Time & Trust in Tenet
*WARNING: Light spoilers for “Tenet” ahead.*
The pandemic has hit moviegoing as hard as anything else, and no matter how much I missed going, nothing that was scheduled for release seemed worth the risk. Many cinemas spent the summer prepping for audiences’ safe return, but it wasn’t until Tenet’s multi-delayed release that I felt like it was time I needed to go back. Christopher Nolan movies almost always call for a trip to the theater and this is no exception. It’s also not very often that you get a chance to see Nick Fury and James Bond go back to the future to save the world...
That’s probably an oversimplification, because the only other movies I feel it really makes sense to compare Tenet to are Nolan’s own Memento and Inception, but hopefully, it does capture the excitement I felt while watching this. Those Nolan movies are only similar in general ways. It’s not like you’ll be able to pause this movie at the end credits and watch the scenes in reverse order. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie this exciting with a completely original storyline and cast of characters. Tenet may be similar to Nolan’s other films in conceptual ways, along with his patented sci-fi realism, but also in that you will want to sit and think over the end for quite some time.
The first thing I usually notice with a movie is the score, but it’s really impossible to ignore it during Tenet. The movie begins with people filing into an opera house while an orchestra holds a tuning note. It lulls you into typical movie beginning sensibility, thinking maybe some opening credits might slowly pop up then fade. However, the tuning note abruptly but seamlessly becomes the score as a new note booms - jolting you from the lull - as an attack on the opera house begins. Huge synth sounds and warped strings subtly blur the line between what’s music and what’s explosion. The sound of a soldier smashing a cello under his boot might make for a strange fit with the harmony, while a bomb going off might be used in place of a bass tone. This of course, is not an accident; it happens frequently during the most intense sequences of the film. I expected that I might miss Hans Zimmer’s collaboration on a Nolan movie of this kind, but despite the departure being clear, it is a welcome one. Ludwig Göransson composed the score; you can hear his work on the show The Mandalorian as well. If you are aware of the scorework in that show, you will know that Göransson is no stranger to creating music from foreign sounds. In Tenet, the noise of the movie itself becomes part of the score intentionally in a way I’ve never heard before. This makes the opening scene of the orchestra slowly tuning seem symbolic of Nolan’s own orchestral arrangement of events interacting in forward and reverse time.
Christopher Nolan has described this movie as a “Time Heist,” and although it involves some time-based science fiction like its sound design, it feels new and unique to Tenet. People and various objects are sent through time in reverse at the same speed at which they would be going forward in time. They call this “inversion.” It is a more literal take on time travel than you will probably find anywhere else. To travel 25 years into the past, you’d have to invert for 25 years. No instantaneous time shifts. Not to mention, that while you are traveling in reverse you’re visibly reversed to everyone around you, while they move forward through time. Instead of the typical beginning-to-end-closed-loop that most time travel movies create, the atypical nature of time inversion leaves us with something slightly different. Seeing it as a circle is possible, but with multiple main characters inverting around major plot events - either on screen or off screen - it becomes less of a time loop, and more of a time split. You can envision the circle of time being split in two by the plot, while one half of the circle goes forward in time and the other goes in reverse. Technically, there are multiple circles happening at once. Sound confusing? It may be a little bit. I benefited by not letting myself ask too many questions until I left the movie theater. I definitely did not have a full grasp of the plot until the very end, but I enjoyed the movie 100% of the time. If you avoid the desire to have every answer as every event unfolds, I think it is more likely you will enjoy the experience. You just have to be willing to let the time warp go without all of the established rules.
With time inversion being so different from time travel, the story ends up being less of a sci-fi adventure, and more of a variation on a buddy cop movie which was a pleasant surprise. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson play off of each other so genuinely, it really feels like they know and care about each other despite Neil (Pattinson) being a “recent” acquaintance of our Protagonist (JDW). They’re both highly gifted agents (aka badasses) and it’s rare to see such effortlessly cool characters make me feel that I’m not looking at something one dimensional. They show their skills and knowledge sparingly, because the less people around them know about their intentions, the more likely it will be that their mission is a success. The more they know, the more likely it will be they will try to change the plan or alter the course of time. Secrecy is reinforced, even between each other, so they have no choice but to trust each other deeply. “Ignorance is [their] ammunition.” When they do get into situations where they have to fight their way out, it’s absolutely thrilling to see them handle themselves. There is a fight scene in a restaurant kitchen that reminded me instantly of the hallway hammer fight in Oldboy: intense, brutal, the odds stacked against them. Honestly, it’s one of the best I’ve seen. When a director goes for that action movie moment or a buddy cop one liner and nails it completely without making the audience immediately feel it’s lame, I’m always impressed. It’s hard enough to create inverted plot lines, but keeping the action going so that I was on the edge of my seat the whole time while trying to suss out the puzzle, takes a different level of movie writing and directing.
Normally, being confused while events are going wrong and tension is ramping up in the plot makes me want to give up on watching a movie. Tenet isn’t like a lot of other movies I’ve seen. I definitely elected to let the waves of confusion wash over me as I enjoyed the story unfolding. I also deeply enjoy any chance to reinterpret the “true” timeline of a story, once all of the events have been presented; you will absolutely get that chance here. I have no problem admitting that I had tears in my eyes during one of the final character interactions, despite not fully knowing what it meant. Just remember: “what’s happened, happened,” and don’t let yourself get too bogged down by questioning the rules. It all comes together exquisitely with a little trust!
Pierce Allen is a local musician and movie enthusiast living in Beacon, NY. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and vanilla mixed together.