Christopher Nolan’s script for Tenet is its own sort of temporal paradox, built on a structure that is both essential and also the worst way to experience it on first viewing. Characters go on and on about time inversion, admit they’re confused themselves, or just state they don’t know what’s going on either, and not anything resembling human motivation. Nolan waits so long to give the audience a reason to care, to give something to connect to on an emotional level, that it’s hard to care about the stunning action scenes or charismatic leads for the vast majority of the movie’s two-hour-and-30 minute runtime.
Nolan wanted to make a movie in which the end is the beginning is the end — but that’s not how human minds, or hearts, work. The beginning of the narrative, from the point of view of the person sitting down on their couch and cueing up Tenet, must be the beginning of the movie itself. No one, not even the ever-clever Nolan, can change how actual, linear time operates.
Which is why I love Tenet so much, despite its frustrations. Nolan wants to keep pushing the boundaries of these kinds of blockbusters, and that means he’s going to fail as much as he succeeds. The failure here is that Nolan drops the viewer into the middle of a complicated tale of revenge, manipulation of time, and our own faulty assumptions of how experience is perceived, without bothering to give us relatable, human-sized stakes for any of the characters.
The story is a complicated trainwreck of cause, effect, and arguably some kind of predetermination, and its heart doesn’t even start to beat until right before it flatlines.
This is amazing and I don’t care about any of it
Tenet’s plot is a doozy. The film is about a CIA agent who kills himself while being interrogated after a failed mission to rescue an American asset during a terrorist attack on an opera house. The agent is being tortured, and would rather die than give up intelligence.
Then he wakes up and is told he was actually being tested for a much larger mission, and it has something to do with the people and objects he saw seemingly moving backwards in time in the opera house. His goal, in theory, is simple: Find the source of the time-bending bullets and shut the whole thing down before the future sends us a nuclear bomb, or potentially something even worse.
Our hero, “Protagonist,” doesn’t seem to have any connections outside of his job. No family to miss him now that he’s ostensibly dead, and no relationships to test his focus. They dump him in a wind turbine out at sea for convoluted reasons, and he seems to instantly settle in and begin working out to stay combat ready. He doesn’t need to ask about a phone call, as he has no one to call.
He has friends though, including a shadowy operative named Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, who seems to be having the time of his life. And he has what seems to be unlimited resources, leading to some fun jokes about how expensive it is to be a Bond-style spy. But this is all just window dressing and snappy dialog.
Who are the bad folks sending weapons moving back through time? We don’t know, and in fact we’re told no one knows. What is their goal? We don’t know. Can they be stopped? Everyone hopes so. Is there any reason to believe the future really does want everyone dead? Fear, according to the endless briefings throughout the movie. We can’t risk it. Which leads to scene after scene of people explaining the basics of time inversion to other characters while also admitting they have next to no idea what is going on, but something must be done.
Which is absolutely fine, in practice. Uncertainty leads to paranoia, and Nolan has created a situation for Protagonist in which he has very little reason to trust anyone, but knows he has to move forward (or backward?) because the stakes are so high. Or … that’s what we’ve been told. Protagonist is more of a human avatar for the mission than he is a human character, but the stakes, the details, and his role in things are all nebulous.
We can be sure of nothing, which could make for a tense film. Instead, Nolan’s tricks filled me with powerful ambivalence.
I am alone, and it all depends on me
Nolan usually starts a film with an emotional bedrock on which he can construct icy visuals and Kubrickian-style detail. I know that Cobb from Inception wants to go home, but can’t. Whatever else happens, those are understandable, relatable stakes. Cooper from Interstellar has to save the world as well, but to do so he has to leave his children on Earth while he searches for a new, hospitable planet, and time dilation means that he finds out his school-aged daughter has become a bitter, driven scientist while he’s still a middle-aged man.
More complicated, sure, but the idea of work keeping us away from our children and the cost to families is clear. The Prestige opens with rivalry, and the loss of a loved one. Memento is a clever puzzle placed inside a story about a man trying to avenge his murdered wife.
Each of these films goes off in strange, wonderful, frustrating, or baffling directions, and that’s part of the fun. A viewer never knows what they’re getting from a Nolan film, which is a rarity in modern blockbusters that often roll along on rails. But his movies tend to start on level ground, with immediately relatable stakes or motivations even in the midst of the preternatural. Viewers don’t just understand it, they feel it.
But even the action setpieces felt strangely tertiary to Tenet’s story, and I struggled to sit through the movie the first time. Protagonist needs to find the time-inverted bullets, and to do so he needs the help of a woman named Kat who is being kept as a kind of trophy by a mobster who will keep her son if she leaves him. The arms dealer is blackmailing her with her connection to a counterfeit piece of art, which is being kept in a tax-free, ultra-high security warehouse at an airport. Sure.
Protagonist and his team have to get ahold of the counterfeit by crashing a plane into a hangar, fight more future soldiers who are moving backwards in time, and at the end hopefully they have the art which they can then give to the woman so she can get her son away from the arms dealer and then give him up to authorities and then maybe we’ll find out who is actually doing all of this from the future. I think.
In video game terms, this is a side quest, but it’s treated as one of the most important scenes of the movie. If they fail? I guess Protagonist would look for another angle. But at least they crashed some planes.
Kat and her son? They’re never shown together, so we never get to learn for ourselves what their relationship is like. We know the evil man is an evil man because we are told he is an evil man. There is a grand, operatic story of greed, selflessness, and duty hidden inside Tenet, but it’s initially obscured by Nolan’s decision to show us everything except the things that matter most.
Which brings us to the final climactic battle, when Nolan’s grand plan snaps into view. This ending isn’t a failure, but one of the most ridiculously complicated ways of having your cinematic cake and eating it too that I have ever seen.
I’m almost angrier at how much I respect the script now.
Tenet’s real story, the moments that lead to, cause, or are helped by the strange mixture of things we do see, happens almost completely offscreen for a reason. The audience is stuck with Protagonist and his questions because we’re experiencing the story in linear fashion with him, but it could be argued that the good guys had already won before the first shot was fired in the opening moments of the movie. We’re not seeing struggle, we’re seeing mop up.
Our hero wasn’t stuck doing pull-ups in isolation to contribute to Nolan’s dreamlike atmosphere, but because his future self was operating in his past-self’s present, setting up everything that was to come. He just needed to be out of the way. Protagonist has actually been working with Neil for literal years of raw time — depending on whether they were moving backwards or forwards, I guess? — not days or weeks. Neil knows everything that is going to happen, including how Protagonist will react to Neil the “first time” they meet, since he’s been doing this so long, under orders from the future version of Protagonist, who knows they will ultimately win because they already have.
The two men are partners, and friends. We realize this just as Neil runs back into the climactic “final” battle — from our point of view at least — to make sure it’s successful.
What we know, and what Protagonist knows, and what Neil likely has no illusions about, is that Neil is about to die. Neil has made peace with this, because he’s been given the opportunity to literally save the entirety of the world, and he doesn’t have to say goodbye to a friend he just met. From his point of view, they’ve been colleagues for quite a long time indeed. This isn’t even goodbye to Neil from Protagonist, because they’re about to “meet” for the first time at some point after this battle, at least from Neil’s point of view.
The important stuff happened off-camera because it had to. So much of what Protagonist was doing, and how he went about it, was designed to distract the major players at those particular moments while the actual plan to fight the future was taking place under the care of the future version of Protagonist, working backwards in a move they call a “temporal pincer attack.” Since Protagonist has already lived through the war and seen how the battles will go down, he knows every move he’s about to make will succeed.
The movie of that character’s journey, the one that takes place after this one, is where the actual exposition takes place, and where characters know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it will end up.
Would I like to see that movie? Absolutely. Would it be much closer to a standard blockbuster instead of this ridiculous Gordian knot? Surely. Nolan wrote and directed an epic, and then filmed what literally was a side-quest in the whole story. That makes for a cold, often annoying first watch, until the final minutes in which the actual stakes and reality of the situation are laid bare. Nolan shot the only part of the story that would allow our point of view character to feel like they were in danger, and to be unsure of what happens next.
Pattinson’s performance can’t be oversold here; his sense of friendship and caring with Protagonist in the closing moments seem to prove that both are good, competent men who have supported each other and have developed a close bond. I don’t need to see the moment that Neil first meets Protagonist from the other point of view, because I understand it emotionally. Which is how two men get to say goodbye without either of them feeling like that friendship was lost. One knows this was the plan all along. The other knows that he’s about to see his friend again, and will in fact be able to help him survive this long. The emotional stakes have been successfully put in place and installed, it just happened at the end, not the beginning. Or rather the end of the least important part of this story.
I sighed at this moment in the movie before getting up and making another cup of coffee. I was about to watch the whole thing again, and I was pretty angry about it. This sort of trick, this overly complex method of storytelling shouldn’t work. And yet, upon the second viewing, armed with the knowledge that these two men are close friends even if they both won’t know it at the same time until much later, the whole thing sings.
Watching Neil play-act his way through his “first” meeting with Protagonist is a delight the second time around, with Robert Pattinson walking the fine line between telegraphing that he knows at least a little bit more than he’s letting on and tipping the game too early by winking at the audience. It’s an actor playing a character who is acting, and it’s masterfully done.
Kat’s story, which seemed emotionally disconnected in the first viewing, clicks together when you know what’s going on. Knowing that she saw her future self during a climactic moment in her own past changes everything; we know the woman who jumped off the ship, the woman who seemed free to Kat, is Kat gives the loop a poetic sense of finality. She was jealous of herself, and she’s going to get everything she wanted. She just doesn’t know it yet, but we do.
Nolan did something neat in designing a magic trick that actually works better once you know how it was done, something the characters in The Prestige would be very jealous of indeed.