Beside You in Time 

Tenet (2020)

Robert Pattinson in TENET | art by Marc Aspinall
illustration by Marc Aspinall

A woman dives off a yacht into the shimmering waters of the Amalfi Coast, simultaneously imprisoned by, and freed from, her future self. Only, before, she doesn’t know it yet. You see, time is relative. When she glimpses the woman—who is, in fact, herself—swan into the sea as she approaches the yacht by motor boat, she’s a stranger to the woman she will become, first seen in lean silhouette, a symbol of her desired extrication from an abusive husband who is both brute and doomsday philosopher. “I never felt such envy,” she says over dinner, longing to be in that watercolor portrait of imagined freedom. 

Would this woman, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), have become the woman she glimpsed in her future had she not first seen herself in the past? A riddle through time. Confused? Many were. We’ll get there. First, in how we understand, slowly, it’s a game of perspective; yours, mine, and hers. And secondly in how time maybe, actually, totally is a flat circle, a cinematic epanadiplosis, with chains of cause and effect rippling backward and forward and back again like the industrial thunder of trains clunking past in directions both opposite and inverted. 

But first, we meet the Protagonist (John David Washington). It starts with a Diet Coke, an innocent bar order from a new contact, Neil (Robert Pattinson), that with the clarity of hindsight has the quake of tragedy. Neil knew his drink. They didn’t have a chance. On first viewing, this exchange—a meeting between spies staging a heist into an arms dealer’s penthouse in the sky—follows the rules of trope and genre, a routine connect to move plot point B into plot point C. In time, we see how in this frigid, labyrinthian spy world, they are the fire. The light. Friends. Somewhere, Christopher Nolan called it a love story. 

Whether it’s love or just the deepest of bromances, the mournful fallout is the same. After they nail a reverse-time heist through an exploding airplane re-assembling itself as they pass beneath, the glow of their smiles warms the screen along with a dude-bro handshake in celebration, their bond magnetically forming, yet at different speeds. For one of them, they’ve been friends for years. The other, days. It’s about to end. One knows it and the other doesn’t; like the facts circling their apocalyptic mission, it’s knowledge divided, a relationship as inverted as a bullet flying back into its chamber. 

It’s only in Tenet’s final moments, just after Neil and the Protagonist prevent the cataclysmic erasure of their reality, that we’re given an understanding of the full, resonant, sad scope between these two men. In the opening opera siege, an anonymous masked soldier saves the Protagonist’s life, his only discerning marker a red string and coin on his backpack. In the final sequence, another of Nolan’s quantum loops, we again see that red string; it’s that same anonymous soldier, who has cracked open a locked gate and taken a fatal bullet to save the Protagonist’s life. Tenet’s final twist, its prestige, is that the red-stringed guardian angel is Neil, minutes before he must time-travel back into battle, and to his death. 

The eyes of the Protagonist are wet and we see a military helicopter touch down behind him, action poetry, the fissures of his heartbreak cracked deeper by one last revelation. “You’ve known me for years?” he asks, discovering who recruited Neil, who founded their organization, who mapped every mission, every time-heist, who staged every deceit and every manipulation: a future-tense version of himself he has not yet become. We see a flood of information wash over his face, realizing it was he who had commissioned Neil to save him at the Kyiv Opera; who sent Neil to die; who recruited himself. The Protagonist’s staged a temporal pincer— a time-heist wherein multiple teams rush backward and forward through time to exchange information, so that the future can feed information to the past. It’s the closest human approximation to Firth’s Ideal Observer, a being outside of time able to weave plans from the hem of omniscience. 

As the architect of his own temporal maze, could the Protagonist have done something different? Could he have saved Neil? Has what’s happened, happened? Can we alter our past or our future? Can we––? What if––? Or how about–– –– ––? Their policy is to suppress, to have faith in their world and not in the possibility of others, harboring a belief in a timeline that cannot be changed, modified or rewritten; any attempt to alter it is cowboy shit. The Protagonist and Neil are Butch and Sundance caught in another coiled riddle of past and future, another game of perspective, of cause and effect. Some relate Neil’s red string to the Red Thread of Fate, which earned online attention in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, and in Chinese mythology refers to love, marriage, and happiness. In Tenet, we see only the cruelty of time, with Neil and his red string left buried in the bunker of a Soviet City. “Time isn’t the problem. Getting out alive is the problem.” Neil says in their first meeting. If he only knew. 

*

Tenet was never going to be the savior of cinemas. Christopher Nolan’s impressionistic sci-fi action love-story is the most abstract, challenging, frustrating, uninhibited, dissonant, dude’s rock hell-yeah movie of his career. If Mementos plot structure is the shape of a hairpin, Tenet’s is temporal spaghetti, full of narrative loop-de-loops to the point where cast, crew, and even Nolan himself couldn’t always explain his impenetrable screenplay. The Protagonist and Neil’s grim, beautiful romantic friendship—Tenet’s one anchor to raw emotion—is only made fully apparent in the precious final minutes. For a movie so concerned with rewinding time, it’s either idiotic or sheer genius that it’s almost uniquely designed to gain depths of feeling on rewatches that it can’t possibly have the first time around, reminding us that rewatching a movie is its own kind of time travel, and how a bar order of Diet Coke can turn from a symbol of intimacy into a totem of loss. 

Unfairly hoisted onto a pedestal at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic as the movie to save cinemas and cinema workers, Tenet was called on to remind a global audience of the euphoria that the biggest, best movies can inject into us: the crop-duster lunging to the ground to take-out a besuited Cary Grant; the ripples in water as a T-Rex circles in rain; the horse and camel siege into Aqaba; or Nolan’s own contribution, a semi-hauler flipped, inverted, into the air on LaSalle. Tenet competes in sheer cinematic splendor, featuring heists within heists and wars waged in dreamscape battlefronts with hundreds of soldiers in gas masks and inverted clouds of battle smoke. In another set-piece stunner, a metal herd of massive trucks stampede another truck carrying plutonium, a heist on wheels, pinning their target in motion as the Protagonist uses a fire truck ladder to crane to the roof and blow it open. It rocks.  

But, Tenet is also cold (cold as ice), evasive, brutal, and overwhelming. I love it. I drove seven compounded hours to watch it in 15/70 IMAX in a mostly empty theater in the fall of 2020, masked, alarmed, awed. I don’t know if the studio or even Nolan himself knew what they had, a $200 million curio somewhere between misfire and masterpiece, destined to polarize and attract in uneven ratios. Movie critic and podcaster Blake Howard called Tenet Nolan’s equivalent to Michael Mann’s enigmatic Blackhat. Video essayist Patrick H Willems went on to compare it to Mann’s Miami Vice, an abstract-impressionist blockbuster intoxicated by go-fast-boats and masculine brooding. The boys are on point. The worst-possible framing for Tenet was as a unifying prayer for the enduring strength of the theatrical experience, dropped at a time you could get sick going to see it, and confronting audiences with an art-house vibes-heavy blockbuster that pauses to ponder metaphysics and quantum agency. 

Instead, Tenet should’ve been marketed as the Christopher Nolan movie that will fuck you up, that our favorite cinematic clockmaker is finally letting his hair down with a sci-fi epic that makes gloriously, rapturously little-to-no sense. Fire turns to ice and crashed cars reverse in mid-air like they’re doing a kickflip, and the club-jam rumble of Ludwig Göransson’s musical score could have an entire L.A. dance floor throwing ass. There are reverse-fist fights and brutalist Soviet cities built with the curated beauty of an art installation, and a kitchen grater minces face. A building explodes, reverse-rebuilds, then explodes again, like a repeating gif of a child gleefully, deliriously, pulverizing his favorite toy set.

It’s as though after years of false accusations of treating cinema as emotionally detached noir-sudoku with plots over-governed by algebraic logic rather than the human heart, Nolan finally half took the dare. The best things about Tenet are also what can make it hard to love, with many of his sharpened tools for mass-audience appeal left on the workbench. When working on Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio pushed Nolan to rewrite the screenplay to further center the film’s emotional core, dimensionalizing the relationship between Cobb and his wife Mal across four dreams within dreams. Or look to Interstellar, which bent time and space to have a father save humanity as he fights to reunite with his daughter. Audiences may not always understand the minutia of Inception or Interstellar with Vulcan clarity, but the emotional stakes are immediate and clear. Instead, Tenet provokes, prods, and pricks. Heroes are without children, wives, or even simple backstories; the hedge maze plotting deals with secret PMCs, 241s, and turnstiles, threatening first-watch comprehension. The jargonized sci-fi dialogue, impossible to follow for some, sermonizes the nature of reality, grandfather paradoxes, reverse-exits, and quantum theory.

Unlike the instant emotional hook of Inception’s Cobb or Interstellar’s Cooper, the Protagonist is a fierce, deadly, and sometimes vacant leading man. He’ll “run into the burning building” and sacrifice himself for the needs of the many, but he also casually confesses he’ll kidnap women “if he has to.” Nolan told press he wrote the Protagonist to have an “uncynical” generosity of spirit. Maybe? He also holds a pistol to the skull of an arms dealer and grimly threatens “I’m not the man they send to negotiate. Or the man they send to make deals. But I am the man that people talk to.” An assassin to the bone. 

Tenet is a fascinating medium point between Interstellar’s talky lyricism and Dunkirk’s silent studies of behavior, inviting us to care about a hero we know near-nothing about besides what he says and does––a swaggering but slightly awkward badass, willing to do almost anything to achieve his mission—pure, mainlined, unemotional drive. Pattinson plays Neil with addicting frivolity—Tenet’s approximation of Tom Hardy’s Eames from Inception, both surrogates to Nolan’s “id”—but he’s not around enough to offset the default temperature of freezing. It’s only when Neil and The Protagonist share the screen that we feel the blaze of old Hollywood chemistry, reinforced by one of Neil’s last lines: “For me, I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship.” 

And then there’s how some of Tenet’s most critical disclosures of spy-game storytelling, temporal lore, and character detail––i.e., just what the fuck is going on––Nolan drowns in the thick sonic loops and pressured ambiance of Göransson’s score, leaving vital dialogue infamously and contentiously inaudible. I’ve never had a problem with Nolan’s dialogue-buried sound mixing; I was raised on shoegaze and The Downward Spiral. But I get it. Scenes big and small test patience and also just your hearing, like the setup of an airport heist’s dramatis personae and what each team member has to do––blurred into sonic abstraction. Yet, I hazard the best way to watch Tenet, like most Christopher Nolan movies, isn’t to fixate on every lost vowel or consonant, and instead to surrender to the experiential rush of the vibrating soundscapes and images as tall as buildings, and just rock.

It’s an irony that, however they are to hear, Nolan’s movies, all shades of great, sometimes talk too much. Like the over-eager friend at a party, Nolan wants you to listen to his every over-juiced idea, assaulting you with information and facts and theories and ideas––exposition––like he’s cornered you in the room. I relate to Nolan because I can talk too much at parties, too. We all have our fetish interests, and we all want to share them. I won’t bore you with mine. For Nolan, it’s aspect ratios and IMAX and noble lies and sacrifices and subjectivity and fluid realities and time, so much about time, and how time destroys, corrupts, and controls our lives. I sometimes ask people what our most valuable commodity is, and whenever they say “money,” I tell them they’re wrong. It’s time. It’s the only thing we start with a set amount of, we’re always losing it, and the more you lose it the more valuable it becomes. Nolan agrees, with a body of work that could borrow the titles of Proust as they search for meaning across time, and space, or hallways that spin, a thematic wave that crests in Tenet.

While sometimes seen as antagonistic towards the audience, Nolan’s merrily bullish attitude towards drowning dialogue in his mixes is, in fact, one of the most endearingly idiosyncratic things about him. It reminds you it’s a big weird guy making the film you’re watching, that it’s someone creating art from a deeply personal uncorporatized place, reaching for something daring and weird that might (and probably will) alienate, putting his foibles and fetishes and himself, maybe too much, into each of his creations. Tenet is that movie, and as people debate whether it’s the best or worst of Christopher Nolan it’s certainly the most. Nolan returns to and literalizes old themes and ideas into actual plot mechanics; when speaking with his brother and sometimes co-writer Jonathan Nolan, he questioned whether Tenet was repeating himself, ultimately deciding to trust his gut, his intuition, that this must be his next story to tell, letting it be a lightning rod that harvests and recycles the after-shock electricity from Memento or The Prestige or Interstellar, as though Tenet were one of Nikola Tesla’s mysterious machines. 

Tenet spins Nolanisms like one of Inception’s twirling tops, especially in how it transposes a career of time puzzles and mazes of subjectivity into a world cloaked in unknowns and negative space. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” another story about a spy lost in a labyrinth of time: “I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever-growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars.” I also think of Raymond Chandler, John le Carré, and Hideo Kojima, whose noir-melancholy, hazy plots, and gamified surrealism pulse through Tenet like an icy circulatory system. All of Nolan’s movies walk as noirs, the Protagonist operating less as a pure riff on James Bond than as a time-traveling fusion of Philip Marlowe, George Smiley, and Solid Snake, heroes who struggle to understand their shifting worlds of hoodlum schemes or post-modernized spycraft. And like them, the Protagonist is constantly lied to, tricked, and taken advantage of, continually manipulated to act against his own agenda, whether it’s by scientists, weapon dealers, or best friends named Neil, all grandly orchestrated by a future self who is both liberator and prison-guard. 

Only later, in the post-credits clarity thinking over Tenet’s plot, does it occur to you that this Protagonist of the future, a phantom we haven’t seen, is the film’s true main character, a super-spy whose planning not only purportedly saves the world, but conveniently guarantees his own existence. Had one thing gone differently—had Neil not saved him, had Neil not died, had one shifted microscopic detail butterflied into a new timeline—he may cease to exist. Our Protagonist’s lack of agency becomes a self-reflexive joke on his nom de guerre when he declares he’s the “protagonist of this operation” to his contact, Priya (Dimple Kapadia), and she snaps back: “You’re a protagonist.” When watching Tenet, just remember: the Protagonist is as lost as we are. Every pro forma choice, the idiosyncratic mixing of sound, the oppressively brutalist architecture, a color palette of pale blues, browns, grays, and yellows, compositions that emphasize a feeling of mazes made infinite, all only deepen the shadows. Tenet makes us feel that we are small, puny, and powerless. The more you try to understand it, the less you actually do, like trying to catch inverted smoke in the palm of your hand. 

I wonder if this is why Nolan seems to identify most with the film’s villain—Kat’s abusive, suicidal, maniacal husband, Sator (Kenneth Branagh)—who rebels, angrily, against his maze. When Nolan was asked why he repeatedly indulges in a motif of dead wives, his answer stung with its sincerity: he puts “relatable fears” into his work, implying he can’t imagine anything worse than losing Emma Thomas, his co-producing partner and wife. Later, when Nolan was questioned about why he cast his daughter Flora as a central victim of an imagined nuclear apocalypse in Oppenheimer, he answered, “If you create the ultimate destructive power it will also destroy those who are near and dear to you. So I suppose this was my way of expressing that in what, to me, were the strongest possible terms.” Whether telling a story on planets with 4,000-foot waves, a triumvirate battle on French beaches, or a spy world where time runs backward, we witness the macabre reflections of Nolan’s deepest anxieties.

Sator is running out of time; time, Nolan’s old arch-nemesis. Cancer. Months. Weeks. Days. He’s installed a doomsday trigger in his heart. If he can no longer experience time or share in his reality, he will destroy both. A Russian oligarch who “bought his way in” to the British establishment with his tainted billions, as plain a note of political caution as Nolan’s ever made, he schemes to send the “algorithm” to the hostile denizens of the future, who want to use it to reverse entropy and wipe out the past––a clean slate, for the future but also for himself. He lords that same soap-opera logic over his wife Kat as he threatens to whip her with his belt. “If I can’t have you,” Branagh’s line readings spitting menace through campy snarls, “no one else can,” . He uses his inconceivable wealth to impose control, hiding away a defrauded painting that could land Kat in jail inside Freeport, a tax-free vault for the wealthy without consequence. He often behaves as a raving, petulant, spoiled man-child, one who cannot cope with a wife who’s forsaken him, a son who doesn’t care, or a body that’s destroying him from the inside, dividing what could’ve been years of life by punishing fractions. 

Yet, Sator’s actions are coated with eerie moral justification. The future has revealed to him, as though he were a prophet, that rivers will run dry and oceans will rise, and that Earth will shrivel because we failed as its stewards. Tenet is as much a parable of climate change panic as it is about time or atom bombs––Nolan’s second, along with the withering Earth of Interstellar––and features a villain who damns himself to preserve a future that can still be green. Sator is closer to the savior-astronaut Cooper than any of Nolan’s villains; they both exchange messages with a next-gen version of humanity and are given holy orders to take drastic action and save mankind. In his final minutes, Sator confesses to the Protagonist, “My greatest sin was to bring a son into a world I knew was ending… do you think God will forgive me?”––a question every responsible parent wrestles with for future generations. Sator is Nolan’s Jungian Shadow, his every panic and horror shaped into a violent brute, made all the more apparent because he’s a husband so derelict of duty he’s murdered by his wife. 

Initially conceived as the spymaster’s love interest, Kat and the Protagonist were to inhabit the trope of the hero falling for the arch-villain’s wife, but Nolan and John David Washington thought the better of it, upgrading Kat from a routine conquest into a woman who learns to fight for her own emancipation. When we meet her, she’s jailed by Sator’s physical and emotional abuse, his use of their son as a loaded gun to control her when his threats of violence towards her fail. It’s through her exploited motherhood she feels the most trapped, yet, she’s no typical damsel. Once the Protagonist enters her life and affords her the modicum of protection she’s been waiting for, it doesn’t take long for Kat to try and off her husband, unhooking Sator from a speeding catamaran and plunging his body into the sea. He only survives because the Protagonist dives in after him: he needs Sator alive. Nolan avoids making Kat’s freedom contingent on the (male) hero’s actions rather than her own, reinforced by the closed loop that climaxes her arc: when she feels the most trapped, she’s already witnessed her own freedom. As she kills Sator point-blank by pistol shot and leaps into the water to escape, Kat glimpses her past self gazing toward her, struck by the dawning revelation: it was she who was the diving woman she once so envied, the agent of her own salvation. Kat is now free—and from Tenet’s corkscrewed view of causality and time, she always was. 

In the fog of our reality, all that’s left is love. Christopher Nolan has crossed from neo-noir and superheroes into dueling magicians, science fiction, and war epics. I’ve cried at most. How cold can Nolan’s films really be when they almost always end with his characters in tears? Parents and children are reunited, lovers are let go, old men grieve. There are misty soliloquies about “the looks on their faces” and elsewhere, the boats have arrived. “Home.” Or the quantum poetry of a spy finding his keeper, Neil, pulled together and then apart by time. They didn’t have a chance. Hidden inside Nolan’s Borgesian jigsaws of fragmented narrative are the abscissa of human connection and soulful yearning, as his wonderfully flawed characters fight to make sense of a reality they will never possibly understand. Nolan’s work throbs with the heart of melodrama, shaped by first-person emotional logic as much, or more, than the cool precision of a sky-tower blueprint. 

Tenet is the ultimate expression of Nolan’s decades-spanning project of capturing subjectivity on screen, conjuring a twilight world where the nature of reality, God, time, right and wrong, and, most bleak of all, free will, are left in the trenches of ambiguity. Sator accuses The Protagonist of being “a fanatic,” taking part in an operation of which he has no exigent proof. “Each generation looks out for its own survival,” he says, yet everything the Protagonist does in Tenet is shaped by forces unseen and unverified––there are no primary sources. Save one: Neil, the guardian angel, the loving and loyal partner we all wish we had but few ever do. But if, as Neil says, “What’s happened, happened” where does that leave our sense of agency? The Protagonist asks Neil, if they’re still alive in the present, then surely their mission to save the world in the past must have been a victory. Perhaps; they will never know. They still must rewind that clock, and fight as though their lives, and the world’s, depended on it. Plot hole or paradox, Neil’s parting words teach us, and the Protagonist, one final lesson: however unknowable our reality or terrifying tomorrow might be—whether it’s the loss of life or the impending death of our planet—it’s not an excuse to do nothing. We can have faith in the mechanics of the world. But act.

 


This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist. To learn more, visit the WGA strike hub and the SAG-AFTRA strike site.