Tenet a few more times. If you thought Inception and Interstellar was confusing and complex, then prepare to be flipped upside down, turned around and shoved that way. Don’t ask me which way that is, because I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Either way, this is going to be a difficult review to write without giving away spoilers. So, if you haven’t watched it yet; be forewarned, there be minor spoilers ahead... or behind.
This is arguably the most anticipated film of 2020, and with covid-19 having an impact, that anticipation has only been prolonged. The film was set to be released back in July, which had been delayed for a number of obvious reasons. The film was just entering it’s post-production stage when lockdown was initiated; it was presumed that the film could not be finished; but with measures like social distancing, reducing team sizes and working remotely the film was complete. It was the lockdown of cinemas that delayed the release of the movie more than anything else and as a result, is the first major film to be officially released since the pandemic outbreak.
Inception was Nolan’s heist movie, Interstellar his science fiction epic and this is his homage to the spy genre; but of course, this is a Nolan picture, so you can expect something fundamentally different from any James Bond movie; and yes, it’s has a lot to do with the element of time. The film’s trailer gives that much away and the intrigue should start there. Is it about time travel? Kind of, but not in the conventional way, if one does exist. I suppose one common theme other films run with time travel, is somehow jumping back to a point in history whether that be via a wormhole, Pym particles, a phone booth or a DeLorean. Whatever the method, most time travel involves picking a point in time and fast travelling there. Tenet is a totally different and unique look at time travel.
It’s inversion; the reversal of time whilst still flowing forward. Directly challenging our perception of time, a bit like being able to hit rewind whilst the play button is still in motion; or like using a real-time train to go back and get off at different stages of the past. Instead of cause and effect which is what our perceived universe works with, this is effect first then the cause to follow. It’s this inversion of time that adds not only another layer to time travel, but a whole set of rules that must be followed. Some of these concepts double as actually scientific theory and clever cheats that allow Nolan to conceal some larger mysteries within the story.
I say scientific theory because, even though this is very much a work of fiction, the idea is based on grounded science. World renowned astrophysicist and Interstellar’s chief scientific advisor and co-producer, Dr. Kip Thorne, assists Nolan once again, but this time in navigating the law of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. I’m no expert, but it’s the flow of energy that is constant, hot to cold; which might explain the colour banding in the film of red being present and blue being inverted; bit like the Doppler effect of light travelling away from us appearing red and blue light emitting when coming towards us as it compresses. It’s this flow of entropy that’s switched as oppose to time itself. You see, you can’t just jump back to a point in time, you switch the flow of entropy and you have to live through that inversion of time and actually physically travel back on the entropy train watching everything you've already seen in reverse, in real-time. Still with me?
As to how this sits within the story, well, someone in the future has invented technology to switch this entropy and has been sending things back in reverse to present day. But the very invention could lead to the total destruction of our very existence. Our future selves are on the brink of extinction due to the climate change caused essentially by us, their past selves. So they figure that if they destroy us, they might save their future present. Present future...
But someone else has got word and attempts to foil the plan, and our Protagonist is employed in present day to stop the future. Much like all Bond movies, we have the super spy, the Protagonist superbly played by John David Washington and the Bond villain. This being Kenneth Branagh playing a Russian oligarch and arms dealer, Sator, who has some method of communicating with the future and finding/placing things in the past. Namely the very algorithm that’s responsible for this technology to be possible and is essentially a ticking time bomb separated into several pieces.
Washington has his father’s swagger, and his voice; but he is most certainly his own star and does not walk in his father’s shadow; more like around or over it. His performance and presence demands your immediate attention throughout the film with his cool and confident demeanour, and his physical attributes proving the athlete that he really is in real life. Washington has commented on how he kept flipping back and forth whilst reading the screenplay, this being the most complex and amazing story he’s ever worked on. Most of the cast for that matter, who were allowed to read the entire script (Sir Michael wasn’t, and only got to read his part before filming his scenes) comment on how incredibly complex and original the story is. Branagh comparing it to doing The Times crossword everyday.
I do often wonder why studios cast non-Russian actors to play Russian characters. Is it a political thing? We don’t see many actors having to play characters from the orient putting on Asian accents. But Branagh does the job. He’s not the key focus here but portrays a believable villain, once you can look pass his Shakespearean self. Debicki is amazing as Sator’s estranged wife and key asset to the mission, even having the part rewritten for her. This is certainly a stand out role for her. Her character of Kat is probably the most pivotal and important piece here, which in a literal round about way, sets things into motion from an almost paradoxical event.
Robert Pattinson is likely to be the next fave after Washington, playing the Protagonist’s British intelligence sidekick who knows way more than he’s letting on. Pattinson’s suave yet casual composure is a welcomed character that compliments Washington’s protagonist. Not quite like a gin and tonic relationship, but more like a red and white wine; the same thing in essence but of very different flavour and style. His story arc(s) is the most confusing, and could he be someone else portrayed in the movie, someone’s son for example? It was good to see Yesterday’s Himesh Patel have a part and an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the stern, militant commander, Ives who coordinates temporal pincher engagements where future, present and I think past all collide.
It goes full throttle right from the very explosive start, not giving you chance to catch a breath let alone try to figure out what’s going on. But this isn’t a criticism as there’s a lot of ground and time to cover and it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s lengthy runtime. The action sequences are exciting, raw and never seen before, but maybe a little over dramatic at times and feels more like an excuse to show off. I’m not talking about visualisation but more the premise of the stunts. I mean, where else have you seen a car chase going both backwards and forwards on the same freeway, or a fight scene where reverse is pitted against forward. The mind boggles.
Although this script took about six years to complete, remnants of Nolan’s twenty year career can be seen here, especially from his Memento film. It’s his third collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who worked with him on both Dunkirk and Interstellar; again actually reconfiguring and adapting IMAX cameras so to get the desired quality in often difficult situations. It’s reported that 1.6million feet of IMAX footage was shot for the film, quite possibly the most any film has done before. Though usual editor Lee Smith, who’s worked with Nolan since Batman Begins had to turn this down due to scheduling conflicts with 1917; and he’s the not only big name that had to step out. Editor Jennifer Lame who edited films Marriage Story, Manchester by the Sea and Hereditary steps in and does a grand job. It couldn’t have been easily splicing forward and backward segments together in one seamlessly continuous flow.
Again, the special effects are actually what you come to expect from a Nolan film where he likes to do things in real life; including flinging Washington and Pattinson from a multi-storey building and really crashing a jumbo jet into the side of an airport hanger. Both Washington and Pattinson did a lot of their own stunts with Washington having to actually learn to do things backwards and Pattinson did his own stunt driving, which took three weeks of filming. The production as a whole is incredible, with the crew constructing, from the inside out, the Russian opera house from a derelict building in Estonia. The costumes are very fitting, sleek and even becomes a point of criticism within the film itself. Like with Inception and Interstellar before, it may come as a impressive surprise that there are minimal visual effect shots here, actually lower than your average film, and certainly lowest of all of Nolan’s previous movies. All are actually practical effects, real explosions and getting the cast to learn to do things backwards like walking, fighting and even speaking.
It’s loud! Very loud and this is good for most of the time, but some parts are incoherent, and I’m not talking about the parts that are suppose to be. And it’s oddly predictable at times, but don’t think you have it figured out. It leads you into a false sense of complexity and just when you’re sitting smug with yourself to an almost disappointing level; thinking you’ve got Nolan sussed; he hits you from all angles like Ip Man gut punching you multiple times over, but all to the head. There’s way more to what you think you’ve seen. It’s incredibly hard to explain; well, talk about without possibly spoiling the film.
The other usual collaborator that has to step out was the mighty Hans Zimmer, this due to his scheduling conflict with his own passion project of scoring the up and coming remake of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But Zimmer’s friend and recommendation, Ludwig Göransson composes for Nolan this time. Not quite the household name like Zimmer but he already has some excellent scores under this belt, like Black Panther, Venon, both Creeds, the synth-pop sound from Slice and the recent hit TV series, The Mandalorian. Now most people recognised that theme. It’s certainly not a Zimmer score, and equally not as rememberable, but that’s not to say the score is bad. It’s good and has some clever elements like it’s own inversion, being played backwards during certain sequences. That must have been a challenge to compose something that sounds good going both forward and back. It sounds original, climatic and has the obvious contrasting themes of gently piano interludes and then the quite invasive, harrowing tapping of sound and loud booming drums is reminiscent of Zimmer’s focus on time itself. And using the Bond formula of having a song, Travis Scott produces his fitting track, “The Plan” for the film. The first song to be produced specifically for a Nolan movie.
Overall it’s a grand piece of cinema, yet again delivered by Nolan and team. It’s a smarter, more challenging version of Timecop done in very much James Bond style of over-elaborative espionage scenarios. It dares to confuse you and as a result fascinates and entices you further. Some might find it pretentious but it’s certainly one of those films that requires conversation and is likely to spark discussions for years behind as others are going to see and notice things you didn’t/wouldn’t, and visa versa. If you enjoyed the film but not entirely sure why, I think that’s a good thing and though I’m keen to watch it again for the first time, I’m not convinced I’m going make any more sense from it, or worse, it could possibly perplex me more. Is it Nolan’s best work to date? Overall I don’t think so purely because of the slight flaws and criticism I have for the film. But as an original stand alone piece, it’s an amazing and must see film. I’m actually looking forward to watching this again for the first time.
Running Time: 9
The Cast: 9
Job Description: 9
Extra Bonus Points: 10 for actually being confusing enough to still be entertaining. Like a riddle you can never be tired of.
For whose who wish to delve deeper, and I think many of us who have seen it do. The titular key word Tenet, a palindrome, must been from the famed magic square found in ancient Pompeii, otherwise known at the Sator Square (see the connection now?) or Rotas Square depending on which way you look at it. The square consists of five, five letter words stacked up top of each other with Tenet running through the middle, and as a palindrome, it doesn’t matter which way you read it, top to bottom, bottom to top, right to left or left to right; it always reads the same. TENET.
You can flip the square backwards or upside down and the pattern of letters will always read the same, just not in the same order, but reversed. And as you can see, another word that’s referenced a couple of times in the movie is Opera. Adding to that, if you remember rightly, the Goya forger referenced in the story is named Arepo; and Rotas is the name of the security firm based at the Oslo Freeport. So it’s undeniable that the films title is deeply rooted in this very square.
But what do these words mean? Many scholars concur they’re Latin words. Sator means sower, like a farmer. Rotas could be the plural meaning of “wheels”, Opera literally meaning “works”, Tenet being a verb meaning “holds” and Arepo remains a mystery, some thinking it’s possibly a name as oppose to a word. There’s also this proposed relationship with Christianity as it’s also discovered in many roman churches across Europe and the rest of the world. But the interesting thing here is that the oldest square, predates the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius possibly around 79AD. A time when Christianity was believed to be nearly non-existent, certainly not the worldwide religion it is today.
Some theories suggest connections with the ancient Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, the Pater Noster which can found among the square if you rearrange the letters, omitting two As and two Os which could be symbolic of the Alpha and the Omega - the beginning and the end. Some researchers and mathematicians believe it to be the Lord’s Prayer coded or even having some relation to the Hebrew word Kabbalah and the magic number of 137. Could Tenet be who governs the universe with Sator being the sower, Opera being the divine works and Rotas being the cosmos that binds the universe? Maybe I go too far, but it’s hard to refuse the importance of this square in relation to the film. Much like inception, maybe we’ll never know.
#ChristopherNolan #JohnDavidWashington #RobertPattinson #ElizabethDebicki #DimpleKapadia #MichaelCaine #KennethBranagh #AaronTaylorJohnson #HimeshPatel #ClémencePoésy #FionaDourif #AndrewHoward #MartinDonovan #DenzilSmith #JenniferLame #HoyteVanHoytema #LudwigGöransson #EmmaThomas