Having broken my rule of watching trailers before blockbuster movies, I knew Tenet would feature elements of reversing time, or so it appeared from the single trailer I had seen. But this is oversimplifying the premise of the film itself. Watching Tenet from a linear perspective through the three acts won’t allow you to enjoy or understand what’s actually happening.
South Africa has just passed the five-month mark since the lockdown protocols were engaged. And now, as we’ve moved to level 2 and the easing of social gatherings, many forms of entertainments are also reopening its doors. South Africa’s cinema industry has been in strict isolation during these months, with the limit on how many people can gather for an event and for what reasons.
This week sees the return of the movie theatre, more specifically in this instance, Ster-Kinekor’s IMAX. And with that, one of the more important movies to hit the big screen in recent years, probably decades. Postponed twice due to the pandemic restrictions around the world, all eyes have been on Tenet as the movie to reopen with a bang.
Christopher Nolan refused to release the film in anything less than the original plan of the big screen, with specific emphasis on IMAX, having been shot with these theatres in mind from the very beginning.
Nolan is no stranger to time-altering films, which includes a line-up such as Memento, Inception and Interstellar, with the director claiming this to be even bigger than those that have gone before it.
Sitting down through the first act, the movie almost guides you into a false sense of security, while it starts to bend your mind with glimpses of the strange realities unfolding. By the second act of Tenet, you’re starting to develop new ways of thinking about watching the film in a non-linear manner, whether you realise it or not.
The first act plays out similarly to many other spy movies in history. But Tenet doesn’t attempt to follow the course, as it seems to have been added as a slight on such films, down to the fancy dress and British pomp there so often is. Nudge at James Bond.
As the scientist suggests to the protagonist in the film, “don’t try to understand it, feel it,” this is exactly the message that Nolan wants to convey to viewers as they watch. The movie is extremely fast-paced with quite a lot going unexplained, or if it did, simply needs to be rewatched to fully understand.
Tenet is not merely a sci-fi, spy or action film. While there are definite aspects of those genres, it also doesn’t feel like it at the same time. It’s like doing math homework in the middle of a warzone – trying to put the puzzle together while everything is still happening all around you. It’s unrelenting.
Technically speaking, Tenet is a time-travel film, which may not have been the way it was presented within the trailers, or at least from the one I saw. But the mechanics of it is not like what we’ve become used to in many other films. In fact, a lot of those mechanics aren’t fully explained in detail, only scratching the surface of it, as we, along with the protagonist, try to understand the dynamics.
Time-inversion is what it’s known as in the film. The movie jumps from location to location with a simple cut-scene, and just as simply can jump between linear and inverted time. At many points in the film, both are happening at the same time, and trying to figure out which characters have been inverted and when will add to discussion points no doubt.
Despite all the confusion that’s occurring from the perspective of the narrative, dialogue and the likes, there’s still quite a lot else to enjoy about Tenet. There are the scenery and visuals, the sound and score, the action and pretty much all the rest of it. Without the time inversion component of the film, it would’ve still been great to watch, but the spectacle is only enhanced from it.
If you’re wondering about the strange title of this review, it’s a palindrome – just as with the title, and just as the movie itself. Tenet will definitely be worth a few re-watches in the days to come, helping you spot quite a few points you’ve missed as you unpack the events that take place in the film.
At the end of the day, it’s up to the viewer how much work they want to put in to understand the film, or simply enjoy it for its entertainment purposes.
The inversion mechanics are based on theory, so there aren’t any direct answers to all the questions you have, unless they were answered by Nolan himself, and for that, trying to fully unpack every element of Tenet may take months, and may be the real challenge here.
Tenet is not merely a sci-fi, spy or action film. While there are definite aspects of those genres, it also doesn't feel like it at the same time. It's like doing math homework in the middle of a warzone – trying to put the puzzle together while everything is still happening all around you. It's unrelenting.