After revitalizing the superhero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), taking on the heist thriller with Inception (2010), and exploring the sci-fi family drama with Interstellar (2014), writer/director Christopher Nolan has become somewhat of a pillar in modern filmmaking community. His movies are now “events,” rather than modest releases, meaning that studios develop a considerable hype machine to ensure that the next best spectacle is headed to theaters. With the first trailer released in December 2019, audiences sensed that Nolan was up to something special as they were given a taste of a film that appeared to play with the notion of time within the frame of a thriller. He’d already explored a non-linear narrative with Momento (2000), established that what we see isn’t always what’s happening in The Prestige (2006), and thundered his way through overlapping timelines in the Dunkirk (2017), so Tenet felt equally special and unique. After several delays due to COVID-19, Tenet hit select international theaters August 26th, 2020, and select U.S. theaters on September 3rd where it largely was panned by audiences and critics due to a convoluted plot, deafening sound, and, this is not a joke, being absolutely humorless. Now, with a home release, Tenet may achieve the distinction Nolan and Warner Bros. Pictures hoped for as increased access to the film may turn people’s minds around. Personally, Tenet is not the best film Nolan’s created, but it may be his most ambitious and there’s much to be lauded in that.
Under the surface of the world is a battle for supremacy and the newest soldier to protect all we know is a recruit dubbed the Protagonist (John David Washington). Given only the word “Tenet” and a gesture, the Protagonist is tasked with infiltrating and discovering the true intentions of arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and then stopping him. What initially seems like a routine mission for the former CIA agent is quickly upturned and inverted, requiring him to use every bit of his wits to survive new allegiances and conquer a greater threat which bends the laws of physics.
The best way to summarize my reaction to Tenet is this quote from Mark Twain, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Yes, the narrative of Tenet rests on a complicated lattice, integrating physics and philosophy into an otherwise straightforward heist thriller. Yes, the sound design is a touch overbearing. Yes, this is perhaps Nolan’s least subtle work to date. But none of this is a bad thing nor is it something that isn’t mostly resolved by being able to watch it at home.
Let’s explore these aspects one at a time.
The premise of the film, without getting too deep into it, is built upon a foundation of two ideas: that the film’s unknown antagonists found a way to invert time so that they could return to our present day and that even when fighting the future, humanity still possesses free will. For the former, the initial explanation of inversion is, sadly, confusing as hell, serving as less of a launch pad for what’s to come and more as an initial taste. This is remedied, however, as the audience joins the Protagonist on his journey as seeing the inversion in action makes the science less necessary and the function of it more clear, especially as it relates to the overall narrative. Basically, even as the film becomes more complex narratively, the concept of inversion becomes more clear through its steadiness and the simplicity of function, ultimately creating something that we, the audience, can understand without being able to explain it precisely. How this makes you feel is truly up to you, but getting lost in the details is far less important than just understanding that it works. For the latter, Nolan presents from the Protagonist’s POV the notion that even when fighting the future, preserving some kind of autonomy matters, that things are not so set in stone that a strong enough will can sabotage the plans of a potentially all-knowing force. Considering that the audience is never given a villain outside of Sator, all we and the Protagonist can do is try to stop him, out think him, and, if successful, confirm that time is not as solidified as the future may think. This is an intriguing notion which is summed up within the film as simply, “what’s happened has happened,” a statement used to blow off going off book but also as a reminder that perspective matters when dealing with the concept of inversion. In this case, “what’s happened has happened” becomes a reminder that events seen from a different perspective come with a sense that they can be changed. Convoluted as all this may seem here — remember: complicated lattice — by watching at home, audiences now have the ability to rewind explanations or events that are harder to process the first time. Does it ruin the flow of events? Depends on your perspective. Would you rather understand the ideas or understand the events? You can do both without taking control of the film yourself, sure, but from the approach of “what’s happened has happened,” taking advantage of your own ability to invert their stream to revisit events certainly does help to enhance your individual understanding. It’s worth mentioning that even having control at home doesn’t make Nolan’s potentially deep disdain for his female character any more palatable. (Seriously, what the heck, dude.)
If you read up on Tenet at all during the theatrical release, you likely read about audiences’ irate displeasure at having a difficult time understanding the film as the music often played (a) uncomfortably loud and (b) over dialogue. Whether the sound mix on the home release was adjusted, applying the “Spectacle” setting on my surround sound system mitigated the issues, or a misunderstanding as to how the music is used occurred is ultimately hard to say as I did not chance a theater watch for the film. Though I did utilize the subtitles for the hard of hearing option for my single home viewing experience, I honestly didn’t need them but once or twice. Even then, from the use of the music, I suspect that the increase in volume was intentional from Nolan and his sound department. For instance, in the airport sequence, Robert Pattinson’s Neil is getting a tour of a facility and the music frequently drowns out the dialogue. The score doesn’t waver randomly, so much as grow louder as Neil focuses on aspects of the facility, implying a deep attention on his surroundings and lack of one on the tour guide. Even when the spectacle of the film is high — seriously, why is there no Stunt category with most film-centered awards? — dialogue is primarily understandable, but what you don’t hear clearly isn’t significant to the story. In those few moments, the actions of the cast, the performances which communicate intent, those matter more and are communicated well.
I don’t think anyone would suggest that Tenet is a tender or delicate work. Frankly, Tenet has all the style and flair of a James Bond movie without the sex, all the cleverness of a confidence movie with far more bullets. Tenet is not aiming for subtly at all, which is likely why so many have harangued the film for naming it’s lead character the Protagonist. Nolan knows his cinema history and Inception certainly utilized the same tenets of filmmaking to create Cobb’s team of thieves. So it does, at first, seem incredibly eye-rollie to have an unnamed villain, whose soldiers are referred to as antagonists (a term used to refer to a villain in a story), and the central character of the film, our hero, as the Protagonist. Except there is another meaning to the word “protagonist,” which refers to being a champion or advocate for a cause. Upon his induction into Tenet, Washington’s character is told that the organization requires such a person, using the second definition specifically, which makes the Protagonist less of an archetypal hero, a symbol of goodness and righteousness, and more of a leader who will work to handle the mission. Consider 007, a code name for the ultra-spy James Bond, and the Protagonist to be the same thing. With this in mind, the dialogue surrounding or engaging with the term is far less pedestrian and clearly purposeful. This does not forgive some of the more awkward moments, like Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat bemoaning the inclusion of her son when it’s mentioned that the whole world is at stake (your kid is part of the world, Kat, we get it), but it does ease off the more ridiculous nature of what some described as lesser Nolan.
First, a warning: the included documentary featurette “Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet” is on its own Blu-ray disc. When you open your 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack or Blu-ray/DVD Combo, don’t fret that the main disc doesn’t have the documentary. Just look under the other disc for the special feature-specific Blu-ray.
Over the course of 13-parts, the documentary featurette explores everything from the cast and crews’ experience making the film, the look, the ideas running through, the casting, process, the stunts, and more. You can choose from watching them individually or all together as one long documentary feature. I do love meaty bonus features as they enable the audience to really immerse themselves in a film they enjoyed, learning about more than the process of filmmaking (technical aspects), but the depth of ideas within the project. The average length for the majority of featurettes is four minutes with the longest two averaging 11 minutes. You don’t get a lot of time with each respective featurette, but as a total, get ready for a deep dive. For me, my first stops were “The Proving Window,” “The Roadmap,” and “Entropy in Action” so that I could gain a better understanding of how Nolan conceived, designed, and executed inversion within the film. Learning how Nolan prefers to capture things on-set as much as possible, how he and frequently collaborator DP Hoyte Van Hoytema utilized IMAX cameras in small spaces (and how the limited amount of time to record required the actors to be on their A-game). Discovering that there were multiple methods of tracking timelines, so that the cast and crew better understood the continuity of events (something that caused quite a bit of confusion). The most surprising, given the difficulty of capturing inversion on camera, is how much of what you see happening on-screen is not a mere reversal of frame. The cast learned how to perform required scenes forwards and backwards, including dialogue. During the sequence in the airport terminal in which a character bounces along the floor — yep, that was actually done (silly as it looks) and not simply rewound. Say what you will about the film itself, but there is no doubting Nolan’s commitment to creating something as authentically as possible and demanding his cast and crew set-up to create it. Offering a little something for everyone, whether you’re focused on specific areas like me or are just a general Nolan fan, “Looking at the World in a New Way” is worth it just to get a little closer to the ideas within Tenet.
The number of times friends and colleagues reported a less-than-stellar theatrical experience, but whose opinion changed upon a second viewing certainly tracks with my own ability to control my viewing experience at home. I can rewind what confuses, re-experience a conversation or action, and then continue with a far greater sense of understanding. Frankly, Tenet is one of those films for which multiple viewings makes the experience more rich. Think back to how The Prestige looked differently as you discovered the misdirection and setups Nolan hid along the way to that powerful conclusion. Think back to how the notions of Inception became easier to grasp, no matter what level Cobb’s team was on, when you knew how the theft played out. From the start, Nolan’s hidden things in plain sight, things which foreknowledge certainly assist in understanding. “What’s happened has happened” but what it means you understand it, well that’s something else entirely.
Tenet Special Features
- Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet – An hour-long exploration of the development and production of the film as told by the cast and crew.
- The Principle of Belief (4:06)
- Mobilizing the Troupe (6:34)
- The Approach (4:40)
- The Proving Window (4:45)
- The Roadmap (5:05)
- Entropy in Action (10:47)
- Traversing the Globe (12:27)
- How Big a Plane? (4:47)
- The Dress Code (3:51)
- Constructing the Twilight World (5:26)
- The Final Battle (4:10)
- Cohesion (5:37)
- Doesn’t Us Being Here Now Mean It Never Happened? (3:48)
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital December 15th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.