What Went Wrong With… Tenet?

A review of Christopher Nolan's Tenet (2020)Tenet is the latest film from the monumentally overrated writer-director Christopher Nolan. The plot centres around the prevention of World War III and more importantly time-inversion, hence the palindrome title. The story has been kept under wraps with no one disclosing too much information other than this short synopsis, so I’ll go into a little more depth without any spoilers. Tenet stars John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington and therefore another case of nepotism in Hollywood) as “The Protagonist”. Since this is a James Bond-esque spy movie disguised as a sci-fi thriller, the Protagonist, an ex-C.I.A. agent, is hired by a mysterious organisation in order to avert the end of the world (or existence as we know it). Washington’s character after being recruited by Martin Donovan, dressed by Michael Caine, and informed by Clémence Poésy (the time-based “M’s” and “Q’s” of the piece) he discovers that objects can be “reversed”. Reversed items have a reversed chronology when people interact with them (a bullet is caught by a gun rather than fired or something is picked-up rather than dropped). The Protagonist then travels the world à la Mission Impossible to discover who is creating these reversed objects, how that will lead to humanity’s demise, and to try and thwart the plans of the main antagonist, Andrei Sator played by Kenneth Branagh.

Before the public begin singing Nolan’s praises, I’ll point out that it only took Christopher 22 pissing years and an international public outcry against whitewashing and unequal casting for him to cast a black man as his lead. I wonder if this script called for a black actor specifically? I doubt that it did since it took a reported five years to write (and 2015 was a time of overt whiteness). Black, nameless protagonist aside, what about everyone else? Is there anything else progressive about Tenet? The answer is a resounding “no”. In true spy-cliche form, we have a Russian oligarch as the bad guy who beats his “beautiful” white, English-accented wife and wants to destroy the world. If it were not for the time inversion, this would be a very hackneyed plot. The baddies are both foreigners; a Russian megalomaniac (Branagh) and an Indian arms dealer named Priya (played by Dimple Kapadia). Thankfully, they don’t team-up like a less-convincing Pinky and The Brain, instead they have separate narratives that converge over the two and a half hour runtime.

In addition to the bad-guys, Himsesh Patel’s character (a brown, bearded male) is only brought into the story in order to crash a plane into a pentagon-shaped vault, and that 9/11 reference makes Tenet a not-so-subtly racist movie. And speaking of the War On Terror, if you replaced the Protagonist with a white actor, say Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio, the line “Mission Accomplished” which is spoken at the end whilst assassinating a brown antagonist would look entirely different. There’s a few digs at Washington’s appearance throughout the film too, which makes the movie a little classist as well (Britain doesn’t have a monopoly on snobbery but America enjoys including it in their movies it seems). The fact that Michael Caine (who looks very old and infirm with a soft palate or false-teeth problem) is included in the cast, Nolan is against old white men retiring… ever. God forbid the old guard is replaced by new blood.

Tenet also stars Robert Pattinson as Neil, the Protagonist’s educated and posh-man-boy side-kick and Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, the estranged wife of Branagh’s character, who looks like a cross between Lady Di and an alien grey, and whose sole purpose is to be someone the Protagonist can save… how very modern… not. Whilst on the subject of Kat, when trying to prevent “World War III” would an ex-spy prioritise the life of one single woman over billions of people? Well, in one scene, the Protagonist goes to great lengths to save Kat which makes the storyline feel like a tired, twentieth century concept. Make Debicki a princess and Washington a plumber and you basically have Mario Bros.

This plot, albeit contrived, would be perfectly adequate for a spy movie but Nolan instead decides to add unnecessary elements to it. Tenet dances around forged paintings, tax dodging at “free ports”, a nuclear disaster, not to mention a handful of conspicuous scenes which means the story is very predictable. If you recall John David’s dad in Déjà Vu, you’ll remember that as an audience member, once you see certain objects like an upturned ambulance or a floral dress, the narrative which is structured around time, moves ever forward toward these objects and their current state, creating unavoidable predictability. Tenet, with it’s “mystery woman” diving off a yacht flashback and reverse gunshot/fight scene with a “mystery” gas-masked assailant, only serves to make the film entirely foreseeable.

Predictability isn’t the only problem however, there’s also the impossibility of key scenes. After the reverse car chase, the Protagonist, Neil, and Kat are travelling backward in time but they don’t interact with anyone in reverse. The film also tells us that characters have to carry “reversed” oxygen as you wouldn’t be able to breathe in the forward world in a backward state but Kat specifically, never wears a face mask when interacting with people including her husband Andrei who is travelling forwards. SPOILER AHEAD: We’re also told that characters cannot interact or come into contact with their reversed selves (Timecop anyone?) but the leads have fights with themselves. What’s the point in giving the audience a set of rules and then abandoning them? When Neil says “I changed gears half way”, that applies to the entire film. And while I’m at it, when Sator sets fire to some fuel, we’re told the reverse state of fire and an explosion is the formation of ice! Really? The reverse state of fire is err… sudden fire and then no fire, ice wouldn’t ever come into the bloody equation 😆.

Speaking of Andrei, Kenneth Branagh’s oligarch character who plots revenge on the world after suffering from the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, is a not-so-subtle Russian cliché and very familiar to fans of spy films. If you had the misfortune to witness Branagh’s appalling Russian accent in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, you’ll be shocked to find him cast in another film in essentially the same role. A lack of freshness is therefore another problem here and given that Christopher Nolan is heralded as making “original” movies, you’d be surprised by the lack of originality. Nolan seems to have been watching Chernobyl, old James Bond movies, and Princess Diana documentaries whilst penning this story (probably sat in his huge mansion thinking he’s sending emails and texts to the future when all that exists is the present 😉). Add to this, the fact the red-team/blue-team incursion finale looks almost exactly like a scene from Edge Of Tomorrow (Live Die Repeat) and you have a so-called original film that’s not that original.

Whereas The Matrix‘s bullet-time was impressive back in the ’90s, in the ’20s, watching something filmed in reverse isn’t that extraordinary, even when mixed with certain actors going in the other direction. A fight scene between a character moving forwards and one in reverse doesn’t look remarkable either way you watch it. The end result resembles The Pharcyde’s “Drop” music video, albeit hundreds of millions of dollars more expensive.

There’s also a scene with a window separating the entering and exiting of the time reversal, reverse entropy, revolving-door machine thingamabob, in which a conversation could have been cleverly written to make sense on both sides of the glass. Instead of a filmic version of Smoothe Da Hustler and Trigger Tha Gambler’s lyrical palindromes in “My Brother My Ace”, Tenet doesn’t possess this kind of back-and-forth, which given that it took five years to write, should have been worked on.

Since the title “Tenet” is a palindrome, I expected the narrative to be cleverly-crafted so that from the mid-point, the story is told in reverse and the end is the same as the beginning. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen. Although the central car chase is the centre-point and it is shown both forwards and backwards, this is the only “wow” moment (palindrome intended). Once this scene occurred, I thought “Yes! Christopher Nolan has finally done it!” but instead of working backward to the opening orchestra scene, the story went in a different way entirely, a direction that was impossible. Similar to Avengers: Endgame which contained an entire scene where they bashed Back To The Future and other time travel movies but then set about doing the exact same thing, Tenet also abandons its pretence of “time inversion” and the Grandfather Paradox; namely, you cannot kill-off a character who exists at the start of the film.  This is supposed to be about the inversion of time, therefore the objects and characters cannot have a different outcome to what’s already been shown to us. You cannot therefore, bump-off someone who is central to the forward narrative, because if you did, they wouldn’t be able to continue their dastardly plot (cough, cough) and in turn would nullify the Protagonist’s mission.

Since the narrative wasn’t a palindrome, were any palindromes included in the story? I didn’t for instance see a rotavator, a racecar, a kayak, a radar, music by Abba, or someone’s mum, dad, and nan drinking Oxo and taking Xanax anywhere in the film! There wasn’t any scene in which a posh bloke named Otto shouted “pip pip madam” to which a posh bird named Hannah replied “tut tut”. There was “Rotas” (Sator’s Freeport company) which was “Sator” spelled backward, but that was it. Very disappointing.

Aside from the story, the visuals are standard Nolan fare. Christopher Nolan’s father was an advertising executive and Chris was also influenced by advertiser-turned-film-maker Ridley Scott. Nolan’s visual style is therefore very ad-exec-y; very monotone, very neat, and littered with suited, rich gents and their expensive cars, yachts, and mansions. If you take away the tinkering with time, what you’re left with is an immaculate set and wardrobe but little in the way of substance. There’s only so many times you can watch a rich, upper-class man (or someone dressed as one) save the day without getting bored or gipping on your popcorn. The fact that this hero is black makes no real difference. This is just another Inception with elements of Batman Begins to please the spelunking, BASEjumping crowd 😉.

After The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a satisfying film. Tenet may be a marked improvement over Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises but there’s still a feeling of declining quality and one-trick-pony-ness. A sci-fi plot should be intelligent, an action scene should be exciting but not here. An airplane crashing whilst still on the runway can look impressive, just watch Jan De Bont’s Speed but when almost the same thing occurred in Tenet, I felt no goosebumps at all. At least Ludwig Göransson’s score was a nice change from the usual Hans Zimmer contrivance, and with his use of electronic synths, rapid and bassy drums, and reversed sounds, the soundtrack complimented the narrative and visual aesthetic. That was until the utterly shite song played during the final credits (“The Plan” by Travis Scott) which in terms of Hip-Hop is backward garbage which is kinda apt.

It’s estimated that Tenet would need to make $450 to 500 million in order to break even so the fact that I was sat alone in the cinema doesn’t bode well for this movie. I might go and watch it again to see if the continuity matches up in the earlier scenes and to watch John David Washington who is very likeable and talented, but unless a larger group of people pay to watch this flick, Tenet is not going to save cinema (that is of course, unless the overpriced Mulan on Disney+ is a flop too). Tenet is a damn sight better than Unhinged, so if you are going to the movie theater, this is your best option. Money-making blockbuster or mediocre failure, Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly deified (another palindrome) not only by his fans but by most mainstream critics but his god-like status in Hollywood in my opinion, isn’t warranted. Hopefully Tenet is the middle movie in his filmography and he begins working backward until he makes another Memento. Although the way in which the supposed palindrome was constructed in Tenet, I doubt that’ll happen.


Writing: 4/10

Directing: 6/10

Acting: 6/10

Overall: 5/10

36 replies »

  1. This film was a total waste of my ‘time’….I tried going ‘back’ to get a refund, but the masked lady was having none of it. I don’t think she got my sense of humour.
    Nevertheless I lost a few hours of my life which I will never be able to get back, with or without a mask (hint hint).

  2. “Kat specifically, never wears a face mask when interacting with people including her husband Andrei who is travelling forwards” – I think that Andrei on the yacht in the ending is travelling backwards too (he came back to die in his best time after collecting device – present Andrei left on helicopter). Still in that case he should be aware that Kat is from the future as she is reversed too.
    My biggest concern is why present Kat saw future Kat’s jump as forward instead of reversed?
    I would forgive “reverse” mess if only there was some wow effect for me after plot uncover but there was none.

    • In that case, both Kat and Andrei should be wearing reversed oxygen masks, and so should Mahir (Himesh Patel) as he waits in the boat with the flare gun, since they’re all traveling backwards.

      And why was that Andrei’s “best time” since he didn’t like Kat all that much?

    • Kat and Sator both travelled back to some moment before the yacht event, then REINVERTED, and experienced the yacht event in normal time (while past Kat is at the coast with her son and past Sator is somewhere else). This is why they did not need oxygen masks. Sator thinks that Kat is the Kat from the past and she lets him think so to buy some time for the Tenet-team. And please dont think there are now three Kat’s forever. Of course there are, but only from the moment before the yacht till the moment after the car chase scene. After this scene Kat inverted, which means that from this moment there is only left one Kat (who killed Sator).

      These Kat’s exist at the same time from the yacht moment till the scene after the car chase:

      1. The young Kat who gets shot.

      2. The inverted Kat who is on her journey to the past and already experienced event 1.

      3. The reinverted and now older Kat who already experienced events 1. and 2.

    • You may be partly right but that brings its own issues. There’s umpteen functioning time inverters littered around the globe it seems, so what’s the point in taking control of the “algorithm”? (this is rhetorical of course, please don’t fill this comment section with Nolanite shite).

    • “My biggest concern is why present Kat saw future Kat’s jump as forward instead of reversed?”
      I think that’s because they travelling forward in time (they uninverted themselves before). That’s because Kat swept the floor herself off the shards … also the water worked normally as did the cellphones. For me the game breaker was the hostage scene with Kat when she got shot in reverse: How can anyone converse with someone who cannot give an answer before a question? I mean they used voice unreverse things, but an inverted talking to a forward wont get an answer from him/her back in time … for that the inverted would have to uninvert himself just for that brief answer to hear. That conversation is more impossible than anything else in that movie …

    • Given that Tenet wasn’t typical time travel (leave one point in time and enter another) Kat and Sator would have had to live in reverse for the length of time it takes to get to the point at which they were both originally on the yacht – so how many reverse oxygen masks would that take? If the yacht moment is a few weeks, months or a year in the past, they both have to exist in a reverse state (in real time) waiting to get beyond that point which would be bloody agony.

      Once they get past (before) that point, they re-invert and make their way to the yacht – but which reverse entropy machine would they use? The one that the protagonist and his team now have foreknowledge of? Which means the good-guys can destroy it in the past and create a grandfather paradox for the future reverse conversation scene. Bottom line: the plot made little to no sense.

  3. This review nailed it. Kept reading reviews saying how good this film was. I was getting angry so I googled “tenet was garbage” and found this. I thought it was terrible and up its own arse about how intelligent it was. I like most of Nolan’s other film (apart from Dark Night Rises), but thought this was his worst by miles. The cliché baddy and the plot holes were laughable (I literally started laughing at how bad it was around halfway through with my girlfriend, who just looked back at me shocked, and shaking her head at how ridiculous it all was). Glad to read an honest review anyway.

  4. “Sator sets fire to some fuel, we’re told the reverse state of fire and an explosion is the formation of ice! Really? The reverse state of fire is err… sudden fire and then no fire, ice wouldn’t ever come into the bloody equation .”

    Of course this makes sense. Google it, scientists already did something like that. When you are inverted, a fire would not give off heat from your perspective, it would take it from its surroundings. Because of this, an inverted person would have to deal with hypothermia.

    • Lol “scientists already did something like that”. Since no scientist in the world has inverted time, googling it is pointless (what do I Google? “made up shite”?). The formation of ICE from reverse fire is about as science FICTION as you can get… and daft sci-fi at that.

      I agree that hypothermia would theoretically occur but if actual ice is present at any point of an explosion/fire, filming it and playing the footage back in slow motion would prove or disprove it. Hotbot or Lycos that.

  5. I’m dyslexic so I ended up watching Tenant instead. No plot holes with Roman Polanksi, it’s other types of holes you have to worry about with him.

  6. Saw the film today and seen its getting 9s or 10s, which implies its as good or better than his best film’s. It isn’t. The sound mixing was hit and miss, the physics and rules don’t really work. And I’ve also recently seen Dr Strange, which did time reverse better. In fact mid way through the film I was thinking of the brilliant Red Dwarf episode. So many other works of fiction just do time travel better. Also a bullet breaks up when fired? I guessed, as I imagine many did, the identity of the masked man right away. The problem I have with the movie is Nolan has done themes on time before and better. He should stop and do other stuff. The last set piece, I was thinking why is this in the same movie! It just doesn’t have a good ending. I strong 7 or weak 8 out of 10, anyone claiming it deserves higher needs to look at his other films.

  7. I really wanted this film to win, seeing the early pre-plandemic trailers, I was excited to get to watch it.

    My major issue is the audio or sound mixing was so poor. You couldn’t hear the words clearly (at the time I passed it off as poor cinema speakers in my attempt for this film to win). After reading similar experiences across the board.

    The overall plot again I wanted it to win. Telling myself, “it’s okay I will watch again to make it make sense” As reality set it… I begin to see what was attempted, but executed poorly. This had the potential but missed the mark.

    I’m also gauging the high positive reviews are in part due to this being the first movie people have been able to go to an actual cinema for over half a year. So high ratings are also factoring, “yay lets go cinema” crowd. (Not reviewed with common sense)

    Those face masks must be reducing oxygen intake and more CO2 to those reviewers brains.

  8. The interacting with one’s self, is possible as one would need to wear “protective gear”. The ice scene, ehm … I think if one considers the backward running world as a ‘world’, then for something to become cool (that is fire and then mo fire) would require a drop in temperature which is a endogenous reaction. I think they used ice because of they dropped the “interconnecting” causality aspect when traveling backwards … but the causality in the respected direction is “preserved” … so for that fire to go out there is backwards forming ice to compensate… not something one would see when traveling uninverted again!

    • Visually, something cannot exist one way and not the other; like I said a high-speed camera could prove it. People experiencing an explosion do not witness ice so there wouldn’t be any ice in reverse, regardless of how “cold” the reversed human would feel. Their world is our world.

  9. Wrt to your disappointment about only Sator and Rotas being palindromes, look up the “Sator square”-centuries old palindrome that reads the same forwards, backwards, up and down:

    • It’s a pity that the film wasn’t as clever, despite incorporating some of these words (“Arepo” was missing unless I missed it).

      I’ve read that the Rotas Square is supposed to have magical qualities, so by omitting “Arepo” the movie lacked magic I guess.

      Plus a film is linear so you can only watch it forwards and backwards rather than up and down. Another reason why Tenet lacked something if Nolan was trying to evoke the Sator Square.

      BTW, there are other clever palindromes:


    • Arepo was the art forger’s name btw.

      Loved this review, so glad to see other people weren’t mesmerised by this absolute mess of a film

  10. It’s hard to take you seriously when you start your article by immediately presenting a strong dislike for Christopher Nolan (or his films, at least). This just tells me that you went into the film with very low expectations and with your mind already made up. I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. But I’ve only seen this film once, but many would agree that most of his films are better the second or third time watching them, as you gain a new understanding. Something tells me that you won’t be watching this again though, since you weren’t really willing to give it a chance your first time through. I hope you don’t go into every movie with this whole “thismovieisgoingtosuckandhereswhy” mindset because you’d be missing out on some great cinematic experiences.

    • Nope, you’re wrong. Before watching this film, I made two palindrome illustrations; one reading “wow” and the other “put-up”. However the film made me feel during the first viewing dictated which illustration I used and the critique went from there.

      FYI I was a big Nolan fan back when he made Memento, Batman Begins, Dark Knight etc. All of which I instantly liked on the first viewing. Films like Interstellar and Dark Knight Rises were extremely disappointing by comparison; I’ve watched them multiple times and my negative opinion hasn’t changed. I’ll watch Tenet again when it’s on streaming/physical media but what I’ll also say is that 99% of the time my initial opinion is the one I continue to hold. I can’t recall any film by any director ever “growing on me”. That’s usually a mark of someone reading mainstream reviews and speaking with friends and then forcing the “correct” opinion out of themselves, like Indecisive Dave from The Fast Show.

  11. What was wrong with “Tenet”? Christopher Nolan had pushed for its release during a fucking pandemic. He also had a snit fit when WB had considered releasing it via streaming. As for it being a confusing movie . . . this is like a Nolan trademark. I cannot think how many viewings it took me to understand movies “Memento”, “Inception” and “Dunkirk”. Crazy narratives are mother’s milk to Nolan, like mystery boxes are to J.J. Abrams.

    Or . . . people might have a problem with a black man as the lead in a Christopher Nolan movie.

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