Christopher Nolan has done it again. Released today, Tenet is a brilliant, stunning work. Like all of Nolan’s prior films, Tenet is incredibly cerebral. It is a colossal achievement from both a technical standpoint and an artistic one, making the most of its $225 million budget. I’d put it up there with The Dark Knight as one of his greatest films. But I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. This is perhaps the most convoluted, confusing film you’ll ever see. You have to pay close attention for every second to truly understand it. And even then, I don’t think that 99.9% of people—whether you’re a casual fan or a critic or a physicist—will get it all after one view. I certainly was dumbfounded at times. It is also very difficult to discuss Tenet without spoilers, but I’ll try my best. After all, it’s the best film of 2020.
Tenet opens with an incredible scene. Featuring a terrorist attack at a European opera house, it channels a level of intensity comparable to that of the opening bank robbery scene in The Dark Knight. With groundbreaking shots, overwhelmingly loud sound mixing, and well-choreographed action, it is immersive. The film remains that way until the end. The premise of the blockbuster work, which generally takes place in the present day, is that a nuclear physicist from the future finds a way to reverse the linear flow of entropy in matter, a phenomenon that we humans perceive as time, with a machine called a turnstile. But, realizing its dangerous implications, she hides her turnstiles in the past (in the present day of the film’s setting), as well as technology that could possibly destroy the world instantaneously, a risk that many future generations are willing to take because their Earth was destroyed by climate change. They collaborate with people from their past, namely the film’s present-day terrorist, who wants to reverse the flow of time for a different reason. He wants to destroy the world as soon as he dies—because *if he can’t enjoy his wife anymore, nobody should.*
Thus ensues a war between the future, the present, and the near past to save their own versions of the world—or destroy it. People can use the top-secret turnstiles to revisit past events even if they involved their old selves. By virtue, going into the past changes it, but it’ll appear to their past selves as if events always unfolded in the way that they ultimately do, with the inverted future people appearing from the start, which results in a paradox. It gets even crazier if people expose themselves directly to their past selves, which compounds the chance of destabilizing the trajectory of history itself. They must be discrete. But it isn’t easy when you’re fighting terrorists and clandestine forces from the future. It also gets trippy when people use the turnstiles in the future to alter the same past moment and consequently appear in more than two different bodies as if the event always unfolded that way. The future people have an advantage because they recall being in the mindset of their past selves in those situations years prior, but the silver lining of the present is that its people find a way to communicate with the future.
But that’s not all. The powerful antagonist and others who mastered inversion are able to simultaneously use both their present selves and future inverted selves (who are just moments older) to enter a scenario wherein their present body relays info to their future selves, who can recall what their past selves experienced in these moments as if they always happened as such. So they know both the start and end of sequences. Twin iterations of their bodies can do things like outflank an enemy on both sides, with a temporal pincer movement, or even escape death—if they do everything perfectly. Indeed, it seems that more than two versions of a character appear at times, which adds to the complexity, but this remains ambiguous. There are many twists and shocking events and surprises, like the film’s palindromic title. It’s partly a reference to a crucial event where two parallel forces attack a secured compound with one attacking it in present time, as their timers count up from 0 to 10 minutes—while their inverted future selves, who tell their past selves where to fire and so forth, begin the attack 10 minutes into the future and regress to the present, as their timers count down from 10 to 0. The titular word “Tenet” features the term “ten” spelled forward and also backward (if you visually invert the word sideways, so to speak). Does your head hurt yet?
Needless to say, Nolan directed Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk. He is a genius. And this film is so well-done. The shots are unbelievable, spawning from filming locations across the world. The mixing and editing is great. The acting is tremendous, with sharp performances by Robert Pattinson, John David Washington, and Elizabeth Debicki. I’m still processing Tenet, so my view is limited. I’d give it a 10/10 based on my love for its complex, well-planned exploration of theoretical physics. However, I bet that many confused viewers will give it a 6, 7, or even less, which is valid. I also don’t think that most critics will understand Tenet—they specialize in film, not science—which will hurt its reception. Still, it is quite a mercurial, entertaining, genre-bending trip. So I’ll meet the haters in the middle and give it a 9/10. It is too brilliant for “the masses.” But it will age well once we can see it at home and pause, rewind, and re-examine it.