After a grueling worldwide pandemic, many were left scratching their heads about the future of the film industry. When would people feel comfortable sitting in a movie theater again? Would movie theaters ever bounce back? One of the trial balloons for this experiment was Tenet, the 11th feature film by Christopher Nolan. Originally scheduled for a mid-July 2020 release, the film was instead delayed three times to late August. Initially heralded as “the film that would save cinema”, the film only made about $59 million dollars domestically, which was $130 million less than Dunkirk three years earlier. Now, almost a year later, the team at the Postrider has gotten together to debate the merits and failings of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.[This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity]
Louis Ryan (Contributor): Let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Louis Ryan, movie-watcher extraordinaire.
Lars Emerson (Editor): I’m Lars Emerson, Christopher Nolan-movie-watcher extraordinaire
Michael Lovito (Editor-in-Chief): I’m Michael Lovito, and you can’t tell right now, but I’m actually typing backwards
Let’s just get right into it. To kick us off, what were your initial expectations going into the film? How did you feel going into the opening sequence?
Lars: So the opening bit of the film, in the opera house — actually made me feel a lot better going into it since I knew the film was supposed to be kind of mediocre, but I really liked that sequence. I thought it was edited well, the sound editing (which I’m sure we’ll talk about later) was actually good (probably because there wasn’t a lot of talking and it was all confusing), and it got me pumped for what was coming. Threw me right into the action in a way that few films do.
Michael: I had heard through the grapevine that Tenet had a twisty, turny plot that could be hard to comprehend and couldn’t stop thinking about how this was a movie that I’d happily plunk down 15 bucks for at a theater but that would take me way longer to watch at home. It just seemed like it would exhaust me. But I thought the opening sequence was pretty exciting, even though I didn’t really know what was going on outside a bunch of Americans pretending to be a Ukrainian SWAT team were trying to stop some bombs from going off (which I guess is all you’re supposed to know at that point, but it was still a little disorienting)
Lars: Yeah, it being disorienting actually worked to its credit at the beginning — less so later on. Is kind of my read on the opening vs. the rest haha.
Louis: I actually had very little expectations going into this movie. Pure blank slate. I was wondering how long it would take for the movie to grip me in, and it took about 5 seconds. They should use (just) the opening as a masterclass for starting action movies.
Let’s talk about our main characters, if we can. What were your thoughts on John David Washington’s nameless Protagonist? Neil, the British handler, played by Robert Pattinson with his ill-fitting white suit? The very tall Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki? And lastly our antagonist, Sator, played with disgusting menace by Kenneth Branagh?
Lars: Hmm… to be honest, the Protagonist felt more like a plot device or narrator than a character, and I hated everyone else other than Neil…I actually especially disliked Debicki and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who plays like — a guy in the titular organization… and that’s his deal)
Louis: Kat is very tall.
Lars: Branagh’s Sator is definitely a little unhinged and intense, there was a menace there that was scary, but he didn’t do a lot for me.
Louis: I read a lot of online chatter when I originally saw this, about Kat being Nolan’s reaction to claims that he doesn’t write great roles for women and if that is true, than I can firmly say he completely FAILED here. What a plodding flatline of a character. I thought she was only going to be in one scene, but she turned out to be one of the mainest characters!
Michael: The Protagonist and Neil were both fine, I guess. I feel like John David Washington didn’t have a lot to do other than play the kind of stone faced, determined character we see in a lot of Nolan films, and Neil was clearly supposed to add a little bit of levity with his British charm to Nolan’s famously cold aesthetic (I love Inception, but it has all of the warmth of a corporate board room), and was effective enough. Debecki was fine, Sator and that entire subplot….this is a movie with a very complicated plot, and yet the most originally thing they could come up with Sator to say about his motivations RE: the way he treats his estranged wife is “If I can’t have you, NO ONE CAN!!!” They were clearly trying to mine the most emotion out of that relationship and it just didn’t click for me.
Lars: Seriously — I had the same thought myself, Louis. Also having almost exactly one woman in your movie… does not a feminist make.
Michael: Ahem, what about Priya the arms dealer!
Lars: Ah yes, another positive role model.
Michael: But yes it feels like these characters were basically props — they mostly serve to explain and execute the plot, and offer little texture to the film themselves
Lars: Yeah, by the end of the film, the only character I felt remotely interested in (because he actually has emotions to work with and interesting things to do) was Neil. And by emotions I mean… having a friendship? There’s really not a lot of humanity in this movie, haha.
Louis: I liked Neil when he was first introduced because he reminded me of Q in the Roger Moore era James Bond movies, but I quickly lost interest. I forgot Pattinson is actually British and thought he was putting on an accent.
Michael: Speaking of accents, that Aaron Taylor-Johnson performance…what was that all about. Also talk about a guy who’s transformed a lot since Kick-Ass. He looks like a completely different person!
Lars: I didn’t recognize ATJ in this movie for longer than I care to admit
Michael: I didn’t notice him until I read the cast list on Wikipedia!
Louis: You guys are both talking about him longer than the film’s Wikipedia page does!
Speaking of James Bond, the first third of the movie, despite mentioning inversion, is very much its own thing, compared to the rest of the film. What did you think of this part of the movie?
Lars: I think the first third is the most interesting, since the audience is learning things as the Protagonist is — so it feels like a mystery unraveling and you don’t feel like an idiot for not understanding, compared to later on.
Louis: I agree with you, Lars. I liked how it just felt like Nolan was just making his own James Bond film. Unfortunately, he needs GIMMICKS to market the movie to general audiences.
Michael: But anyway, the first half of the movie had by far my favorite scene (the fight in the kitchen after the Protagonist is confronted by Sator’s goons), but I also think it illustrates what may have turned some people off from this movie. There’s a scene where they drive a massive cargo plane into an airport storing expensive art, and dump out a bunch of gold bars from the plan in the process. It is like…over the top opulent, and feels kind of out of place amidst a worldwide pandemic and economic downturn. I know it’s just kind of supposed to be fun, and that it didn’t actually happen, but it felt like watching someone build a waterslide during a drought
Louis: Oh, wow. I guess that’s true, but the airport scene was my favorite part. I go to movies to watch big stunts like that unfold before my eyes.
Lars: See but the part when they take that scene in reverse is probably my favorite part of the movie.
Michael: It’s a great scene! But it also raised my eyebrow a little bit
The big gimmick of Tenet is the idea of “inversion”. How do you feel this concept was portrayed? Was there enough, too much, too little?
Lars: I think you could have done a lot more with it in the same amount of screen time. There’s ways to really blow people’s minds with it and make an epic of it, which Nolan did with time in Inception and to a lesser degree Interstellar… but this felt like a battle, not a war.
Michael: When it’s first introduced to the Protagonist, the woman training him how to fire inverted guns says something like “don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” which is good because I…didn’t really understand how it worked, outside of the cars driving backwards and heat turning into cold. I also feel like it probably shouldn’t have taken them ninety minutes for the Protagonist to invert. I get why they did (everything that makes it necessary for him to invert had to happen), but I also wish they would have cut to the chase
Lars: Yeah — though I still do not understand why the Protagonist’s car was inverted when only he was… It’s also very clear to me that Nolan thought of the idea of a “temporal pincer movement” and really liked the concept, so he had to mention it as often as possible. Which, it is cool — but like, we get it, dude.
Michael: I don’t get it! I didn’t understand that at all (outside of having one team be inverted and the other not)
Lars: They pincer the opposition from both sides!
Louis: I thought the movie was going to be designed so that he inverted at the exact midpoint and went all the way to the beginning of the film. But that turned out to not be the case. Also, there are whole inverted armies now…
Lars: But the sides are TIME! Haha, yeah I had that exact same thought Louis!
A lot has been said about the confusing nature of some of Christopher Nolan’s narratives. How do you feel that manifested itself here? And do you think the sound mixing making some of the dialogue inaudible played into that?
Lars: Yeah so this is a good time to insert my go-to graphic for this film:
Louis: Lars, we don’t have the rights to that!!!
Lars: A Reddit user called u/pesteringneedles put it together and it is immensely helpful
since it uses “character age” as kind of the way to look at time consistently.
Once I studied this graphic I actually liked the film significantly more
Michael: Considering that one of the earliest scenes featured a man with a heavy Russian accent talking while two trains creaked around him, I was pleasantly surprised with how audible I found this movie. I did have to rewind a few times to comprehend what they were saying, but not to hear it, if that makes sense
Lars: It just seemed smarter and neater how it all fit in, even though I realize underneath the cool concept is completely empty. And yeah I’m with Mike on this one, I didn’t have the trouble hearing it as I was forewarned about.
Louis: That probably has to do with you guys watching at home, on HBO Max and it has a different audio mix. I saw this in the theater and the Kayak scene or whatever was completely inaudible.
Lars: That could be — I didn’t realize they changed the sound mix after the fact. Though I have zero memory of any kayak scene…
Louis: Sound is mixed differently from a theater to home video. Your DVD of Star Wars is NOT the theatrical experience. Sorry to burst your bubble.
Louis: There’s like a scene set on water craft. They even have microphones!
Lars: Oh yeah, I vaguely remember that — well maybe if the sound was terrible I’d have to had rewatched it a few times and I’d remember it better.
Michael: And I would just say that I may understand this movie more if I watch it a second time, as I did with Inception and Interstellar. But Tenet is much more confusing than either of those movies — my head was spinning with some of the dialogue post-inversion, and I still can’t really wrap my head around what was going on in that scene where Sator had Kat tied to a chair and was interrogating the Protagonist…
Lars: That was also the most confusing part of the film for me, actually.
Louis: It’s just like….why? The one, one thing every film needs is clean dialogue. I don’t understand why Nolan would do this. I’m all for filmmakers pushing boundaries, but this really feels like a pointless experiment.
Lots of summer blockbusters end in fiery climaxes with large battle sequences, and Tenet was no exception. What did you think of the closing sequence? Did it leave you satisfied and wanting more? Or confused and wanting?
Lars: Yeah, I had read this Guardian article a month or so before watching the movie, Louis, so I guess I went in expecting not to hear anything well but as we said, it was fine on the HBO Max version.
Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster is already infamous for its barely audible exchanges. As sound technology advances, why are films getting harder to hear?
(though the article makes the point that Tenet is hardly alone in being hard to hear)
Parts at the end of the final conflict were good, like when you find out the relationship between the Protagonist and Neil, and that Neil saves him, that was like the one time I felt emotionally invested in either of them.
Michael: The scene where they were trying to seize the algorithm (that’s what they were doing, right?) was exciting enough. Kat’s murder of Sator and sunscreen aided body-disposal process was HILARIOUS to me. A ridiculous concept and sound effect thrown in there for no reason. Nolan really wanted us to care about that relationship and it just did not work at all
Lars: Haha yeah, I love she’s just like dumping sunscreen everywhere and Sator’s like “what are you doing?”
Louis:I was confused why the film suddenly turned into a Call of Duty multiplayer match. What a generic lackluster location to set your final battle…The whole escalation of turning inversion into this thing Whole Armies can do felt completely wrong to me. It’s like if Ghostbusters (1984) had ended with 200 Ghostbusters waging battle with Gozer’s armies of the undead.
Lars: Yeah like I said earlier, this felt like a little battle or skirmish — even though the stakes are literally the end of the world. Whereas Inception — where the stakes are literally… uh, one son inheriting his dad’s business and a competitor doesn’t want that — feels SO much more important, like an entire war. Maybe it’s because we’re worried about the characters and find them more interesting in Inception but did you guys agree?
Michael: Also strikes me as odd that Sator is able to muster an entire army — there was a part where I was wondering if the Tenet army was actually fighting a differently inverted version of themselves
Louis: Well, it’s also a personal mission for Dom Cobb, who faces imprisonment if the mission fails. Stakes? Character motivation? Nolan, are you listening!!! Well, Sator is working for Tenet’s evil counterpart, right?
Michael: Yeah, and there’s also the stakes of falling into limbo permanently and going crazy, so there’s that too. Ugh, maybe he is, I don’t know. I understand so little about the villains of this movie other than the future wants to blow up the past because of global warming and Sator wants to blow it up because he has cancer, or something. The more I think about it the more I realize there needed to be more villains than just Sator
Lars: I kept thinking Aaron Taylor-Johnson was going to turn out to be part of Sator’s operation
Louis: They’re saving it for Tenet 2: The Prequel!!!
Lars: But he’s really just wasted.
Louis: You guys are obsessed with ATJ…
Lars: HONESTLY — I’m stealing this from a co-worker, but I kind of really want a Tenet 2.
Let’s segue into this. What do you think will be the legacy of Tenet? Does the film deserve to be remembered? And if so, for what specifically?
Lars: No. I hope it inspires someone to make a cooler version of this with the same concept, you can do some really cool things with the “inverted” concept. And Nolan is a GREAT choice for a director to do that, so maybe he will pick up the ball and try again — but I think Tenet is pretty forgettable in the long scheme.
Michael: I think there’s an argument to be made that the pandemic and its fraught roll out may actually help Tenet‘s reputation in the long run. As Keith Phipps of The Ringer argued, it’s small box office pull and confusing plot could make it catnip for a certain kind of movie viewer now and in the future. I could see a Tenet-assaince happening ten years from now. But I also think it’s very likely to be the fodder of “the movie that will save cinema!” jokes for years to come as well.
With a failed release due to the pandemic, a muted critical reception, and a twisty narrative that demands multiple viewings, Christopher Nolan’s 2020 film has all of the elements that eventually lead to niche fandom.
Louis: This was a film that was ALWAYS going to have a “cool, middling” reception from general audiences, pandemic or not. You can have as many cool concepts as you want, but if you don’t have interesting characters, it’s a waste of time. I highly recommend people watch something like Primer or Upstream Color instead.
Michael: I was thinking of those movies too, but have not watched either of them so didn’t want to make that claim. Maybe this is what will finally make me get around to them…
Lars: Yeah I agree with you, Louis. The case that Tenet underperformed due to its circumstances is strong but I don’t think it would have overperformed if the opposite had been true either.
Christopher Nolan is one of the rare directors these days being handed a carte blanche check from the studio to do whatever he wants. No matter how large scale or audacious, Warner Bros. lets him shoot it. Do you think he needs to be reigned in or challenged more? Is Tenet his Phantom Menace?, (to make an analogy Lars could understand)
Lars: Hahahaha, uh — maybe? Or at least his Attack of the Clones!
redeemable features… the best parts involve a mystery we’re all trying to solve… but ultimately not as good as most of the other things.
Michael: It’s not that bad. I think it probably eroded more of his critical good will than his industry goodwill (it still won an Oscar!) — the dude just needs to workshop his scripts with someone a little more brevity minded
Lars: Yeah we all did still give the film 3 or more stars on Letterboxd, so, we clearly didn’t truly hate it.
Louis: I mean, it’s not Manos: The Hands of Fate, but at least the main character had a first name in that!
Does anybody have any last thoughts about Tenet? Would you recommend it?
Lars: If you like Christopher Nolan, I would recommend it, just to be a completionist and because there’s definitely some cool stuff in there. Would I recommend it to my parents? No… I don’t think they’d like it at all. I would recommend it with caveats though — as I was, since I think then you go in with lower expectations and that helps this film dramatically.
Michael: Yeah I’m in the same boat. When Tenet was first released in theaters my dad and I tried to see if it was playing anywhere near us (it was not), and I”m kind of glad because I DO NOT want to try to explain this plot to he or my mom. If you like movies, and what to stay up on things, sure, watch it, but no one should feel obliged to see it.
Louis: 3 stars or not, Tenet’s the epitome of “in one ear, out the other”. I will not be committing valuable real estate in my brain to remembering this movie years down the line.
Lars: Yeah, not to beat a dead horse too much — but take Inception… which I feel like my mother actually enjoyed and is the first movie in history she ever wanted to see again just to further understand it. In this case, she’d just basically give up and complain.
Louis: Ha, Lars’ Mom wouldn’t like it. Better luck next time, Chris!
Lars: But like — a movie that begs rewatching to make it better is important!
Michael: I agree — I think a kind of underrated, detrimental aspect of Tenet is how it didn’t feel like it had the kind of blockbustery hooks of Inception. Inception ends on a cliffhanger with the spinning totem. Tenet ends with “I found out we’re both working for me, I’m the protagonist.” Which is…a lot less fun to talk about
Louis: Someone once said, “it’s not ‘what a movie’s about’, it’s ‘how it’s about it'” And Tenet focuses too much on the former to be a compelling re-watch.
Michael: Well put.
Lars: Yeah, I feel that.
Louis: Thank you for joining us for our chatroom discussion of Tenet. We’ll see you…at the movies!
Lars: Thanks Louis. Now it’s time to temporal pincer movement this entire chat… I’ll see you guys back at the beginning, where my story will end, but yours is just beginning.
Michael: I’m gonna see how much sunscreen it takes for me to slide across the length of an entire yacht.