Just Feel It: The Simple Vibe and Friendship at the Heart of Tenet

Movies Features Christopher Nolan
Just Feel It: The Simple Vibe and Friendship at the Heart of Tenet

In retrospect, Tenet always seemed cursed to become the black sheep of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. In my mind, and likely in the minds of many others, it’s a film that will be forever associated with the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marketing for Tenet began in 2019, with Warner Brothers working to sell it as another formidable Nolan blockbuster that demanded theatrical attendance—the first teaser was initially only able to be seen theatrically, and the film’s prologue was played before IMAX screenings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Like all Nolan features, there was a heavy push to see it in IMAX, as well as on 35mm or 70mm. It was made on Nolan’s largest budget for a non-franchise film to date.

Deadly viruses don’t much care about the movie business though and, like all other planned 2020 theatrical releases, Tenet was suddenly caught in a state of limbo similar to the one that the protagonists of Inception were trying to avoid. With an August release, Warner Bros. was afforded a little extra time to formulate a game plan, or to just try and wait the thing out. They ultimately settled on releasing the film in key markets internationally before slowly rolling it out in America, which was still in the midst of regularly-spiking rates of infection. Tenet became the first major studio tentpole to open following global lockdowns and was situated in the precarious position of being the hopeful prognosticator of a society ready to get back out to the movies. But its major domestic market was still unsure if it was a good call to spend two-and-a-half hours surrounded by germy people—or couldn’t go even if they wanted to

Unsurprisingly, the film didn’t live up to typical financial expectations during its theatrical run as many people, myself included, opted to wait until a home viewing option became available. Given how intentionally Nolan crafts his films to be an immersive cinematic experience, the majority of viewers were not able to watch Tenet within the right frame of mind or context. True, a good movie should be good no matter where you watch it, but there’s no denying that a certain piece of the puzzle is missing when you have to watch a Nolan movie in your living room as your primary exposure to it. All of the film’s troubles were compounded by uncharacteristically mixed reviews, many of which knocked the film for its overcomplicated plot.

What all this adds up to is a movie that tends to get outshined by a filmography that includes huge pop culture staples and critical darlings like The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar and even the less-discussed Dunkirk. Tenet gets tossed to the side as a lesser work by a substantial filmmaking talent that kinda sorta came out in theaters, but for most people actually just came out on DVD or HBO Max; a film that didn’t quite connect, ready to be forgotten. That’s unfortunate, because Tenet is not only one of Nolan’s best films in a long career of cerebral, mind-bending films—it’s also secretly the simplest original concept he’s ever put to screen. 

At first glance, Tenet seems directly indebted to the films of Nolan’s past. In fact, it could be most readily described as an amalgamation of the reverse-chronological narrative gimmick of Memento, the rigorous procedure and layered narrative scaffolding that comes with entering a subject’s dreams in Inception, and the heady concepts and time-travel found in Interstellar. A little more weird and convoluted than any of those, the narrative of Tenet is built around the concept of time inversion (markedly different from time travel, mind you). Through this inverted entropy, people and objects can move backward through time as other people move forward, and it can also be used to communicate with the future, which is how Kenneth Branagh’s character Andrei Sator is planning to enact a state of global nuclear fallout. John David Washington is The Protagonist (that is literally his only moniker, in a brazen feat of narrative literalism) who is recruited by the Tenet organization, that specializes in this secret world of time-altering espionage, which assigns him a handler/new best buddy Neil (Robert Pattinson), as the two travel through both directions in time to stop a threat from going to the past and altering the future.

Got it? Well, the good news is you don’t really have to. More than anything, Tenet is a vibe, a movie that indulges itself in comically bewildering and involved plotting and rule-establishing as a way of taking our characters on a globe-trotting spy adventure that feels intricate and knotty, but is actually quite painless once you sit back and soak in the film as a broader sensory experience. That may be a problem for some—it’s easy to chafe against a movie that actively resists an easy grasp on its narrative—but for my money, it’s what makes Tenet its own unique beast within the larger scope of Hollywood blockbusters and in Nolan’s own filmography. As The Protagonist is told early in the film: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” You’re not meant to have a firm grip on everything. You’re meant to place your trust in the film and take the ride. The plotting is opaque, and exhilarating. 

It’s a different approach for Nolan, a director whose reliably trippy films usually don’t come at the expense of a clear trajectory for his stories. Tenet is from a filmmaker whose intricate narrative designs typically strike a particular chord between commercial accessibility and elaborate schematics, but here rides a carefree wave that lets the broad-stroke ideas and visceral action setpieces do the talking. Nolan, of course, has the cinematic proficiency to pull this sort of schtick off with aplomb. He fills Tenet with bizarre technical jargon and militaristic time-altering maneuvers, some abruptly thrust onto the viewer and some offered with a degree of education; you’ll be glad that you get a lesson on the logistics of a “temporal pincer movement” toward the end of the film, before our inversion-expert operatives lead a staggering raid on a closed city of the Soviet Union for the climax. It’s a sequence only someone like Nolan could pull off: Massive in scale and cinematic bravura, and painstaking in its complex visual staging, switching between normal time and inverted time, full of tactical soldiers at war in both forward motion and in reverse. 

But while some people may try to figure out the intricacies of the science behind entropy and inversion, or attempt to discern the socio-political leanings of the narrative, I’m much more prone to watching Tenet as Nolan’s idiosyncratic version of a buddy movie. The relationship developed between The Protagonist and Neil includes some of the most endearing character detail ever offered within Nolan’s oeuvre, peppered with breadcrumbs that pay off with the film’s final reveal: That The Protagonist founds Tenet and recruits Neil in the future, and that Neil has been sent back as part of a larger operation. Neil was always a part of this mission, so he knew he had to go back and meet The Protagonist. 

As usual with time-travel business, if you try and think about it too hard you’ll find implications wrapped up in some dubious logic, indicative of the way Tenet is best viewed with a healthy suspension of disbelief. The film’s philosophical approach to Back to the Future-style time-travel antics offers a familiar sense of novelty to the revelations, but the most meaningful moments come with The Protagonist’s and Neil’s poignant farewells, as the former realizes the far-reaching effects of Tenet and time-inversion, and the latter reveals that, from his perspective, the two have been friends for years. Neil explains that this has all been part of a larger temporal pincer maneuver as he says to The Protagonist: “You’re only halfway there. I’ll see you at the beginning, friend.”

It’s such a beautifully heartfelt moment that transfigures the convoluted, conceptual aspects of the film’s plot into a meaningful piece of character development, one that recontextualizes the entire movie. This is not necessarily the only Nolan film to do such a thing—one may think back to the sentimental and kaleidoscopic final sequence of Interstellar, in which Matthew McConaughey ends up in a deep-space tesseract that acts as a manifestation of his love for his daughter—but there’s something about all the big notions of Tenet being in service of a simple friendship that acts as a refreshingly wholesome cap to a movie like this. Small moments from earlier in the film are given a fresh perspective upon rewatch: Neil orders a Diet Coke for The Protagonist when they first meet, who then says that he prefers soda water. “No you don’t,” comes the cheeky reply, as it’s initially assumed that Neil is just a professional with good intel. Upon further review, this becomes a scene that opens up the heart of the film, in part due to Pattinson’s controlled performance, his face slightly betraying his longing to speak to The Protagonist as his friend but without losing his composure. The fact that you don’t learn the true extent of their relationship until the end of the film is in line with the film’s preoccupations with time, and how the past and future are in constant conversation with each other.

If it sounds like there’s a whole bunch going on here for a movie that I’m declaring as “simple,” you’re not wrong, but the sense of closure the film provides is one that speaks to the straightforward narrative idea and emotional essence at its core: Just two dudes racing through time to save the world together. It doesn’t get better than this. Such an idea being showcased through Nolan’s grand maximalism at its most disorienting and impenetrable doesn’t just manifest as something abstractly beautiful, but enables the film to circle back around to being digestible. Remember to look through the proofing window before going through the turnstile, and that regular air can’t pass through the membranes of inverted lungs. But mostly, just feel it.

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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