Time May Not Exist Anymore, but Tenet Does, and It's in Theaters Now

Don't try to solve this time-puzzle of a movie. Just feel it. 


I won't spoil Tenet for you. Honestly, I'm not sure if I could. 

Instead, I will say this: Perhaps you have noticed that time seems to have no meaning. That days creep by, yet also seem to pass faster than ever before. That it is hard to remember anything from the old world, and that time and space seem increasingly to run together, and also against each other. As the summer went on, and Hollywood delayed its new releases over and over again, I found myself wondering: Is the new Christopher Nolan movie out? Would I ever see it? What if I'd seen it already? That sensation, that time is running forward and backward and sideways, that perhaps I am fighting myself in some elaborate but poorly explained conceit that means—oh goodness, oh goodness, that suit is sooo beauuuuuitful, BWAAAAAAAM—where was I? Ah yes. What it's like to watch Tenet.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the film's plot and premise, the film itself is maze-like and maddening, a time-bending labyrinth both intensely cerebral and intentionally confusing, a sensory experience, complete with a frantically pulverizing score that takes director Christopher Nolan's signature BWWAAAAAAAMS to a new level. Nolan, whose obsession with temporal perception stretches back to his breakout feature, Memento, has made a ludicrously extravagant, precociously difficult, absurdly dense exploration of—of all things—palindromes. Somehow, it's great.

The story follows an unnamed secret agent (a dapper and immensely charming John David Washington, listed only as the Protagonist) who, after responding selflessly to a terrorist attack, is recruited into a shadowy organization referred to only as Tenet. It's not immediately clear what the organization is or what it does because Nolan is interested in immediate clarity in the same way he's interested in character backstory: not at all. 

But its activities are built around a distinct method: inversion, in which objects acquire reverse entropy, moving backward through time instead of forward, even as the rest of the world moves on. So a fired bullet might return to its chamber, and a car that flips over on the highway might flip back onto the road. Similarly, as the movie dutifully explains how all of this works, you might go to the bathroom, and then return to your seat. 

The forward-backward reverse-parallel tracks of time become even more tangled once humans are involved, and plans and counterplans are hatched by the Tenet agents and their opponents, led by Kenneth Branagh's sneering Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator. The protagonist gets an assist from a fellow agent, played with loose charm by Robert Pattinson, and Sator's wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), ends up figuring into the story as well. 

The various plans and plots are often indecipherable as they are explained, and yet somehow, over time, they start to feel as if they make just enough sense. By the time you find yourself half-listening, half-zoning out to disquisitions on the strategic value of "temporal pincer movements," you realize: Nolan's jumpy, jargon-heavy approach to exposition cuts both ways. 

The exposition is choppy and brisk, but it's the time-bending action sequences, in which objects zig and zag through time and space, unmoored from lineaity, that are the movie's real selling points. Like Hitchcock and Spielberg before him, Nolan is this era's great action setpiece manager. His strength is in the marriage of ideas and action; his premises are not only stories but ways of understanding cinematic time and space. Think of the multi-layered dream sequences in Inception, the multiple time-tracks of Dunkirk, even the opening bank robbery in The Dark Knight, all of which capture the central conceit of their films. In Tenet, action scenes run both forward and backward, sometimes at the exact same time, sometimes in sequence. A man, a plan, a canal, Panama…Tenet. It's a movie about the reversibility of the timeline. 

Viewers are likely to be tempted by the notion that Tenet is a cryptogram to be solved. But this idea is a trap. It is certainly true that Nolan's movies often unspool like elaborate puzzle-boxes, codexes just waiting to be cracked. But Tenet is less a puzzle than a pattern, an idea for structuring action, which moves forward and backward, reversing and repeating itself. It feels like a labyrinth, but there's no way out or in, just an intellectual space to explore, two and a half hours of dazzling variations—some physical, some philosophical—on a theme. The trick isn't to solve the film, it's to succumb to its way of looking at the world. The movie even suggests as much: When the protagonist is learning about inversion, the scientist explaining it warns, "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." Viewers should do the same. 

Once you accept the movie's pattern, you see it everywhere. You may have noticed that the backward-forward system that provides the movie's premise also covers its title. Tenet spelled backward is Tenet. Like so much in the movie, it's a palindrome, a reflection of the film's animating idea—its premise and its philosophy that time rolled forward or backward is inescapably the same, that it can be manipulated through intention yet nonetheless remains fixed. This idea is repeated several times in the dialogue, as characters inform each other that "what's happened, happened." Time is reversible but unchangeable. Forward. Backward. It's all the same. Forget political bothsidesism; with Tenet, Christopher Nolan has bothsidesed time

All of this is in keeping for Nolan, whose time-trickery has defined his cinematic career. His biggest idea, the overarching theme of his oeuvre, is that time is subjective, personal, and idiosyncratic, not the objective and unchangeable hegemon it appears to be. Ever the individualist, Nolan is constantly arguing that each of us experiences time in our own unique way.

This may come across as chilly, nihilistic, hopeless, even despairing. Nolan is not Hollywood's warmest filmmaker. But his intellectual gamesmanship is not simply empty. For he is, at heart, a humanist and an individualist, a believer in the power of choice, even—perhaps especially—in the face of hopeless odds. Tenet, in the end, is a movie that defiantly affirms the notion that one person making the choice to be good and do good can matter. What's happened has happened, yes, but that doesn't lift one's responsibility to do what is right. 

That's par for the course for the maker of Interstellar, about time loops and human daring, The Dark Knight Rises, about personal courage in the face of mob indecency, and Dunkirk, about how acts of social solidarity thwart historical evil. But it's hardly common in Hollywood, where big-budget filmmaking on this scale rarely upholds any ideas at all.

And it's even less common this year when Hollywood has essentially hit the pause button for six months, with theaters closed and the new movie pipeline on hold. The shutdown of theaters, along with everything else, has given time an elastic feeling, as if we are all living through some experimental Christopher Nolan film about the inscrutable fuzziness of weeks and days. Just as time has lost all meaning, Nolan has delivered a theatrical extravaganza about the malleability of time. In the upside-down, inverted world of 2020, time may not exist, but Tenet does, and you can see it on a big screen, at least if your state governor allows it. To see Tenet in the theater is to be reminded of not only why people see movies, but why they see them in theaters.

Looked at one way, Tenet is delirious and wonderful, finely tuned and breathlessly paced, a $200 million cinematic marvel, a big-screen clockwork I can't wait to wind up again. Looked at another way, it is imperfect, impenetrable, slightly silly, bombastic, and self-serious. And yet, and yet, and yet, it is a real movie, an idea captured in light and sound in the grandest possible way, the kind of thing that takes over your brain and your senses, that you make the time to see. To express my feelings for it in the movie's terminology: I loved it, it loved I. 

NEXT: California’s Inmate Firefighters May Soon Be Allowed To Continue Their Careers After Release

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      1. I didn’t read the article. I’m being somewhat facetious and I’m sure he is otherwise a nice guy. I wouldn’t mind trying one of his signature cocktails. I listen to the Roundtable where he likes to make false equivalencies [why is KMW doing it now too?] and to-be-sures and ramble on and on. I bet they have the data on how many people hit the skip ahead button during his rambles and that would be interesting reading. I apologize Peter for threatening your employment- I just find you annoying.

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  3. I honestly can’t believe your wife let you leave the house.

  4. Reason Magazine: Don’t Think, Just Feel

    1. Is that a nipple or a pimple?

    1. jesus fucking christ. Normally I’d be okay with this as run of the mill in a normal year agitprop but we are way through the looking glass at this point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more concerted effort by media, press and hegemonic corporate culture to get rid of a deligitimize someone in my entire life. Hitler probably got more favorable american press coverage in the 42.

    2. *facepalm*

      You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

      1. I thought Madame Secretary was going overboard…

        They run the danger of having people think, ‘If people I can’t stand, and who’ve shown they dislike everything about me except my money I spend on their products, hate this guy that much, he must be doing something right.’

        1. I don’t know how anyone could watch this masterbatory fiction. I can’t imagine watching and enjoying agitprop no matter what the source is. It’s my largest problem with rand I don’t like propaganda or being preached to in makes me uncomfortable and suspicious.

    3. HRC’s snatch is played by Ben Stiller in a rubber suit.

    4. I’m guessing all the people who shit their pants over Citizens United are all in favor of this movie being shown during election season. Just guessing.

      Because this is exactly the same thing. The First Amendment means that private firms can criticize Republican political figures, but not Democrat political figures. The NYT says it is so.

      1. Citizens United FORCED THEM TO DO THIS.

    5. The movie theater in Hell features popcorn with no butter, wet toilet seats, a weekly retrospective of Pauley Shore movies, and a Showtime film on Trump starring the dolorous Jeff Daniels.

    6. LOL! The entire trailer is just various people looking smug.

      But I am sure it is fair and balanced.

    7. Forget it, Jake, it’s Jeff Daniels.

  5. Nolan … has made a ludicrously extravagant, precociously difficult, absurdly dense exploration of—of all things—palindromes.

    Weird Al’s got him beat:

    “I, man, am Regal, a German am I
    Never odd or even
    If I had a Hi-Fi
    Madam, I’m Adam
    Too hot to hoot
    No lemons no melon
    Too bad I hid a boot
    Lisa Bonet ate no basil
    Warsaw was raw
    Was it a car or a cat I saw?

    Rise to vote, sir
    Do geese see God?
    Do nine men Interpret? Nine men I nod
    Rats live on no evil star
    Won’t lovers revolt now?
    Race fast safe car
    Pa’s a sap
    Ma is as selfless as I am
    May a moody baby doom a yam

    Ah Satan sees Natasha
    No devil lived on
    Lonely Tylenol
    Not a banana baton
    No X in Nixon
    O stone, be not so
    O Geronimo, no minor ego
    “Naomi” I moan
    A Toyota’s a Toyota
    A dog, a panic, in a pagoda

    Oh no, Don Ho
    Nurse, I spy gypsies, run!
    Senile felines
    Now I see bees, I won
    UFO tofu
    We panic in a pew
    Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo
    God, a red nugget, a fat egg under a dog
    Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog”

  6. I must have missed something. What did Suderman do this time to trigger people?

    1. He’s Suuuuuuuudeeeeeermmaaaaaaaaannn! We like to give him shit because it’s fun.

      1. he’s reason magazine’s gale the snail.

        1. I always pegged him as the entire McPoyle clan.

          1. That’s probably more apt. maybe Gale the snail should be reserved for Gillespie?

            1. I wish they’d treat him more like Cricket.

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      1. His bot engine is probably already on your computer, generating these posts.

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  8. Hollywood is pinning their hopes on this film to save the movie and theater industry–from streaming, the coronavirus, Chinese audiences, etc.

    With the politicization of everything, I can’t help but hope AT&T’s WarnerMedia eats shit at the box office with this film. I hope Disney fails miserably with Mulan in China, too.

    The theater industry is a gatekeeper model, and I can’t think of a gatekeeper model that isn’t also an attempt to limit consumer choice.

    The future came more quickly than expected for Hollywood because of the coronavirus, and the future is consumer choice beyond their control. They have billions more to lose before they loosen their grip on cable programming, film production, and distribution, and I hope their old gatekeeper models become buggy whip manufacturers sooner rather than later.

    I’ll catch this from the comfort of home when it comes to a streaming service eventually.

    1. Well said.

  9. Nolan’s timey-wimey movies usually require a couple watches to get but have an internal logic such that you can eventually figure out what’s going on. I’m wondering if this one fails at that or if reviewers just need to sit with it for a while.

    1. Sounds like it’s a confusing mess but entertaining. Christopher Nolan never gets killed by the critics.

    2. It’s fourth dimensional chess. With Murph.

    3. Saw the movie, and I was able to make enough sense of it to see several “gotchas” coming. I’m guessing over the next 10 viewings it will make more and more sense.

  10. Spoiler alert:
    The Universe is a 2-dimensional hologram that looks like it’s 3 dimensional. It’s a phonograph style record of an ancestor simulation run by one of our descendants on a quantum computer. I don’t have any kids so I’m probably a non-playing character.

  11. I didn’t even have the energy to read the review, much less to watch the movie.

  12. I am reading this review and you’re dropping so many red flags that I hear you loud and clear – avoid this movie because its shite that prioritizes ‘action setpieces’ (something that are not worth watching for their own technical mastery in the age of CGI), tons of exposition dumps, while tossing the story to the side.

    Basically Inception but worse.

  13. Saw this ine in the theaters yesterday and it is well worth seeing. The movie is confusing but not incomprehensible. My only real complaint is that Nolan still likes to mix his sound effects and music too high so the dialogue is hard to hear sometimes.

    1. This. I’m ready to see it with subtitles next.

      1. Yeah the girlfriend and I were turning to each other the whole way through and quickly whispering “what did he just say?” Definitely one I’m looking forwards to rewatching, with subtitles.

        How was your theater experience? The theater here in Chicago only had like 20 people and we were all wearing masks so I feel like it was a good balance between being safe and still living our lives.

        1. It was pretty good!
          I was prepared to wear a mask the whole time, but the staff didn’t tell me to, so I took it off once I sat down.
          There were maybe 25 people in the whole IMAX theatre.

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