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Tenet (2020) By Christopher Nolan - Movie Review

Tenet (2020) By Christopher Nolan - Movie Review

Tenet (2020) Director: Christopher Nolan Writer: Christopher Nolan Stars: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-JohnsonMartin DonovanClémence Poésy Runtime: 150 min Rated: PG (Canada) MPAA Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language.

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Tenet’s lead character, the Protagonist (John David Washington), is a soldier with clandestine special training who is recruited into a temporal cold war to stop the future destruction of time and the material world. In this mysterious palindrome of a film he receives a code word “TENET” and told “It'll open the right doors, some of the wrong ones too.” Armed with this word and a gesture of interwoven fingers he embarks on a James Bond-esque globetrotting mission, complete with the glamorous damsel in distress, the billionaire villain and his henchmen bent on destruction, car chases, heists, secret identities and a doomsday devise that must be found before the countdown runs out. The film even has Bond-esque characters like M, Sir Michael Crosby (Michael Caine), and Q, the scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy).

The film’s twist is that linear time — where the past moves into the future along a straight line of cause and effect — rushes headlong into technology that allows the future to move into the past by the inversion of entropy in a reverse straight line of effect and cause. At one point the mysterious Neil (Robert Pattinson), a man assisting the Protagonist who obviously knows more than he is letting on, asks him “Does your head hurt yet?” and many in the audience respond, “yes.” In addition, not technically related to the obvious properties of time travel, the technology that allows for the inversion of objects and people also effects the physical world making oxygen poisonous to the lungs and the heat of a gasoline fire so cold a person could suffer hypothermia; the danger is a kind of tipping point where enough of time is effected by the scientific discovery of this reversing algorithm that all the past and all the future collapse into each other obliterating everything. The truly unpleasant man with the kill switch who must be stopped is the self-made Russian oligarch and arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). With the attitude, “If I can’t have the world no one can,” he races to assemble the device to flip the switch and destroy everything that ever was or ever would be.

Director Christopher Nolan loves making puzzle movies, intricately assembled, carefully dovetailed stories with “aha” moments from his dueling stage magicians in The Prestige (2006), to his dreams-inside-dreams Inception (2010), to his theory-of-relativity-bending space opera Interstellar (2014). Even in his early film Memento (2000), about a man with short term memory loss tracking down his wife’s killer, Nolan is persistently enthralled with the idea of the audience as the proverbial observer, the fixed reference point for his storytelling. Increasingly, Nolan seems interested in the way in which drama and tension can be heightened by what is observable and what is mysteriously hidden as time unfolds. This is why Tenet rewards multiple viewings. The second time through viewers know what is about to happen and can see the puzzle pieces click together; all the dovetails join in real time. As many viewers lament the derivative nature of films with a preponderance of remakes, sequels, and re-imagined original properties constantly being emptied of their originality, Nolan seems on his own unique trajectory. If Tenet is derivative of anything, setting aside the Bond-esque plot, it is derivative of Nolan’s earlier works, a kind of compilation of his previous tricks, and yet even here he continues giving audiences something more with which to engage.

This time around the mystery is built around the ancient ROTAS-SATOR square, the earliest example of which archeologists found buried under the volcanic ash in the ruins of Pompeii and dates to before 79AD. Nolan weaves the words of this Latin palindrome square throughout his film. A palindrome is a word that can be read the same forwards and backwards which fits perfectly into a film where past and future characters interact with each other and themselves in the present. Christian viewers will find additional interest in Nolan’s use of the ROTAS-SATOR square as it is long-purported to be a covert way early Christians in the Roman army revealed themselves to each other. The word Tenet inside the square creates a cross and in Nolan’s film Tenet is at the heart of the world’s salvation and of time itself creating a biblical allusion to Christ and His sacrifice which for Christians is the fixed centre point in time and history where forgiveness flows backward into the past and forward into the future. Historically the ROTAS-SATOR square, which is its own mysterious puzzle, has also been rearranged to reveal a hidden anagram, “Pater Noster” with a mirrored Alpha and Omega. Pater Noster are the first words in the Latin version of the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father,” and the Alpha and the Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet used by Christ in the Revelation of St. John to indicate Jesus’ temporal omnipresence, even His existence outside of time, “I Am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). All of the words in the ROTAS-SATOR square show up in Nolan’s film indicating that their presence is not an accident.


The emotional core of the film is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) the entrapped wife of villain Andrei Sator. She is held against her will by her husband who thinks she purposely passed off a forgery of a Goya drawing by a man named Arepo but who in reality only mistakenly passed it off as genuine. She desperately wants to keep in contact with their son and is willing to help the Protagonist if it means she can get away from Sator with her son. While she begins the film as a Bond-esque damsel in distress she becomes an increasingly important piece of the puzzle necessary for resolving the plot. The Protagonist is not, as might be imagined, the film’s emotional core. He and Neil seem to float backwards and forwards in time without deep underlying character motivations until the end of the film and it becomes clear that even the film’s end is only really the middle of a potentially bigger story.

There are a couple of more things Christian viewers may want to think about in regard to Tenet. As Sator is about to destroy all things in a nihilistic apocalypse there is an interesting exchange between him and the Protagonist in which Sator admits paying money for time in a kind of “deal with the devil” to extend his life. Sator also confesses knowingly bringing his son with Kat into the world even as he planned to annihilate it. During the conversation he says “I think God will forgive me,” to which the Protagonist says “You don’t believe in God” … and this is where it gets interesting: Sator, referring to his perceived power over time, responds that he is a “god of sorts.” This cuts to the heart of the story for Christian viewers; every motivation of Sator is curved in on itself. He is entirely selfish to the point of thinking himself to be a god of sorts. Even his aforementioned conversation with the Protagonist is self justification not the product of a repentant heart seeking true forgiveness. In contrast, the motivations of Kat, the Protagonist and men like Neil are centred on helping others. They may be on a sliding scale of self-interest but ultimately they are about the good of the neighbour and a willingness to sacrifice self for that good. As Christ says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Sator desires to lay down his life for no one but himself.

On the technical side, Tenet’s sound design and sound editing have received criticism. Often the swell of the music score, the ambient noise around the characters, or breathing apparatuses obscure the dialogue making it hard to pick up what is being said. Upon second viewing this isn’t poor sound mixing, this is intentional. There are moments where the audience strains to hear the dialogue just as the character in the moment would have to strain to hear what is being said. This is particularly evident in a scene where Sator, Kat, and the Protagonist pilot a SailGP (high performance F50 foiling catamaran). The sound of wind, waves, and the music envelop Sator’s and the Protagonist’s words distracting viewers from what Kat is about to do. This is evidence Nolan is using the sound design to create a sense of realism while also using it to distract and misdirect. There are also times when it’s important to see that something is being said but what is being said is not that important and could drag down the forward motion of the film. This is evident when the score drowns out a tour of Rotas, a vault-like facility for the storage of expensive items like art works and antiquities that the rich and powerful don’t want to pay duty or taxes on. Even if there is a creative reason for Nolan’s manipulation of sound that doesn’t mean everyone will like his reasons or not find them frustrating. At some point there will be people who will watch the film with the subtitles on just to make out every word of dialogue.

Easier to solve than the ROTAS-SATOR square that inspired it Tenet is an intriguing film filled with enough mystery and intricacy to entice and reward multiple viewings. Nolan continues to develop as a director and this is a solid entry in his growing portfolio of original stories. John David Washington, who played Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman (2018), provides a strong performance here as the Protagonist giving audiences someone to hold on to as everyone moves backward and forward through time. He also proves himself a believable action star. Audiences willing to go on a mind-bending adventure will be happy providing they are also willing to think about what they just watched. In this case the analysis is half the fun.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran, Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!

This review now available at the Canadian Lutheran online.