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Christopher Nolan’s Complicated ‘Tenet’ May Be Better Streamed Than In Theaters


Some spoilers below.

After three deferred release dates due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” finally opened in select theaters, first in Europe, then America in August. Many in the film industry hoped Nolan’s name and filmmaking reputation could pull audiences out of their pandemic torpor and fear of indoor gatherings to recoup its $200 million price tag.

The lockdowns won out, however, and only now, after four months, has the film surpassed the $300 million mark across the globe, with only $47 million coming from domestic box office sales.

Despite the setbacks, Nolan has been satisfied with the box office results. Furthermore, he remains optimistic about the future of “Tenet” and other blockbusters being made for the big screen. If you didn’t see the film in the theaters and find yourself with some down-time during this Christmas season, “Tenet” is certainly worth a watch now that it’s available to stream online.

John David Washington plays the role of the unnamed main character who is simply called the “Protagonist.” He’s recruited by an ultra-secret group called Tenet that not only operates throughout the world but through time itself.

The Protagonist learns that at some point in the future, scientists discover a way to reverse the entropy of an object so that not only its motion but existence begins to move or is “inverted” back in time. Moreover, due to both war and ecological degradation, the world of the future has become a wasteland, and in an attempt to change the state of their present, scientists of the future are sending objects and information to the past.

The film follows the Protagonist and his sidekick Neil (played by Robert Pattinson) as they engage with a rogue’s gallery of characters to investigate then stop a Russian oligarch named Adreir Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh). Back in the days of his youth, Sator found the initial information and resources sent from the future, with which he built time inversion machines to increase his wealth and power.

Instead of trying to help the future, however, he is assembling an inverted doomsday device and plans to nihilistically “watch the world burn” upon his death. The film culminates in a truly spectacular and utterly mind-boggling battle scene that uses a time pincher movement involving two Tenet assault teams: a “blue team” moving in normal time and a “red team” moving backward to deactivate the doomsday device.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the film when five strangers, my son, and I saw it in a theater back in August, certain aspects of the film are better suited to watching it online at one’s own pace.

Unlike his movie “Inception,” very little information is given about the mechanics of time-inversion in “Tenet,” and what information is revealed comes out in rapid sequence. Thus, it’s a film that either requires multiple viewings or consulting various sites where intrepid film critics have taken the time to break down the plot, the mechanics of time travel in the film, and the surreal ending.

For those familiar with the time travel genre, “Tenet” uses the “Bootstrap Time Paradox” where the past and the future exist in a causal loop of events that cannot be changed, such as in the movie “12 Monkeys.” It also allows for multiple versions of a character existing at the same time at different points along the timeline.

Indeed, one way to understand the film’s time inversion element is the word “Tenet”— a palindrome that comes from an ancient Roman artifact called the Sator Square. In essence, you’re watching a storyline interact with itself as it both progresses forward and moves backward.

Another benefit of watching “Tenet” online concerns the film’s plot. Like in most films dealing with time travel, there are clever plot twists that require multiple, diligent viewings. Many of Nolan’s films — such as “Momento” or “Interstellar” — are filled with hidden plot points or references that can be picked up on subsequent screenings. Leaving those plot elements aside, however, despite a stellar cast featuring Michael Caine and Elizabeth Debicki, many will find the film’s narrative needlessly complex.

Within the main plot of the Protagonist, Neil, and the rest of the Tenet group stopping Sator, there are numerous plans-within-plans inserted into the storyline. Some move the main plot along while others develop character motivations, and, while not entirely superfluous, many will need more than one viewing to sort everything out.

Finally, while Nolan’s directorial style and expert use of practical special effects through CGI is best appreciated on the big screen, his awful tendency for poor sound mixing draws ire from a lot of his fans and will be the biggest benefit of online viewing. The film is moved along by a pulsating soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson (Nolan’s first soundtrack without Hans Zimmer since “The Prestige”), but it was uncomfortably loud and overbearing in the theater during action-packed scenes.

Sound issues also included numerous times throughout the film when the soundtrack or ambient noise in the scene rendered dialogue hard to discern. The in-house option to watch “Tenet” with subtitles should help clarify the story.

Ultimately, how you feel about “Tenet” will largely come down to how you enjoy (or don’t) the way Nolan plays around with time and perspective. While some have commented that “Tenet” is one of his best films made in the worst way, this should not detract from the film as a whole — it’s a story well worth telling and rich with meaning.

By allowing us to wrestle with the consciences of our hypothetical future selves, the genre of science fiction has long been an ideal instrument to work out our hopes and anxieties about the future. Through the concept of time-inversion, with the future being bound up in a symbiotic loop with the past, “Tenet” shows how our current “sins of the father” can manifest to the “seventh generation” when a society decays as a result of its actions or, perhaps worse, its inactions.

Despite the lack of development or a backstory for the Protagonist, the character provides a vivid portrayal of how, even when it seems we are mere actors in a narrative larger than ourselves, we remain free and rational creatures expected to make moral choices in every moment in our lives. “Tenet” offers a cautionary reminder about “saving the future.” Both the Protagonist and Neil demonstrate through their actions that we need to be careful that, like Sator, we don’t lose our humanity in the process.