Christopher Nolan's TENET (2020)

Tenet is the weird case of a movie where explaining the moment-to-moment action is incredibly complex, but the overall story is very straightforward (and goofy. SPOILERS, I guess): James Bond and time cops vs. a Bond villain and time spies over control of doomsday RPG McGuffins made by a wizard who regretted it and then sent the McGuffins into the past* because ummmmmm the plot needed to happen. It’s like they hired physics Phds to plan out the logistics of individual scenes and one of the 1960s Dr. Who writers to outline the plot.

*Instead of destroyed, or not made in the first place, or made with flaws so that they wouldn’t function, or …

What a great way to put it. I’m totally stealing this comment!


Which, not coincidentally, is exactly how Interstellar was constructed as well.

For his next film, I hope he applies this same approach to a musical comedy.

Ok, so I watched this again tonight, and I got a question…

They say that Sator got stuff from the future via dead drops. That he’d bury stuff, send the coordinates into the future, and then dig it up and get the phat future lewt.

What I don’t understand about this process, is that how could it be there, if he dug it up?

I understand how Sator originally got hooked up with the future folks, by digging up the random dead drop in the contaminated russian place. That makes sense… they sent back some loot and instructions, presumably which explained crap to Sator and said, “Hey, do this, and you will be crazy rich. He’s some gold to let you know this isn’t bullshit.”

But how did the dead drops work?

If he buried stuff and left it, then cool… it’d be there in the future and the future people could do whatever.

But if he immediately digs it up, as they describe, to take out the stuff… then the dead drop is no longer there for them to dig up in the future and invert. So how is that supposed to work?

The regular and inverted versions need to coexist at the same time for hundreds of years, which means they can’t be colocated. Which implies that the inverted dead drop is not buried at the same exact location.

I.e. Sator will bury a dead drop at location A, send a message “I’ve buried a dead drop at A and will pick it up at B”. The future digs it up at A, fills it up, inverts it, and buries it at B. Sator digs up B.

If Sator were to dig up at A instead, he’d still find the non-inverted dead drop there.

Ah, ok, so he digs up something different, at a different location.

Interestingly Sator can pick up the drop at B before he buries it at A. In fact, what if he picks up the drop at B, uninverts it, grabs the loot and buries it again at A with instructions for the future to fill it with stuff and leave it at B. Poof, you’ve magicked a dead drop cylinder into existence.

I cannot wrap my head around this: the future sends an inverted thing back. It is in the ground until Sator unburies it. Now Sator is carrying it around as he goes forward in time. But it’s simultaneously in the ground; aren’t there two of them now?

That’s not a new concept in the movie - at some moments there are 3 or 4 versions of The Protagonist walking around simultaneously - at the airport turnstile scene they are all within a few feet of each other!

Well, technically it’s not in the ground. Satori has it.

But from an inverted perspective, going backwards in time, he puts it into the ground.

Is Nolan the most frustrating filmmaker alive?


Take awesome SF ideas that get revealed slowly, with new implications piling up regularly. Mix that with some of the best moment-to-moment action staging and practical set-piece stuntwork ever. (the return to the Oslo safezone and the hallway fight? unbelievable) Add gorgeous locations, a charming and diverse cast, and then slather it with ALL OF THE MONEY, and you’d expect to have a pretty awesome movie, right?

Fuck you. No. You get Tenet, which staggers, stumbles, and then falls flat on its face, crippled and made stupid by three mortal wounds:

  • A complex and twisted plot: A classic spy thriller is tricky enough to keep track of. There’s first of all just the story, then there’s the things people are lying about, there’s all their conflicting motivations, then there’s what happens by surprise, and untwisting it and understanding it all takes some work. For many films, a complex and twisty plot with lots of characters, motives, and secrets? That’s enough! When you also add in a tricky SF conceit, it’s even more important to keep things moving at a measured pace, so everyone can keep track of the basics.
  • But no! This complex & twisty plot is told at breakneck speed, making us first confused and anxious, then a bit annoyed, and then we just give up. It doesn’t help it’s hard to literally HEAR the actors half the time.
  • Finally, you’re barely hanging onto the plot, new revelations and motivations whipping past you without a hope of registering, and then Nolan mixes his signature dollops of philosophical musings into all of it, it just takes it over the top. I can’t take in a Grand Idea when I’m hanging by a thread, you dick. My brain literally locked during a few scenes and I stopped registering new information.

I don’t think this movie was made for an audience. I think it was made just for him. Ugh.

Final thought: Around the internet I’ve seen some discussion of repeated viewings, and I’ve seen some say ‘well it’s more interesting if it doesn’t make sense the first time though’ or some such nonsense. It’s like this: any good thing has to be solid the first time through. Saying you have to watch something like this 3 times to really enjoy it is like saying World of Warcraft is an amazing game that gets really good at level 80.

The reason the twist in Memento works so well is because the movie makes sense on its own up to that point; it’s dramatic and interesting and sad and good. And then the end makes you go ‘oooh shit’ and recontextualizes everything you saw. And that’s enough. You can stop there. But if you rewatch it, the new context changes everything you’re seeing and it’s good then, too. That’s great filmmaking. If you have to watch it again just to understand what the hell is happening, that’s shitty filmmaking.

I think it gives off an aura of being complex and twisty, assisted by obfuscatory pacing and hardly anyone talking straight, but is, as @HumanTon says, actually very straightforward and kind of dumb.

I couldn’t agree more. I watched this on HBO last weekend and bounced off the movie hard. I don’t know, it felt like a masturbatorial effort on Nolan’s part, a stale retread of his past efforts. After 150 minutes I couldn’t even tell you the protagonist’s name or a single thing about his character, past, motivation, etc.

Well, that’s because the movie never tells you any of that.

he’s literally referred to as “The Protagonist”, in film. :)

I never felt the need the watch the movie again. It was pretty dumb indeed, with just a lot of powder thrown around to attempt to hide the monolithic nature of the characters’ motivations. Especially Kenneth Brannagh’s, dear lord.

Interstellar I disliked profoundly on my first watch, yet felt the need to watch it again a month later, and been in love with it since then.

I’m sorry it didn’t work for you either!

I’ve taken in a bit more commentary and it helped me remember the things that I genuinely appreciated about the film. The imperturbability and portrayal of cool of the protagonist in the first half are really awesome; his unflappable domination of the thugs in the restaurant, and his cool when sitting down with Branagh at the nice dinner are particularly great. Robert Pattinson’s whole role as the sidekick is great - he’s louche and odd. I also love the casting of the Priya character, and the fact she’s a woman.

And the setpieces. My god. While neither freeway sequence (forward or backward) did much for me, and I thought the end was quite boring (until the final part with the cage in the cave, which was all-but incomprehensible and therefore exceedingly boring), every other sequence was just amazing. The Oslo freeport fight was awesome the first time through, and simply amazing the second time - elevated both because of stakes/character build up AND the change in focus.

The reverse bungee jump is magical, too.

And then there’s the hilarious flex of staging the dialogue between Kat, Protagonist, and Branagh on the catamaran/glider boats. Can’t just have a scene where people grouse at each other, no; they’ve got to be running around on a boat as the camera dives and swoops while they verbally spar. My wife and I both made jack-off gestures and laughed (but were also really impressed). In all the action sequences I love how fast everyone is running, too. I don’t often see that level of sustained dynamic physical push from actors; it’s both impressive as hell AND helps sell the stakes of each scene.

And The opening opera house sequence is only marred by confusing double/triple crosses (who’s planting the bombs? why?) but the energy, kinetic camera, escalating threat, and sheer speed of the performers is breathtaking. This was my pick for our Surprise Movie Night (we trade picking a movie we’re interested in that we think the other will dig), and I kept looking at my wife during this and finding her frozen, rapt.

What a great spin on regular movie night.

It’s really weird how well it works. Normal movie night we descend into ‘what’s easiest’ and usually spend 20 minutes scrolling before settling on something dumb and safe. Surprise Movie Night has a sense of anticipation, and we’ve watched some really interesting, challenging stuff, like both Uncut Gems and Good Time (more than a month apart for gods sake, we’re not crazy), good thriller fare like Intacto and Invisible Man, and even recently Dirty Dancing, which I hadn’t seen since I was 11. It’s good!