Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is an ambitious motion picture with a lot of big ideas, impressive set pieces and cool characters. It might also be described as a film brimming with too many ideas, many of which are thrown at the audience fast enough to induce whiplash. Still, Tenet remains an extraordinary accomplishment any way you slice it and stands as a truly unique blockbuster experience.
The film arrived on Blu-ray and digital platforms last week and so we thought we’d give it another whirl to see if we could catch a few tidbits we missed on the first go. Either we were too tired, dumbfounded or drunk to catch all the crazy details Nolan packs into the picture, or the damned soundtrack obstructed our viewing experience. At any rate, our second viewing was a lot easier to understand than the first — mostly because we used subtitles — even if it still left us scratching out heads.
[NOTE: Spoilers ahead, mateys. Don’t be traversing down this here path, lest you want the film ruined!]
INITIAL VIEWING: The prologue to Tenet is exquisitely shot but also quite difficult to understand. Faceless characters adorned in masks and body armor run amok in an opera before someone detonates a series of bombs and our hero, the Protagonist (John David Washington), gets taken away by his own team … or something.
LATEST VIEWING: Thanks to subtitles, we were able to grasp who was speaking and what they were speaking about. Yet, the whole scene is still quite confusing and isn’t fully explained until later in the film — and then, mostly in passing.
From what we gather, Tenet’s chief villains, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), discovered that a piece of a time-travel device would be at the opera. So, he staged a phony terrorist attack (and planted some of his men inside a SWAT unit to locate the device. These men then planted explosives in the hopes of blowing up the event to cover their tracks.
The Protagonist, working with the CIA, caught wind of Sator’s plan and went in to rescue an American VIP. Except, the Protagonist didn’t know the device had anything to do with time travel. He thought it was plutonium or had something to do with a nuclear bomb. He manages to save the informant, who then switches clothes with another guy and escapes offscreen. The Protagonist then sees the explosive charges, gathers them and throws them away in order to save the audience. At one point, one of Sator’s men discovers the Protagonist is not on his team and tries to kill him and is instead killed by a mysterious man brandishing a red string on his backpack — this turns out to be Neal (played by Batman).
Is … that right? Or did we miss something?
INITIAL VIEWING: This is quite a minor detail but during the big climax of the film, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) attempts to seduce Sator on a yacht in the hopes of keeping him alive long enough for the Protagonist to accomplish his mission. In an unintentional bit of hilarity, she unloads a gallon of suntan lotion on the man’s back; a moment rendered all the more hilarious when she pulls a gun on Sator and dives into a dramatic monologue while he listens with goo dripping from his back.
LATEST VIEWING: The reason for this exercise in extreme suntan lotion-ing is so that Kat can more easily slide the poor bastard’s body off the yacht once she blows shoots him. Kat even makes a point of saying, “Suntan lotion is quite slippery,” which might be a case of Nolan explaining too much, but also kind of a neat tidbit to keep in mind should you ever find yourself needing to slide a body off a boat.
INITIAL VIEWING: As stated, there’s a lot happening in Tenet, especially in the action-packed finale which features helicopters, bombs, lots of shooting, and people running forwards through time and backwards through time — it’s also unlike anything ever put on screen. Except, everyone, including the Protagonist, Neal and Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, randomly) are wearing masks that make it difficult to discern one character from the other.
After the first viewing, we were shocked to discover that Neal had in fact died during the big battle. Again, it was late, and alcohol may have hindered our ability to process so much info.
LATEST VIEWING: Watching it a second time, it’s clear that Neal operates in several different timelines during the film’s climax. We see him chase down the Protagonist and Ives in a truck in the hopes of preventing them from going into the giant tunnel that leads to the thingy; and later learn that he not only helped the Protagonist and Ives open a locked door, but also saved the former’s life – explained by the red string hanging out the back of his backpack. That makes Neal’s scene at the end of the film all the more heartbreaking as he knows he’s got to go back into battle to die in order to accomplish the mission.
INITIAL VIEWING: The first act of Tenet features a lot of talk about a Goya painting. In fact, one might surmise the film holds the world record for the number of minutes spent discussing a Goya painting … which is far too long.
LATEST VIEWING: So, here’s what we gathered on our second go … Kat works as an art specialist at a fancy gallery place and was given a Goya painting by a close friend. She identified the painting as legit and that led to Sator bidding $9 million on the piece. As it turns out, the Goya was a fake — either designed by Kat’s friend or something. Sator learned the truth and hung Kat’s blunder over her head like a weapon, forcing her to stay with him. If Sator turned her in, Kat would likely lose her son and have her reputation ruined.
The Protagonist uses the Goya as a way to strong arm Kat into setting up a meeting with Sator, and even promises to destroy the blasted painting when he and Neal smash a giant plane into a secured art thingy at an airport. Except, perhaps due to his abilities to travel through time, Sator gets weird feeling and takes the painting out of storage. He then gives it back to Kat (quite literally on a silver platter) as a f**k you for her daring attempt to break free from his grasp.
THE ACTUAL PLOT
INITIAL VIEWING: Tenet has a plot that is explained via short conversations, garbled radios, people with thick accents and Nolan’s signature quick-cutting style. There’s a lot of talk about physics and more than enough exposition to understand why, for example, the Protagonist needs a fire engine during the big heist scene. But, the actual point of the movie is hard to understand on first viewing since the audience is mostly playing catch up throughout the epic 2-and-a-half-hour runtime. Something about an angry Russian who may or may not be dying who decides to destroy the world because his wife doesn’t love him?
LATEST VIEWING: After this re-watch, we think the plot goes like this: Sator is dying and, because he’s an asshole, decides if he can’t have the world than no one can. He is working with a future agency to destroy the world by reversing the entropy of the Earth. The reason being, in the future, the world has been destroyed. So, future people decide to risk the grandfather paradox by destroying their past selves to prevent climate change. Sator is recruited when he is very young to find pieces of something called the Algorithm which have been hidden in nuclear plants across the country. He is paid in future gold to find the materials, which he is then expected to hide in the dead drop in his old hometown. The future people will find the Algorithm so they can mess with time as well, right?
Ultimately, the Protagonist is behind the entire pincer movement and is essentially working for himself – a fact he learns only at the end of the movie. So, his future self inverted back before everything happened and planned this entire thing, even right down to his own recruitment. There’s even a theory that Neil is actually Max, Kat’s son, in the future. Meaning, the Protagonist recruited him and then inverted him back to the events of the film (or much earlier) in order to help him stop Sator.
Questions remain: Why does Sator go back in time to destroy the world knowing full well he didn’t succeed because the future still exists? As stated by Neil, “What’s happened, happened.” The future is connected to the past, right? Or is this an alternate version of reality where, if Sator succeeded, a different future may form? The whole grandfather paradox, or the notion that going back in time and killing your grandpa would destroy your timeline, is speculated on quite a bit in Tenet, though the conclusion they arrive at is, “We’re not sure.”
Who the hell is Priya? Early in the film, the Protagonist goes to talk with a mysterious individual named Priya who reveals a bunch of info to him regarding the film’s plot. Except, as it turns out, most of what she says is wrong or misinformation. So, was she simply another cog in the plan to keep the Protagonist moving, or something else entirely? And why did he kill her? There seems to be two factions of peoples in the film: those who want the Algorithm pieces joined together and those who want to keep it apart. She fits in the former, we think … So, is she trying to destroy the world as well?
Why did Sator try to blow up the car with the Protagonist inside? Surely, he had to know that doing so wouldn’t actually ignite the car since everything operates in reverse when a person is inverted. You would think he would just shoot the man to ensure his death actually occurs — but that’s an argument one could make about any maniacal villain.
What happens to Kat? At the end of the film, Kat kills Sator and leaps of the yacht in full view of her past self. Does she end up going back to the future to continue her life with her son? Does she remain in the past? Does she marry the Protagonist?
How far back is the Protagonist operating? Can the future try to destroy the past via other means? Have they tried it before? Is Sator only one of several people they’ve contacted? Why is the sky blue? Why do we call them buildings when they’ve already been built? Why do we say TV sets when you only get one?
God damn you Christopher Nolan.