The 11th film in my Comprehensive Analysis of The Films of Christopher Nolan, is the time reversing spy thriller Tenet. One of the most ambitious films of Nolan’s career, Tenet acts as a fulcrum point in the director’s filmmaking journey. Forever, for historical reasons and consequences from his own behavior, Nolan’s career can pinpoint Tenet by which his career hinged. As with a spinning top that may or may not have toppled, Tenet asks more questions than it answers. However, this time, due to the film’s complicated release caused by the industry’s drastic shift in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, audience members (and maybe other studios) were unwilling to give him the latitude his clout has previously afforded him; indicated by the film holding the lowest audience score of any of his previous feature based directorial work.
After a botched extraction attempt of a piece of unknown technology, an operative (John David Washington) is recruited into a shadowy spy organization bent on stopping the end of the world. Armed with the ability to reverse an object’s or a person’s temporal entropy, this new “Protagonist” and his recruits, must stop the future from trying to kill the past; as a radicalized arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh in a scene devouring role) attempts to bring that dystopian future’s goals to fruition.
All of Christopher Nolan’s films come with an elevated amount of excitement and anticipation, regardless of its source material. Nolan’s filmmaking process has been so deified (especially his commitment to shooting on film and IMAX for a theatrical experience; more on this later) that he’s developed a cult following of audience members and industry insiders, that add another layer of eagerness to an impending Nolan release. With all of that under consideration, a Nolan film from a completely original script is a different animal entirely. These self-described “Nolanites” become rabid with enthusiastic pretention, willing to lash out at anyone who dares not genuflect in front of their cinematic celestial god of celluloid. For some, any praise is faint praise, and any criticism is blasphemy. Thus, before any information was out, they took to message boards, social media, and other fan circles to sound the trumpets of benediction. Nolan was writing a new script, and no matter the outcome, to them, it was going to be amazing.
The idea for Tenet predates the majority of Nolan’s other work. This is predominantly because the overall concept was so needlessly complex and difficult to sell to a studio; until he had achieved “blank check” status. When Nolan was a teenager, he had the idea of a film where the character would be able to move through a film backwards, thereby experiencing the same events of the film in a different way. In addition to his lack of pull with the studios early in his career, for years Nolan did not have a way to present this storytelling structure in a grounded way, which has always been his desire. It wasn’t until working on Interstellar with physicist Kip Thorne that he was able to both understand and use the idea of chronal entropy. In his conversations with Dr. Thorne, Nolan graphed on to this idea that all objects carry with them their own time; and since we perceive time going in only one direction (regardless of other equally plausible theories) would it be possible to have the flow of a person’s time reversed? Hence, the Nolan’s teenage idea became semi grounded in theoretical physics.
Once Nolan’s idea was grounded (albeit vaguely) in theoretical physics; the next task was for the production team to figure out how to capture this “in camera”, as Nolan is wont to do. To date, Tenet is a major tentpole with one of the lowest numbers of VFX shots (a paltry 280). Notably, and characteristic of Nolan, what most people would fill in with digital computer “magic”, he performs in front of the camera. Compare a CGI plane crash, to the crashing of a 747 into a building in this film, and you will see a difference. No matter how much sorcery you perform, that does not change what objects are captured by the camera. Therefore, to maintain the visual consistency and elegance of “in camera” effects, Nolan relied on his cast and crew to do a lot of their actions, and acting, moving forwards and backwards. During scenes in which a person’s entropy is reversed, rather than use visual effects or camera trickery, Nolan had his actors learn the choreography of their character actions both forwards and backwards for some scenes. This includes everything from walking and speaking, to fighting and firing weapons. As laborious as this sounds, the difference can be seen on screen, where the backwards and forwards movement looks crisp and clean because that is what the camera is capturing. Much of the uneasiness that the audience feels when watching this, is the unease that comes with a challenge to our conventional cinematic perceptions.
This penchant for practical effects pairs well with Nolan’s other predilection, shooting on film. Retaining the services of Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema from his previous two films, Nolan and Hoytema shot a record breaking 1.6 million feet of IMAX film, breaking the record they set with their previous collaboration, Dunkirk. Tenet is the first narrative film of an original script to have the majority of the film shot in IMAX. The unfortunate drawback of this, and something that has, in my opinion, gone beyond a simple aesthetic choice, is the sound mixing.
Sound mixing and Score
One of the reasons that IMAX cameras are not often used in narrative films, and when they are used, are often regulated to panoramic shots, or to capture the richness of an environment, is because the IMAX cameras are notoriously loud. They have an operating ambience of a turbine engine. This has the consequence of drowning out any dialogue, which has to be rerecorded through a process called ADR (audio dialogue replacement). It is standard that any film shot with an IMAX camera would need to utilize ADR in order to have any audible dialogue. For Nolan, however, the more he used the IMAX camera to get the picture quality he wanted, he was ultimately sacrificing audible dialogue due to his reluctance to use ADR. Yet these struggles began about a decade earlier.
The increased use of IMAX cameras during the shooting of The Dark Knight introduced many challenges, chief among them being the size and weight of the original IMAX cameras (before Nolan, and DP(s) Wally Pfister and Hoyte Hoytema’s alterations). However, the dialogue sound mixing did not start to become an issue until the prologue of The Dark Knight Rises, where none of the audience could clearly hear Bane’s Voice. Unfortunately, since then, the sound mixing problem has only gotten worse, causing other directors to complain to Nolan himself. Fans of Nolan certainly are accustomed to these issues opting to either, upgrade their sound system for home viewing of a Nolan film, keeping the remote in hand and increasing and decreasing the audio volume throughout the film’s run time, or watch the film at a level tone while watching with subtitles (I opted for the latter). While the sound mixing continues to dog Nolan, the scores for his complete filmography have been spectacular, and Tenet is no exception.
Tenet’s score was crafted by Black Panther alum Ludwig Goransson after frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer was waylaid by his work on Dune. Goransson more than filled Zimmer’s shoes, as we are not subjected to the same themes and note structure that often plague a lot of Zimmer’s later work. Goransson’s intensely melodic orchestration with the reverb and intensity of (what sounds like) machines running backwards, sets the proper tone for this awfully specific Nolan film. One of the clear markers of a great score, is when you can listen to it outside of the context of the film and still feel that you went on a narrative journey. This score achieves that from the first track of the Opera House, to the Techno Pop original song “The Plan” by Travis Scott. It weaves and auditory backwards and forwards tale; that captivates all on its own, outside of the film.
COVID, HBOMAX and Nolan’s Savior Complex
In March 2020, The COVID 19 pandemic came for the movie industry. Due to mandatory national lockdown orders across states, all major theater chains began to close a lot of their branches, some of them permanently. While one company, AMC, barely staved off Bankruptcy. Yet, the major loser in all of this is the indie film scene and Independent theaters in general. While they have remained on life support through the Pandemic due to a resurgence of Drive-In style screenings. If this continues, there is a danger in their elimination. To put this into context, the entire global film industry has lost 30 billion dollars in revenue ( A drop of 71%) compared to last year, with the US market making up almost ½ of the losses (around 12 billion). Ironically, the bulk of 2020 global earnings came from China. What also accounted for these record losses was that not only had production on all major studio films ceased for a period of 6 months, beginning in March 2020, but there was a studio scramble to delay films that were going to come out during the Summer of 2020, which was now a dead zone. Tenet was originally scheduled for release July 19th 2020.
As I have mentioned before, Christopher Nolan loves the theatrical experience. It is a consistent refrain in any interview or press junket in which he has been a part. In his responses he has always expressed the importance of film going, as one that is important to our collective human culture, and that other ways to watch films and other media content cheapen the overall experience, becoming an affront to what filmmaking is all about. Prior to the Pandemic, Nolan was one of the few filmmakers who would always put their films in theaters, and given his aforementioned affinity for IMAX, also allowed his films to be presented in a variety of specialty formats, (IMAX, 70 mm IMAX) and because he always shoots on film, his films can be presented in the pre digital common formats of 16mm and 35 mm. This has been Nolan’s crusade for the whole of his career, to the point that some have suggested that he is “The Savior” of film, and movie theaters. Recently, given the changes in the industry due to the COVID 19 pandemic, interviewers kept bringing up Tenet’s release schedule, and method of release, so often that I wonder if it was a consistency test for Nolan; to see if he will give a different answer, or change his mind. He did not. While this feels like a little bit of entrapment by reporters hounding him with the same questions expecting a different answer, the longer this went on, the more the story was framed like Nolan was putting the importance of the theatrical experience above people’s lives. Suddenly, Nolan was framed as a zealous villain; tone deaf to the suffering and circumstances of millions of people. Nolan rejected this interpretation, indicating that the issue was more than just about his film. Stating:
“All I can really take responsibility for is making the best film that I can. I think cinema is bigger than any one film one way or another, and I think people tend to simplify things a bit, particularly in a time like this. I’m just very pleased that the studio feels they can let the film play in places where theaters have been able to open. Obviously, that’s not the release we imagined when we were making the film. But then, the world is not as we had imagined it would be when we made the film, and we had to adapt like everybody else. I’m just very, very pleased that audiences around the world are beginning to be able to respond to the film, because, for me as a filmmaker, the film is not finished until the audiences gets to see it and tell me what it is that I’ve done.”
So, while not completely tone deaf, it seems that Nolan’s adherence to his filmmaking ideology, once thought quirky and nostalgic in the eyes of the public, in the COVID era is seen by non-cinephiles as misguided.
Tenet was theatrically released outside the US on August 26th 2020 and in the United States on all formats Sept 3rd. Due to the pandemic, about ½ of all theaters were shutdown. Therefore, when Tenet was released, they opened in a disappointing 2,800 screens with limited capacity. However, the film managed to still make a profit exceeding their 205 million dollar budget (not including marketing) by 160 million for a world wide theatrical total of 363 million dollars.
** Sociological Aside**
In The United States, where the Pandemic is still raging (as of this writing and months after the film has left theaters), the film made 56 million dollars- twenty of that in its opening weekend. This means that A LOT of people risked COVID exposure to see this film.
The film was eventually released on VOD and Blu-Ray on Dec 15th (the shortest time between theatrical and home release for any Nolan film). Tenet remained at the top of these charts as of this writing, 8-10 weeks since its release. Regardless of its success in the past, in the COVID era, this model of theatrical releases, leading to home viewing, seems to be becoming past tense.
On Dec 4th 2020, it was announced in a statement AT&T, parent company of HBO and Warner Bros. productions, that the entire 2021 slate of movies produced by Warner Brothers would be simultaneously released in theaters and on the streaming service HBOMAX. The films would be available for HBOMAX subscribers only for 30 days after their specific release date. This obvious reaction to the global pandemic, whose death toll in the US (as of this writing) is approaching 450,000 in under a year, has sent shock waves through the film industry. Many of the films on the Warner slate would have been considered “big budget tentpoles”, films like The Suicide Squad, Dune, and The Matrix 4 which are important for the maintenance and stability of Theater chains. In their statement, WarnerMedia (under AT&T) committed to the theatrical exhibition of films and framed their decision as a purely economical one. Stating that they are attempting to reduce their losses from theatrical releases which will most likely still run at half capacity through 2021. It is unclear how much the company will be able to make back with new subscribers to HBOMAX, let alone what the fall out of this will cost them in cultural and social capital moving forward.
There has been a lot of negative reactions to the AT&T decision in the last few months, many of them coming from people who stand to lose a lot of money with this decision; namely directors and actors (who’s pay scale may be tied to box office performance) and Theater owners. One of the most vocal about this decision was Christopher Nolan himself, who’s relationship with Warner bros. up to this point was so strong, that he is one of three directors (The other two being Clint Eastwood and Todd Philips) that could make whatever they wanted without studio interference. This relationship was immediately put into jeopardy when Nolan criticized the decision for not including filmmakers in the conversation. In an interview he was quoted as saying
“Filmmakers went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest studio, and when they woke up they realized they were working for the worst streaming service. Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”
With such a statement it is clear that Nolan was so burned by this decision, as a clear anathema, and bane of his existence, that he has decided to completely sever ties with Warner Bros. a studio he has worked with since 2002 and where he reigned supreme, along with Eastwood and Philips, as Warner’s Directing holy trinity. It is clear with his clout in Hollywood, and now evidence of principle consistency and having the “courage of his convictions”, Nolan will be able to produce and distribute his film anywhere he wants. It has yet to be determined who the real losers in this exchange are. The unknown variable is the complete and long-lasting economic impact of COVID 19. AT&T’s decision may be the best for them in the short term (which is typically how large corporations think) But, Warner Bros will not be able to ride the Nolan gravy train to the next station, as long as he keeps making films that people want to see. In the case of Tenet, the convoluted nature of the film’s plot and the difficult social conditions of the industry upon its release, created a perfect storm of complications that led to this film’s overall failure.
Tenet is a quintessential Christopher Nolan film. It requires your full attention to understand the entire narrative structural apparatus, complete with all its twist, turns, and in this case “rewinds”. The film’s theme, reinforced through dialogue and every character, sees Nolan temporally inverting the cinematic world he has created, but also inverting his style and rectifying valid social criticisms of his films that have persisted for two decades.
Time has always fascinated Nolan for his entire filmography. Most of his films from Following through Dunkirk, have used the variants of time as a story telling device. Yet, it is the three films of Inception, Interstellar, and now Tenet, which uses the actual manipulation of time as an important narrative hook. Whether that be the perception of time through dream space (Inception), the variable experience of time in relationship to gravity (Interstellar) or the ability to move backwards through time (Tenet), these pictures would be completely different; and unfortunately, flat and conventional, if they did not play with the vagaries of cinematic chronology.
What separates Tenet apart from Nolan’s previous films that use time, is that it is not as meticulously explained. In a behind the scenes interview on the home release of Tenet, Nolan admits to playing fast and loose with the idea of time. Reality based consultation of Physicist Kip Thorne so heavily used for Interstellar was a mere jumping off point for Tenet, speaking in hypotheticals. This is because Nolan wanted to tell a spy story beyond simple espionage. To use time as a method of achieving a particular goal. This requires a suspension of disbelief. We need to both understand how the rules of this universe work, and we need to accept that particular “future tech” allows for that to happen. The shift in entropy and the ability to move backwards in time is Nolan’s least explained mechanic of any of his films. It is this loose exhibition that has turned some critics and audience members off the film. The film becomes so far ahead of the audience that he ultimately loses many of them.
“What happens happened”
Three of the most common theories of time are those based upon the work of Einstein, Hawking and Nietzsche. Beyond the basics of his theory of general relativity, which sees a relationship between gravity and time; Einstein was famously quoted as saying “time is an illusion”. He explains that humans have used the notion of time to develop and construct our reality; imposing order on ourselves. But if we look at the universe more cosmically, that perspective is quite different. Articulated in his book A Brief History of Time, Hawking develops this illusion into what he calls “The psychological arrow of time”; where our sense of time is flowing in one direction. Therefore, this explains why we can remember the past, but not the future, as the future has increased entropy (moving toward disorder), and our understanding of time relies on the constructed order we place on it. Yet, Nietzsche’s argument of eternal recurrence has seen a resurgence, reinforcing the notion that time, like history, repeats itself through various cycles. Based upon these theories, from a sociological perspective, we may be more inclined to side with Hawking’s Arrow. However, that completely overlooks the sociological understanding and critique of time; of which many theorists have contributed; but few being recognized for their work.
Sociologically, time is understood as the continuous passage of existence that can be measured in periodic physical or social processes [through] units of social division (Jary and Jary 1991:521). The division of time is often social in nature based upon organizations of societies and the rules and orders imposed on them.
Therefore, according to Giddens (1984) social time can be delineated by:
1) The Repeated Day to Day – “The Reversable time” of everyday life
2) The rise, persistence, and fall of social institutions
3) The lifespan “irreversible time”
4) Periodization (“Times, Ages and Eras”)
Add to this:
5) The Internalization of social values, economic, political, and religious structures (cultural time dilation or “Time Reckoning”) (Bergmann 1992).
Giddens (1984) and Bergmann’s (1992) point is that regardless of how time exists relatively to gravity or to the organization and structure of the universe, or how it does, or does not move toward disorder or in inevitable cycles, our perception and experience of time is altered by the limits and values that we place on it; without which we could not exist in the world no matter how time truly operates. This was first pondered through Georg Simmel’s temporal dialectic.
Georg Simmel is an undervalued classical social theorist contemporarily with Max Weber. Predominantly known for brilliant lectures and his ideas of group dynamics and his criticisms of both a money economy and religion, Simmel is not specifically known for his academic work on time. Yet, he found an interesting demarcation between objective realities (fixed forms of life) and the subjective transformation of our social and spiritual condition (dynamic and shifting substance of life). This is the difference for Simmel between “timeless form, and transient content” (Scaff 2005: 6). It is here that Nolan’s temporal world of Tenet can be understood.
The ideas that Nolan is playing with are the ways we perceive and experience time. The connective tissue between Simmel’s work and Nolan’s film is in a unique line of dialogue. In trying to hastily tell The Protagonist (and the audience) about the experience of reverse entropy, a soldier says: “Remember, your entropy is reversed, not the world’s.” Thus, from a Simmelian perspective on time, the world is the timeless form, and humans (in the hyper reality of Tenet), are the transient content. Since Nolan is less interested in the fundamental ideas of time, and more interested in how it can be used as a narrative device, we rarely get more than a simple reverse explanation that serves the story, rather than a consistent world building continuity.
Nolan is not known for his rich and developed characters. Identified as a structured and organizational filmmaker, many of his characters have been criticized for their lack of depth and thinly veiled allegories for people in the filmmaking process. At first glance, the characters in Tenet look even more precarious (e.g., The main character is called Protagonist).Yet, with his casting, plot machinations, and character pairings, Nolan attempts to circumvent (some) past criticism.
The Protagonist and Neil: The Doctor and River Song of the Nolan verse
Early in the film, after being recruited by a shadowy organization known as “Tenet”, The Protagonist (John David Washington) is told that there needs to “be a new Protagonist” and that he was “as fresh as a daisy.” While this works narratively, as a basic fish out of water story, this is also metatextual as John David Washington is the first Black actor cast in a Christopher Nolan film; in a spy genre picture that rarely sees Black men as the lead. While this representation is important and necessary, it is unlikely Nolan is making a statement here; given his reluctance to do so on other projects.
When the Protagonist needs to track down the sale of inverted munitions from an arms dealer in India, he recruits Neil (Robert Pattinson), a British Spy who he initially keeps the realities of reversing an objects entropy from. It is later revealed at the end of the film that Neil has moved backward in time from years in the future. He was recruited by the Protagonist years ago (from Neil’s perspective) when he first founded Tenet. One of the most amazing things about this reveal, is that it is not only recontextualizing the entire film, but it deepens the relationship between these two characters with the knowledge that we have only seen half of their relationship. Neil’s last conversation with the protagonist makes me want to watch the rest of their story and how they “get up to some stuff” as Neil says. Their last goodbye is both sad, poignant, and hopeful remembrance of a relationship that was, or has yet to be.
Kat and Sator: The Dimensioning of A Female Character
The Characters of Kat (Elisabeth Debicki) and Sator (Kenneth Branagh) on the surface are virtually one note characters. They serve the narrative purpose of being the “fridged” and the “foil” respectively for the Protagonist. Even though they still serve these purposes, Nolan, decides to slowly add complexity to these characters throughout the film. Thus, through their periodically entropic reversals, Kat gains dimensionality and Sator becomes an inevitability.
One of the most frequent social criticism that I have leveed at Nolan’s filmography is his lack of dimensional female characters. Women are often regulated to being a motivational object, which propels the narrative of the male lead forward. While this still happens in Tenet, he also inverts the trope to allow the sole female character to grow out of the limitations he has always placed on her in previous films. Kat, up until the point when her entropy is reversed to save her from dying of a gunshot wound, has only acted as the aforementioned “fridged” damsel. However, once the principal characters reverse their chronology and move backwards through the film we have just watched, she gains a drive and determination that, up until that point, has eluded her. She becomes the vengeance and karmic retribution for everything that Sator has done; killing him while letting him know that he was the seeds of his own destruction.
Sator, at first glance is a scene chewing bombastic sadist without empathy. He traffics in guns, gold and inverted munitions. Slowly however, the film reveals his humble beginnings as he was made into prominence from his future self. Through exposure to radioactive material, Sator is dying. Becoming nihilistic about the world because of it, he is willing to end everything, for all time. Yet, we understand at the end of the film that he is just being used as a pawn by those in the future to be the catalyst that will end the past. Thus, the main antagonist, is just a cog in a much larger machine; and not the Machiavellian Ubermensch.
Initially, when I first watched Tenet, I thought it was one of Nolan’s weakest films. Overcome with the horrible sound mixing and the seemingly lackluster attention to characters and dialogue, I really felt that this was one of Nolan’s first missteps. However, while I do not believe that this is the best of Nolan’s filmography, the circumstances of this film’s release, the conditions in which I was first exposed to the film (not getting the theatrical experience), and the fleeting importance of this movie on the larger film industry, altered my first impressions of the film. The more I learned about the craft and care that went into making this film, and the lengths the production team when to in order to make this as visually spectacular as possible, my appreciation for the film grew immensely. This film needs to be seen more than twice. It needs to be experienced and talked over with others. It is a shame that, due to our current societal conditions, that can not happen, and this film will be lost as something that audiences did not have the patience, or energy to fully understand and appreciate. Here, is truly a case, where context… killed the cinema.
Bergmann, Werner 1992 “The Problem of Time in Sociology: An Overview of the Literature on the State of Theory and Research on the `Sociology of Time'” in Time and Society (1): pp 81-134 https://cspo.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/read_Bergmann-The-Problem-of-Time-in-Sociology.pdf
Giddens, Anthony 1984. The Constitution of Society Cambridge, England: Polity Press
Jary, David and Julia Jary 1991. The Harper Collins Dictionary of Sociology New York: Harper Collins Publishing
Scaff Lawrence A. 2005. “The Mind of the Modernist: Simmel on Time.” In Time and Society (14) 1 pp 5-23 https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/22303/ssoar-timesoc-2005-1-scaff-the_mind_of_the_modernist.pdf?sequence=1
 While there is no direct causal link here, I think there is a correlation between the attitudes and behaviors of rabid fan cultures (In this case Nolanites and Snyder Fans) and those on the political fringes. Their similar indoctrination to their respective venerated figures, and their unwillingness to be less than fully supportive of their vision.
 He made a shoulder mount, For an IMAX camera!
 A typical release for a Nolan film in Not during a pandemic is 4,280
 Which is how I saw the film, and why this review is so late compared to the theatrical release of the film.
 Tenet and inception being perfect example of this “blank check status”
 Most Notably in a Season 1 episode of True Detective
 Think of the way in which intersecting institutional ills like racism, sexism and ablism temporally weigh on an individual both altering their perception and experience of time; while simultaneously measuring their success and social validity as if they were weightless.
 Essentially that every object carries with it its own time, and that time is A. Flowing in a particular direction. B. Through advanced technology that time flow can be altered.
 Since this is Nolan’s riff on James Bond does that make The Protagonist the first Black 007 ( Since No Time to Die has yet to be released)?
 Since I have no other place to put this in my analysis, I love the way that Nolan lets Debicki be tall. Most directors, because of the fragile male egos of Male movie stars, will try to make the male lead seem as tall as the female lead, if not make the female lead seem shorter. Nolan and Costume Designer Jeffery Kurland draped Debicki in long slender costumes and 6-inch heels. She towers over everyone in this film, and it is glorious.