All I have for you is a word, TENET.
All I have for you is a word, TENET. Use it carefully. It’ll open the right doors, some of the wrong ones too. Time is relative. Time could be the hero or the enemy. It could be your greatest ally or biggest obstacle. Now, what if I told you, that Christopher Nolan turned time into both – the thing that can destroy and save, all at once?
There’s a cold war, cold as ice. To even know it’s true nature is to lose. This is knowledge divided.
So far, I watched TENET 3 times – because judging this film after just one watch, is like judging a book by its cover. That is a basic fact when it comes to Nolan’s films. First screening is just too much – plot seems overcomplicated, the science is exaggerated, music is overwhelming, explosions are too loud… Too much. The “easiest” watch (easiest = no complex science) from Nolan is The Dark Knight Trilogy. I wanted to write a proper review, but that would mean giving too much away, so instead, I will focus on symbolism, concepts and tricks.
However, before I move in there, let me give you my general overview. Sure, I am a big fan of Christopher Nolan filmography – for over a month I’ve been posting reviews of his movies ? I am still working on Dunkirk review (on Thursday I met with my friend and we exchanged birthday gifts. One of the things she got me was a complete Dunkirk script, so… She knows me too well <3) and there are two more to come. As for TENET itself, it’s very universal, in terms of patterns.
Wait, now that I think about it – it is the MOST UNIVERSAL film. We don’t even know the name of John David Washington’s character! I’ve read a few reviews claiming that TENET is shallow, flat, boring, overrated and just not good. That there is no real plot. To quote Ives: Cowboy shit.
What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.
Let me start with breaking down the plot. If we strip it to the chunks, TENET is about a hero trying to save the world. That’s it. Pretty straight forward, right? Now, let’s add a little spice: there is a sophisticated doomsday device, that could end the world as we know it. How does the plot shape now? A hero is trying to stop said doomsday device from destroying all life. In order to help our universal, typical hero, Nolan threw into the mix “common” sidekick, who helped with the hero’s transformation; secondary characters, a.k.a. messengers and textbook villain. Time, inversion and physics are plot’s attributes – things and phenomenons that create feelings of confusion.
I’ve said it many times before – Nolan operates on models (patterns) and re-uses them per need. Sometimes they need some modification, but sometimes only the environment changes. And though I find him an exceptional storyteller, if you break down the plot, it’s not that extraordinary at all, right?
I want to talk about universalism in TENET. The fact that the main character remains nameless and is referred to as THE PROTAGONIST, indicates that we are dealing with the most basic storytelling archetype, which is… a protagonist. There is unique beauty in simplicity, wouldn’t you agree? Use fundamentals of story-writing to create unforgettable journey we can share with the hero.
Don’t try to understand it. Feel it – ENTROPY
He lies it out right there, at the very beginning of his film – do not set your brain to “understanding science” behind reverse entropy. Just go with the flow and your instinct. Feel it! But just for fun, let me talk about it for a while. What the heck is that? Physics definition says that “a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.”
Translating this shit to English, entropy is a measurement of how much information is needed to describe a system. Take a block of ice – atoms inside will form somewhat predictable and regular groups. However, if you melt the block, in the puddle of water, atoms will be all over the place and moving; unlike in the ice block. So, as a result you need much more information to describe atoms in the puddle, than in the ice block. MEANING, PUDDLE HAS MORE ENTROPY.
2nd law of thermodynamics states that total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time, right? Throughout the years, the word entropy became “by-word” for scientists, for the arrow of time – since entropy can only increase, that means that everything moves from past to the future.
In TENET, the case is that an object’s entropy gets INVERTED – which in scientific terms would mean that the information needed to describe any system would be… Reduced. So, if entropy is also defined as something without order or predictability, energy would (from a forward-moving person’s perspective), spontaneously come together to create new… ORDER.
Just FYI, because that sounds dope when you read about it, this is pure science fiction. If this would be indeed possible, TENET would be a documentary.
The world will never know what could happen. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care – TEMPORAL PINCER MOVEMENT
That thing exists – in a way. Why don’t I start with explaining what pincer movement is? And I know that one very well, because it is taken straight from military tactics – and yours truly graduated from the Military Academy of Land Forces. So yes, with that one I feel pretty comfortable. Basically it is a maneuver when our forces attack both flanks of an enemy formation, simultaneously. One of the greatest tactics/strategists, Sun Tzu, speculated on the maneuver in The Art of War, but advised against trying it for fear that an army would likely run first before the move could be completed.
Now, how did this maneuver end up being a temporal thing? Easy, if Nolan reads about something, his first question is: Can we do this thing, but in time? Back in time? In the future? I quoted Ives in the beginning, and it was him who explained how this military tactic works: the blue team moved backwards in time to do recon and gain valuable experience, which was used by the red team that moved forward in time – to assault the city. For the blue team to get the information. For the red team to be able to raid the city. LOOP, ladies and gents.
One of the most confusing, but also extremely informative scenes, was the one in red and blue room. Red room, being the reality we are, here and now; blue being reverted. I am sure that Christopher Nolan will “break down” this scene in a few weeks, and it will be easier to explain. For now though, temporal pincer movement was used by Sator quite often – going back in time to collect information and brief future-self, was success guaranteed.
This reversing the flow of time, doesn’t us being here now, mean it never happened? – TEMPORAL PARADOX
Nolan and his goddamn paradoxes, am I right? ? You are familiar with the general concept of a paradox, right? Chris uses different kinds – in Inception or Dunkirk. In TENET we are left to deal with temporal paradox, which is an integral part of time travel theory. Neil, played by Robert Pattison, explains it with grandfather paradox: if you went back in time and killed your grandpa, how would you be born to commit the act? In general, this paradox regards any action that changes the past, since there is contradiction whenever the past suddenly becomes different from the way it is.
Temporal paradox in TENET makes us believe that you can kill the old man and you will still be here and now. Whatever happened, happened. The fact that the present in TENET was observable, meant that time and space weren’t destroyed by the Algorithm in the end.
I had a theory before watching the film, that maybe since the title is a palindrome, the movie will work in a similar way. Watching it from end to beginning will make (more) sense? But no. TENET is a loop, a paradox.
The cause comes before effect… – TIME TRAVEL
Okay, so since I touched the time travel paradox, let’s stop here for one minute. Any typical time-travel movie makes it look so damn easy: machine or a button, that takes you back (or forward) in time. Just push it and puff, you are in the Medieval era. TENET’s inversion challenges that, as impossible.
If you want to go back in time, let’s say a week, you must step into the inversion turnstile, spend a week living in Reversed World, then use turnstile AGAIN, but this time moving forward a week ago. Mind. Blown! In short – in TENET, when you go back, you have to live your normal, reversed life, as it is your new reality. This rings a bell though, doesn’t it?
Plus, there is only ONE TIMELINE in the curious world of Chris Nolan, but this shouldn’t be surprising. His films are super tight when it comes to time-plots. Time-line branches is Marvel’s department ? In TENET, “what happens, stays happened”. And that is critical for film to work, wouldn’t you agree?
The detritus of a coming war – MENTIONS OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
I love Nolan for using things, that I have some kind of knowledge of! I studied that shit!!! And now, I am here to show off, to share my knowledge. I wrote a paper about Robert Oppenheimer way back. But let me start with the basics – what was Manhattan Project?
It was a research – study – and sinister undertaking, conducted during World War II. As a result, first nuclear weapons were produced. It was led by the US, with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. It was “active” from 1942 to 1946. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the actual bombs.
The first nuclear weapon – an atomic bomb – was successfully detonated on July 16, 1945. It was the Trinity test, conducted in New Mexico. Oppenheimer later admitted that this work brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. In August 1945, the weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Why was this important? Well, TENET’s dooms device is comparable to actual nuclear weapons of mass destruction. After all, if it would go off, the world would end. So in a way, it was worse than an atomic bomb.
An obscure tenet – THE SATOR SQUARE
First of all, why did we miss it? THE DEFINITION OF THIS WORD: TENET???? How? But it was too simple, right? It’s Nolan, so it had to be more than just a word. And in a way. Ever heard of the Sator square? It is a square build from words – five Latin palindromes. Five by five, made up from five-letter words. In total 25 letters, all derived from eight Latin letters: consonants (S, T, R, P, N) and vowels (A, E, O).
Symmetry is admirable, and Nolan uses it to play with us all. Have you noticed how the movie is symmetrical? Take a ruler and see for yourself. And so is this particular square: it is a two-dimensional palindrome. The text can be read top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right and right to left.
But that is not the end of Nolan’s play. These words have meanings:
The oldest representation of the Sator Square was found in the ruins of Pompeii. Which is crazy. Now I have to go there to see it! Clue hidden in plain sight. Kudos, Nolan. You played us all.
We live in a twilight world. And there are no friends at dusk.
TENET is far from being called a narrative masterpiece, due to plot-holes, but hey – happens to the best of us. And heck, maybe it was meant to be this way? Nolan’s movies make me think a lot. But in this one, there are hidden references to Nolan’s previous work. Did you notice?
Inception and TENET’s opening line: “Wake up the Americans”. There is a group of believers, that both movies are linked and strongly related. Or maybe the dream-thing was only a simple nod? Another thing was Andrei Sator’s rage outburst and when he yelled “LOOK AT ME” – that gave me a strong The Dark Knight vibe. You know which scene I am talking about, right?
Lastly – the plutonium heist vs. Harvey Dent being transported to prison, by a convoy. Fire engine? The plot twists of both convoys? Chris tell me: was this intentional?! I NEED TO KNOW.
Last time there was no tenants,
I done went back in myself, felt like Hell
From the technical point of view, TENET is a masterpiece. No green screens, just practical effects. That of course includes the inversion sequence. Nolan chose to shoot each scene twice: one time moving forward, and once with the actors doing everything backwards. John David Washington did all of his stunts by himself (yup, he had to learn how to fight backwards). Kenneth Branagh took classes on “talking backwards”.
For the first time in years, Nolan had to let Zimmer go (to pursue his dream of composing score for Dune). So, he worked with Ludwig Göransson and the score is absolutely amazing. Amazing in a way, that it sets the right pattern for your heart to beat. Plus, it is filled with typical Nolan-Zimmer maneuvers, like using Nolan’s breathing as part of the score used around Andrei Sator. How? Nolan breathed heavily into a microphone, and Göransson manipulated it into uncomfortable and raspy sounds.
Lastly – clue “zero” was displayed in the WB and Syncopy logos – shaded red and blue. Which later in the film was used to represent normal and reverted time.
For me, biased as I am about Nolan, TENET is “painfully” Nolan-ish. It reeks of the complexity and science, stretched to the limits. But then again, it is not a typical Nolan movie. Talking about paradoxes, eh? It tests loyalty of his fanbase. Why? Now, that is a question you can answer by yourself after watching and re-watching this movie.
12 thoughts on “All I have for you is a word, TENET.”
Okay… Wow? Just wow. How much have I missed.
I have to watch it properly this time
Yeah hello? Chris Nolan? Calling you out. You should see this!!!!!
Well, this post has blown my mind in a similar manner the first time i saw TENET did, so kudos, my dear. I am always so impressed by the amount of work and research you put in your reviews. And I already said it before, but let me say it again – you are an expert in Nolan and I am super glad that you take so much time and scrutiny to explain his ideas to us. I’m not sure if I’d notice all of the stuff, had I not been „trained” by your „Nolan guides” previously.
I am totally in awe that our dear smartass Christopher Nolan managed to sneak ALL of the words from the Sator Square into the movie (no spoilers from me, just a sign for anyone willing to watch it to look for those words because it’s so much fun!). Also, you asked if those references were intentional – come on, you, of all people, know too damn well that he doesn’t leave anything to chance.
One thing I’d like to add here is that one should not treat Nolan’s movies superficially. Just looking at the scenes, plot, one may feel weird but as you watch it closely, you realise how amazing this movie is in its simplicity. So I’d say it again, what you mentioned in the beginning – this movie needs more than one session. To judge it only after seeing it once is a crime.
*Plus, the music is SO AMAZING, I makes you FEEL the scenes, and somehow, I think it was a perfect timing for the Nolan-Zimmer duo to have a break.
PS I like it that there is Ives mentioned several times in this post. Here, I said it. 😀
Okay – I LOVE YOUR HAND-WRITTEN NOTES. SO cute but emphasizing the importance. Nolan is a genius – that’s for sure. But you, my dear friend, you match his intelligence!
I’d love to see you work together. Chris throwing out the ideas and you capturing them in writing.
TENET is not a great movie; but it’s a damn fine one. And universal as well…
Thank you, J.