Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”: A Film Review

The excitement for Tenet was already there before the pandemic hit the world. As theatres closed, with each month came the rescheduled dates for the release of the upcoming films. When major films started to drop on OTT platforms including Disney’s, it felt that maybe this year is a gone case for theatrical viewings. However, Christopher Nolan, who is known for his avid love and support for theatrical experiences of films, stood stout backing Tenet to be released in theatres only.

by Dr Amar Singh

Warner Brothers made it clear that whatever time it takes, this film will be released first in the theatres because that is how Nolan intends it to be seen (one of the reasons behind such a daring move of the studio being the colossal sum that could never be recovered by mere OTT release). If anything, the studio would suffer a considerable loss. Even considering the courage that Warner Bros. was showing, with the never-ending streaks of lockdowns and the surge of the virus around the world, it needs enormous hope on the property and on the director to stick to their guns for releasing the film theatrically. Considering the fact that Nolan makes his money out of the twenty percent cut from the profit made out of the theatrical release, it was signalled that he might be getting greedy and putting the studio on the risk.

Obviously, these are the behind-the-scene matters and the best people to answer about it are Nolan and the studio executives themselves. The fact remains that with all the labour, with all the risk, the hopes of saving cinema has taken a jolt as seeing Tenet underperforming, the upcoming tentpole films furthered the dates of their release realizing that people are not yet ready to be back into the theatres. However, calling the film a flop would be outrageous given that it has made over 300 million dollars worldwide (and counting) in these unprecedented times. Barring Northern America where theatres still have not opened in significant markets, UK, Ireland, Germany, Japan, and China gave an overwhelming response to the film. Nevertheless, with all the work done by this film and no films to follow up on the ground that it prepared, theatres are bleeding red like the logo of Warner Bros. in the opening of Tenet.

In his latest outing Nolan crafts the tale of a protagonist who literally goes by the name Protagonist (John David Washington) who is recruited by some covert operated agency to save the world from an event bigger than World War III. He is introduced to the concept of inversion, a technology offered by someone from the future. In inversion ‘you don’t shoot, you catch the bullet’ as Protagonist is told. The entropy of an object is reversed in inversion, and the time can flow back (seems to have taken the inspiration from Family Guy, Season 11, Ep. 4 “Yug Ylimaf” and bettered it). He is asked to locate the dealers of the bullets which leads him to Priya (Dimple Kapadia) in Mumbai who tells him that it is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian dealer who created this effect on those bullets that she sold. And the chase of the Russian dealer begins from here on. At this point Protagonist is joined by Neil (Robert Pattinson). As they dig deeper, a frightening knowledge is revealed that Andrei is trying to find the parts of Algorithm, a technology that can create inversion for the entire planet. Andrei is being helped by people in the future who believe with this the earth can be saved by healing it back. To get to him, Protagonist decides to get close to Andrei’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and what follows after that is very much Nolanesque.

Christopher Nolan is a director who repeats the beats of his works, and as it goes, Tenet comes as a combination of Inception + Interstellar + Dunkirk. His obsession with time and reality extends to a new level that meets the grandiosity of Bond films. Tenet does not engross in the manner as his previous works have done. There is a sense of detachment that can be felt while watching. Whereas in the other films, he makes the audience feel the sense of urgency, this film, however, lacks into that. It is not a fault though, neither does it make the film anywhere less. In fact, on some levels, the film stands on equal grounds with that of Inception and Interstellar. What Nolan has successfully done in this film is to create a distance for the audience to enjoy the barrage of spectacle on the screen while subtly introducing his experiments with time and reality which, even though happening at a rapid pace, gives time to the audience to process it along the way. It is a beautifully shot film with great locations from around the world. The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema makes the film look grand on screen, especially the climax.

As it goes with most of Nolan’s work, this film too hints at the medium of film in a covert manner. The device called Algorithm that the film shows in the climax looks like a film camera. It is divided into nine parts and, if pieced together, can create a parallel inverted universe. It seems that somehow Christopher Nolan is predicting the end of the medium of film. The film shows that the future is ruined, and it demands the past to restore the balance so that the future can thrive back. Given the current theatrical scenario and the detachment with theatrical viewing, it is conspicuous that if theatrical shutdowns are stretched a little more, it would be an irreversible process. The digital era of the future seems to be calling upon the past to piece together the nine parts of Algorithm (akin to the nine layers of photographic film) to rescue them from the chaos they are in. Tenet though decides against that with the message ‘what’s happened has happened’.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is a piece of art, and it should be viewed without any prejudices in view of the ongoing situation and the market. The awe-inspiring, ambitious project that this film is, it surely needs a one-time theatrical experience. In the lack of such an option, of having a theatrical viewing, it can surely be watched from the comfort of the home as the film is available on digital, Blu-ray and DVD from December 15, 2020. It is not going to be a typical Christmas film like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Die Hard (1988) to watch with friends and family, but guess what! It is anyways year 2020. Let us end this on a high note of entropy/time travel tale.

About the Author:

The author of this film review is Dr Amar Singh, Assistant Professor in English at Banaras Hindu University, India. Currently, he is doing postdoctoral research work from the faculty of Philosophy and Literature at Bergische University, Wuppertal, Germany.