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I Can’t Stop Watching ‘Tenet,’ And I Finally Know Why

A scene from Tenet in which The Protagonist fights a bad guy
Warner Bros.

I think it’s the drop that does it for me. It happens about three minutes into Tenet, when John David Washington, decked out in SWAT gear, gets ready to storm into an opera house in Kiev that's being attacked by terrorists. He’s there, waiting, lined up with a bunch of other SWAT guys, and Ludwig Göransson’s tense, EDM-inflected score is building and building and building. And then the drop. The bass hits, percussiveness takes over, Washington is on the move, and I’m instantly along for the ride.

Now, ask me what the hell Washington is doing in Tenet’s opening scene and I couldn’t really begin to explain. The terror attack appears to be a front for an attempt to kidnap an intelligence asset and steal a mysterious object he’s carrying. Simple enough, I suppose, but how did Washington’s character, known only as The Protagonist, get there? Did the CIA have advanced warning of the terror plot? What’s the Ukrainians’ role in all of this? Who is fighting who? Fuck if I know, and it certainly doesn’t help that everyone’s wearing masks and you can hardly understand a word anyone says. The only thing that sticks is the code-phrase exchange. “We live in a twilight world,” The Protagonist says, to which the asset responds, “And there are no friends at dusk.” That, and the moment when a bullet flies backward out of a wall and through a terrorist’s shoulder (at least, I think it’s a terrorist? A Ukrainian police officer? Someone else???) and back into a mysterious man’s gun.

It’s a thrilling opening in part because of its incomprehensibility. To a certain extent that’s true of the whole movie. And I think that’s why I can’t stop watching it.

Turns out, I’m not the only one. Earlier this year, I discovered, to my amazement, a podcast all about Tenet, called Tenet Men. Hosts Kevin and Steve gave themselves the absurd task of breaking down Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action-thriller minute-by-minute. Matching the movie’s own structural insanity, they decided to turn the project into a “temporal pincer movement,” inspired by one of the film’s wildest plot devices, with one host journeying through the minute from beginning to end, while the other studied each minute starting from the end, going backward. “I couldn't get it out of my mind,” says Kevin of the idea for the podcast, recalling how, after becoming mildly obsessed with the movie, he finally hammered Steve into joining him for what would turn into a project as frustrating as it was revealing.

If you haven’t seen Tenet, that might have something to do with its complicated release. Originally set to open on July 17, 2020—Nolan’s lucky weekend—the COVID-19 pandemic forced multiple delays before it was finally released in whatever theaters were allowed to be open in late August and September. Worldwide, the movie still managed to bring in $365 million, an impressive sum in the middle of the pandemic. At the same time, the movie wasn’t exactly well-received. Reviews may have leaned positive, but most critics and audiences seemed confounded by Nolan’s espionage epic about a war with the future, where people, decimated by climate catastrophe, have invented technology to reverse entropy, allowing people and objects to move backward through time and potentially destroy the past, our present.

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” says Clémence Poésy’s Basil Exposition character, explaining the mechanics of reverse entropy to The Protagonist, and relaying a clear instruction from the director to his audience. What follows is a complicated, looping plot involving inverted bullets, inverted cars, and inverted people. It’s difficult enough to follow a fight between The Protagonist and an inverted enemy whose punches appear to move backward, but when you get to the big car-chase heist sequence in the middle of the movie, trying to make sense of what’s happening is near impossible. But Nolan’s already advised you not to try.

Kevin was the one with the harder task on Tenet Men, choosing to go backward through the movie, which meant starting with its convoluted final battle scene, and later going through the entire car chase—undoubtedly the film’s most complex sequence—solo. The movie very much hinges on that sequence. It’s when the whole movie starts going in reverse, and more than the complexity of the plotting involved, it’s basic questions of cause and effect that begin to break the viewer’s brain. “If you really scrutinize these things, it becomes an ouroboros and it just doesn't make any sense,” Kevin says. “And by the time I got to the car chase scene, when I was just like, ‘Wait a second, how does tapping the brake make the car actually go? Because it’s inverted,’ I was ready to call it out and say, ‘No, that doesn't make sense.’”

Nolan himself wouldn’t exactly disagree. In Tom Shone’s excellent book The Nolan Variations, the director recalls the challenges of creating that car chase, in which The Protagonist is on a mission to steal what he thinks is plutonium-241 as part of a deal with the villainous Andrei Sator, played by a wonderfully scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh. “The massive challenge of the piece was that I thought I would be able to stop thinking forward, as it were, so I’d be thinking in reverse,” Nolan explains, adding, “What I found was that you actually can’t do that. None of us could intuit the backward version.” It was to the point where arguments about the logic and mechanics were still happening on set, as they were shooting. The solution was to develop a kind of 3D pre-visualization tool, common for laying out action scenes in movies, but with the added ability to view a sequence in reverse.

I first saw Tenet in a theater when it opened in Toronto, at the iconic Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX screen, on beautiful 15/70mm film. If memory serves, the show was sold out, which with serious social distancing measures meant there were probably only about 50 of us there. Of course, I barely understood the movie, but I felt it. In anticipation of the then-delayed final Daniel Craig-starring James Bond movie, my mom and I had made a project of watching every single Bond film, and the exercise made me extremely attuned to the narrative beats of the series. Nolan is a well-known fan of the Bond franchise, and Tenet felt like his (slightly deranged) take on a Bond movie. A spy in cool suits on a mission to stop a dastardly villain from getting his hands on a weapon that could destroy the entire world. An opening action sequence, followed by the mission assignment that sends him on a globe-trotting adventure in which he wears sharp suits, performs wild stunts, sneaks into impenetrable vaults, and gets involved with a woman connected to the villain. There’s the section where The Protagonist ends up a guest on the villain’s yacht. There’s a big battle at the villain’s evil lair. There’s even a Felix Leiter character, Neil, played by a hilariously suave Robert Pattinson. The template is there, and even when you can’t literally follow what’s happening or why, its momentum carries you. If you let it.

And I’ve been letting it. Over, and over, and over. Despite liking the movie the first time, it was at home, with the help of a very strong edible, that Tenet unlocked for me. Under the influence, I understood it less, but felt it more. And then I watched it again. And again. I’ve watched the movie several times now—in fact, I’m watching it again as I type this; Washington and Pattinson are about to reverse-bungee jump up a tower in Mumbai. It’ll be late at night, and I should be going to bed, and instead I’ll grab the vape and settle in for another round. Each time I watch it, I vacillate between letting the experience simply wash over me, and trying to work out the mechanics of the plot, often from scene to scene. When in doubt, I go back to soaking in the vibes, and the vibes are so good.

But it’s more than just vibes. The movie’s deconstructionist streak eventually turns back on itself, much like the characters moving backward through time, until the cursory investment becomes real. Sure, the main character doesn’t even have a name. Who cares? It’s fiction anyway. What’s important is the ease you immediately feel when he’s with Neil. Or the strange elation when Aaron-Taylor Johnson’s military commander, Ives, shows up. We haven’t met him before, but the chemistry is there, and you immediately know his presence means the action is about to kick into high gear. There’s the charge you get when The Protagonist is taken by some goons into a restaurant kitchen for a beating and says, “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago,” before swiftly kicking all of their asses and using a cheese grater to fuck up a guy’s face. There’s the pure pleasure of seeing a real commercial jet crash into a building and blow up real good. There’s the wild moment when a building simultaneously explodes and un-explodes during the climactic battle. “Cowboy shit.” And there’s the well of emotion that you didn’t even realize the movie could evoke that bubbles to the surface in its penultimate scene, when The Protagonist, Ives, and Neil part, and Neil’s sacrificial role in the story becomes clear. “For me, I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship,” Neil says, referencing the ending of Casablanca. “But for me it’s just the beginning,” a tearful Protagonist realizes.

It was during my last viewing, in prep for writing this piece, that I locked into something core to how Tenet actually works as a movie, beyond its surface pleasures and its almost experimental disregard for the audience’s ability to process what’s happening on-screen. It’s a reading informed by Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer, around which there has been far stronger acclaim and success. J. Robert Oppenheimer is referenced in Tenet. In fact, it was that reference, and Pattinson gifting Nolan a book of the physicist’s speeches at the wrap party, that spurred him to write and direct the biopic. “As they approached the first atomic test, Oppenheimer became concerned the detonation might produce a chain reaction, engulfing the world,” the mysterious arms dealer Priya, played by Dimple Kapadia, tells The Protagonist. Nolan’s preoccupation with chain reactions and annihilation have been present throughout much of his work, taking on greater and greater scale over time, but it’s the fact that the creators of the atomic bomb went ahead with the test anyway, despite the concern, that seems of greatest interest to him. It’s the choice, more than even the cause and effect.

Earlier in the film, when Poésy says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” she’s responding to a question The Protagonist has. Playing with an inverted bullet, he asks, “How can it move before I touch it?” She tells him, “From your point of view you caught it, but from the bullet’s point of view you dropped it.” Appearing confused, he remarks, “But cause has to come before effect.” No. “That’s just how we see time,” she says. And then comes the biggest conundrum. “What about free will?” The Protagonist asks. “That bullet wouldn’t have moved if you hadn’t put your hand there,” she says. “Either way we run the tape, you made it happen.” That’s when she tells The Protagonist not to try to understand it. It’s all about feeling. It’s all about rejecting the nihilism that can come from looking at a world in which the physics, the workings of time, can appear set, and deciding our choices are of no consequence. As Neil says at the end, “What’s happened happened, which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.” Faced with questions of the deepest humanity, from nuclear apocalypse to the ravages of climate change, Nolan argues—Tenet argues—that our choices are all we have. Our future is in our hands. Heady stuff for a ridiculous spy movie with big explosions and an incomprehensible plot. 

After doing their podcast, Kevin and Steve have complicated feelings about the movie. Watching any movie too many times, too closely, is liable to do that. By the final episodes of the show, you could feel their readiness to move on. They don’t rank Tenet too highly on their list of Nolan’s best movies. But their affection hasn’t disappeared entirely, and both say they’d happily watch it again. “It's gonna be like that cult classic kind of movie. It really really is,” Steve says. “I think over time it's really going to become like its own thing. It kind of already is, but it's going to continue down this path for sure.” In fact, despite the podcast being over for months, the download numbers keep going up and up. The cult is growing, and at this point, I’m firmly a member. I can’t stop watching Tenet, and I don’t want to.

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