Christopher Nolan makes a reality-warping return to theaters with ‘Tenet’

The first big box office opening since March’s widespread lockdowns, Christopher Nolan’s 'Tenet' makes waves in the film industry—and in reality itself—with a typical mind-bending Nolan concept.

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(Warner Bros./Melinda Sue Gordon)

Andrew Kolondra Jr. and Charlie Shattock

A day before we saw “Tenet,” we received a text from a friend detailing his experience with the movie: “Dude. I’m so confused…that was freaking incredible.”

His text perfectly summed up the crux of what writer and director Christopher Nolan intended with his latest time-bending thriller “Tenet.” Nolan wanted it to be big—as a box office release, as a spectacle and as an intellectual piece —and it delivered all of those things, aided by the timing of its release as the first major motion picture to debut in theaters since the March lockdown. Now more than ever, people needed to be convinced that going to see a movie would be worth the reported risk of entering the public sphere. With Netflix gaining tens of millions of subscribers in just the first few months of lockdown and the launch of new services like HBO Max and Peacock, Nolan had to contend with the new titans of the film industry: streaming platforms. How do you lure people to the real-life theater when they’ve become accustomed to having one at their fingertips?

“Tenet” is how. Just confusing enough to distract its viewers from their lives, but not too confusing so as to send them back to the comfort of soap operas and sitcoms, the film’s conceptual basis falls perfectly in line with what Nolan fans have come to expect. In its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Nolan sets up a spy thriller with a time-travel twist, slowly builds anxiety to a world-ending level threat and ties everything together in an enjoyably complex and gripping fashion.

Neil (Robert Pattinson) and The Protagonist (John David Washington) in “Tenet.” (Warner Bros.)

That twist comes in the form of what Nolan calls “inverted entropy”: the idea that an object can move backwards through time in a forward-moving environment. Challenging viewers’ perceptions of the world around them is standard fare for Nolan at this point, but “Tenet” differs in that it injects this unpredictable concept into a predictable format. As such, “Tenet” plays out like a jigsaw puzzle: the enjoyment comes not from questioning what the final product will be, but rather from appreciating the process of stringing together the hidden timeline. As a scientist explains during a fast-paced expositional scene, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” It’s a message that serves the audience perhaps even more than the protagonist.

With an absurdly high budget, “Tenet” makes a lot of bold creative decisions, including Nolan’s choice to purchase and blow up a real Boeing 747 rather than recreate the scene with a miniature set or CGI. This appropriately sets the tone for the movie’s many action sequences. With inverted car crashes, a highway heist and a full-scale battle scene that takes place simultaneously forward and backward in time (a “temporal pincer movement”—don’t think too hard about it), the film teases your expectations as it twists the familiarity of traditional action sequences with the concept of inverted entropy. It constantly compounds the confusion, but in a good way.

While some of the early expositional scenes feel a bit forced as Nolan lays the groundwork for the more emotional plot arcs of the film, the cast is stacked with A-list stars who handle these sequences well in spite of the script’s weaknesses. John David Washington delivers an excellent unnamed Protagonist (literally referred to as “The Protagonist”), and Robert Pattinson fills the role of his handler with ease—you’d never know that he doesn’t actually have a Master’s in Physics. Even Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as Kat, while hollow at times, ultimately provides emotional appeal that more than suffices for the side story of her familial conflict.

The Protagonist and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) in “Tenet.” (Warner Bros.)

Underneath this character work, Ludwig Göransson’s sound direction has the necessary futuristic synthy vibe for a not-exactly-time-travel thriller like “Tenet.” The whole film is infused with the power of a chest-rattling bass and other evocative sound effects, which is yet another reason to see the film in theaters. It’s actually a bit obnoxious at times, particularly when seated only four rows away from the screen (we might have tinnitus now), but it serves its purpose of keeping your heart rate up. Such an intense score, aided by the film’s stunning visuals and fast-paced convoluted plot, demands viewers’ full attention at all times.

In such a manner, “Tenet” does exactly what it sets out to do: it removes you from your reality and brings you into a new one where time can flow in both directions. And in times like these, an escape from reality is all but necessary.

It’s confusing at first, but it’s freaking incredible.