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Tenet, starring John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Pattinson
Trailer: Warner Bros.

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13
Inverted 31 August 2020
Updated 17 January 2021

Typical of Christopher Nolan’s best, Tenet offers more than can be absorbed in a single viewing.

A Gesture and a Word

Even though it’s a slow-burn kind of movie, Tenet starts pre-heated.

The action opens with a raid on an opera house in Ukraine. An operative (John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman) blows his cover as a Russian soldier. He’s captured. His teeth are pulled. One cyanide capsule is confiscated and thrown away; a second is swallowed. He is, for all intents and purposes, a dead man.

But, not so fast. The cyanide capsule’s merely a ruse. He’s rescued and, since he chose death over the easy route of surrendering his colleagues, his integrity is deemed a cut or two above the norm. He’s given a new mouth and a new life, albeit one in which his name isn’t spoken. He’s from thereon out simply The Protagonist. And he’s in for a doozy of a mission that involves a new Cold War on the cusp of all-out World War III.

And time travel.

The concept driving Tenet is called “inversion” and it’s basically entropy in reverse. The nuances and complexities quickly pile up — much like the multi-layered facets of Inception. Consider them as companion pieces of sorts; Tenet the spy movie and Inception the heist movie, all in the dizzyingly detailed and intricate world of Christopher Nolan’s mind.

As The Protagonist is advised, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

We Live in a Twilight World

Writer/director Nolan places the inspiration for this one on the spy movies he saw as a kid. But this is a spy movie with a difference. After 50 years and 22 episodes, it wasn’t until Skyfall in 2012 that the Bond series finally stumbled on the secret sauce of themes and back stories and started to dig deep into the character of 007 himself. Tenet offers themes — and some really big ideas — in spades, but it also doesn’t mind dropping The Protagonist right into the thick of the action.

Nolan creates popular entertainment that is built on strong, original material working on several levels. Very few others play on that turf and at that level.

It’s a treat to think about the basics of The Protagonist. He’s not a bedroom spy; he’s on a mission that takes him all over the world while dealing with a forged Goya, crashing a plane, making amends for a mistake, facing an abusive Russian heavy and saving the world in a climactic action finale unlike any other. And even when the action is over, there’s still a kick — or two — before the end credits roll.

“Save the world, then we’ll balance the books,” The Protagonist is advised. Those words come from none other than Michael Caine, a key ingredient in most of Nolan’s movies, and they also help put the movie — and its making — in a certain perspective.

This is moviemaking on a fabulously large scale. IMAX large. It was a big deal seeing Batman Begins essentially upscaled for IMAX, then The Dark Knight upped the stakes with select scenes shot in IMAX. Nolan continues to push the format and it’s a glorious moviegoing experience to see scenes shot on the Amalfi Coast — on location, none of that CGI nonsense — in full-screen IMAX. Given the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on the theatrical business during the past several months, Tenet is truly the perfect movie to jumpstart the reopening of movie theatres around the world.

The Future Speaks Back

The story is rich in its intricacies and implications. And it runs a little darker than average for Nolan.

As it’s explained to The Protagonist, a scientist generations from now created an algorithm that supported a method for time travel and from there the action begins to warrant a Cinema Interruptus event in order to best dissect and digest the details and the science. It’s fascinating. It’s mind-blowing.

But there are also the characters; there’s still a degree of heart wedged in amid all the action. At the center of the heart is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy), who’s in a messy, ugly marriage. Her husband’s the kind of guy who takes breakups personally; he’s of the “if I can’t have you, nobody will” variety. And, well, it doesn’t hurt that Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express) is unnervingly detestable as that husband, Andrei Sator.

He’s The Antagonist. He wants the algorithm and, since he’s dying of cancer, he wants to take the world with him.

But those are merely the first impressions. It’s time for a cinematic inversion; back it up and replay it. Undoubtedly quite a bit was missed the first time.

Tenet II (8 September 2020)

It gets better and richer the second time through. This is a tightly woven story that in some thematic respects completes a trilogy featuring Inception and Interstellar as the first two installments.

This is the journey of The Protagonist and it’s fascinating to watch his transition as the events unfold. He goes from being kicked to the curb and dead to the world to controlling his own fate. His name is never revealed and the conversations seamlessly flow without the typical pleasantries of introductions. Even a standard, run-of-the-mill alias is ditched as John David Washington’s character simply refers to himself as “The Protagonist.”

Capping it all, the ending’s a beauty. It all boils down to the concepts of self-determination and destiny.

Tenet III (15 September 2020)

“You’ll see me in there again. Maybe in another pass in the fabric of this mission.”
— Neil (Robert Pattinson)

So true, so true, Neil. I’ve taken another pass at the mission.

Here’s a question for post-movie beer or coffee chatter: What would’ve happened if The Protagonist hadn’t pulled Sator out of the water?

Watching Tenet for the third time (of course, in IMAX), it struck me what a monumental editing effort this one was. Thoughts of Michael Kahn, Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew, Marcia Lucas and others popped into my mind — their pioneering work in film editing on Star Wars and the Indy movies. Those quick cuts that extend out the anguish, like when Indy's struggling to pull himself out of the pit in the Peruvian temple while the giant slab continues to lower and lower... Can he get out in time? With his whip and fedora in tact? And there's the concurrent action of multiple storylines, such as in Return of the Jedi, with Luke confronting the Emperor, Lando attacking the Death Star and Han and Leia raiding an Imperial bunker.

The editing here takes those concepts and magnifies them by an exponential order of magnitude. The details involved in telling this story are mind-numbing. Why is that rearview mirror cracked? Wait a minute and it’s no longer shattered. But, in the case of Tenet, it’s not an error. It’s part of the story.

Those details. They even extend into the lyrics of The Plan, performed by Travis Scott, which is featured in both the action and the end credits. It’s an unusually custom-fit original song (co-written by the score's composer, Ludwig Goransson) that seamlessly blends in with the action and the score.

Tenet IV (22 September 2020)

There is a difference in the Christopher Nolan film experience. People don’t just exit the theatre in a rush and go home. I witnessed it after Inception and it’s happening after Tenet. Groups stop and chat. In the lobby. Outside the theatre. In the parking garage. They discuss the movie. The intricacies. Overheard by one moviegoer this evening: “It was worth every penny.”

And, amid all the controversy surrounding the timing of the release of this $200 million investment in the thick of a pandemic, there was this other thought. Partly eerie, partly curious, partly (oddly) satisfying. Theatres in New York and Los Angeles, two huge movie markets, still aren’t open. In some areas, it’s led to a drive-in revival. But, in the comfort of the Mile High City and a short straight line shot from home, I’m able to see Tenet in IMAX — in a true IMAX auditorium, not one of the “IMAX lite” editions found in certain theatre chains.

Other releases continue to be rescheduled. Black Widow (again). West Side Story. It’s rather depressing and discouraging. But, that’s also incentive to do these repeat Tenet visits. It’s worthy of the IMAX format and the expense. It’s not just a movie, it’s an experience. And it’s been something of an alternative to my own travels, which have also been curtailed because of the pandemic.

I get there early. Not to avoid the crowds; as it is, roughly only 70% of the nation’s theatres are open and those that are have reduced their capacity to something on the order of 15-20% per screen, which is how 50 people in a 300-seat auditorium now constitutes a sell-out.

I get there early. Grab a large soda and a large popcorn. And then chill out for a few minutes. Take in Maria Menounos and Noovie (even get on the Noovie leaderboard).

But it’s ultimately about that IMAX experience. The sound. The picture. The story.

In Auditorium 9.

Tenet V (6 October 2020)

I previously noted what a monumental undertaking it must’ve been to edit Tenet. It runs deeper. And I once again need to make comparisons to Lucas’ and Spielberg’s works in the ‘80s. Keep in mind, they’re both credited and “blamed” for the blockbuster era. As cable and home video technologies (VHS, anyone?) started to gain steam in the early days of home theatres, Lucas and Spielberg were producing the movies people wanted to see on the biggest screen possible.

With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas and Spielberg spoke about experimenting with seeing how quickly people can process information. Compared to the scatterbrained action of today’s typical big screen action movie, that claim seems almost quaint. But Lucas made a similar assertion with Return of the Jedi.

Look at Tenet (and Inception) through that lens. There are several quick cuts — particularly during the climactic battle — where a comment is made or a piece of action flits across the screen. The complexity of the story takes this notion to a new, higher level. It’s not just how quickly information can be processed, it’s also a test of how much information can be gathered and assimilated. That, in turn, is part of the attraction and fascination Tenet holds.

In this era of 4K OLED, surround sound bars and the effortless ease of streaming movies, Nolan’s turned to IMAX as a tool in providing the definitive modern-day theatrical experience.

Tenet VI (13 October 2020)

At this point, Tenet has transitioned from a source of fascination and an obsession to beat the pandemic blahs into a philosophy, a way of looking at life.

It occurred to me, during the sixth time through the “fabric of this mission,” there’ve been things holding me back. Odd things. Relatively minor life instances that have had ripple effects from the past into the present. One term for it could be “baggage,” but that’s not quite it. It’ll take more inner mining to get to the root of it; maybe the past is screaming back and taking advantage of the COVID environment that’s severely impacted my favorite pursuits. The downtime as a result of no travel, for example.

That’s led to my appreciation for Tenet being a spy movie with a major difference. It’s a spy movie with a powerful, positive message.

It’s rather stunning how embedded that message is throughout the story. And yet, in the thick of the controversy of Regal closing for a second time, there was at least one trade writer who took the opportunity to diss Tenet as the wrong movie at the wrong time. This individual (who will mercifully remain nameless, simply called “The Antagonist” here) referred to the movie as “joyless.”


It’s certainly not a “feel good” sensation like Pitch Perfect. Not supposed to be.

Tenet is a story of empowerment. Go back to Tenet again (or for the first time) and consider the fantastic story arc for The Protagonist (John David Washington). But also Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And pay close attention to Neil (Robert Pattinson); his story is perhaps the most subtle of them all. But all three exert significant influence in the outcome and in their own personal lives.

The finale continues to blow my mind. Listen closely to the dialogue. Study the action. And grab hold of all of the ideas.

It’s great storytelling.

And, for me, that is always a source of joy.

Tenet VII (20 October 2020)

This time turned into a Sator-focused viewing.

This thought’s crossed my mind before: is the cyanide capsule Sator holds while on the yacht real or a fake, like the one The Protagonist took in Ukraine? It’s an interesting wrinkle; perhaps another thread in the fabric of this mission, as Neil would put it.

Another observation about Sator is his reaction to Kat, again, while on the yacht. It ties in perfectly with the double thread of Kat's fabric, so to speak. Sator’s assuming he’s arguing and reconciling with the Kat who’s still on the way back to the yacht with their son. That look of anger and horror. He now realizes Kat konws far too much.

Thinking it through and paying attention to specific bits of dialogue related to communications — between the present and the future — unlocks the cleverness behind how Sator manages to plot out his nefarious plans. At one point, he says, “I have instincts about the future.” Right. And a singular channel of direct communication with it as well.

IMAX with Laser at AMCThis edition of Tenet Tuesday was at the AMC Westminster Promenade. Both the AMC and official IMAX sites indicate it’s an IMAX with Laser auditorium. Well, okay. I noticed it was slightly, very slightly, brighter than the IMAX at Arapahoe Crossing. But it wasn’t the pristine IMAX with Laser experience I was hoping for. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying IMAX with Laser several times now at the famed Chinese Theatre in Hollywood (including Mad Max: Fury Road and Captain Marvel). It’s not the same. The sensation at the Chinese was stellar; in Westminster, it was rather terrestrial. Unfortunately, it also appears to be the only IMAX with Laser installation in the greater metro Denver area. (And the one in Hollywood isn’t open right now because of COVID.)

Tenet at Home (17 January 2021)

Tenet Best Buy 4K Steelbook

Tenet was released on home video on 15 December 2020 and it raised a new concern about the quality of the streaming experience.

The 4K version streaming on iTunes is subpar in terms of video and audio quality. The image isn’t quite right and the blacks don’t hold correctly — it’s glaringly problematic during the end credits. Also, the IMAX presentation is lost.

However, the Blu-ray disc played on a PlayStation 4 is superb. The image maintains the aspect ratio shift between IMAX and scope and the DTS audio is terrific.

So, a case can be made for the ongoing relevance of physical media.

But, as a related consideration, Wonder Woman 1984 is currently streaming on HBO Max and it features a solid 4K presentation that also includes the IMAX formatting.

That warrants digging into how the different services optimize and stream their products.

• Originally published at

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Hollywood Redefined

Opening night for Warner Bros.’ Tenet and there was a new trailer for Warner Bros.’ upcoming adaptation of Dune. Well, it was sort of a trailer. It was a trailer announcing the first trailer was coming in eight days. But, as far as a preview of a trailer goes, it sure looked and sounded like a trailer itself. Might as well call it a trailer.

During the end credits of Tenet was this entry from the Department of Redundancies Dept.: “This film was shot and finished on film.” (Well, okay, that one’s cool.)

Quotable Tenet

“I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago.”

“Save the world, then we’ll balance the books.”

“To save the world, you can’t leave anything to chance.”

“Wake up the Americans.”

“We live in a twilight world.”

“Is that Whitman? Pretty.”

“All I have for you is a gesture in combination with a word, ‘tenet.’”

“‘Bold’ I’m fine with. I thought you were going to say ‘nuts.’”

“Knowledge divided, my friend.”

Q: “Who gets the message?”
A: “Posterity.”

“You‘re only half-way there. I‘ll see you at the beginning, my friend.”

“Our job is to fail to disarm the bomb.”

“No one cares about the bomb that didn‘t go off.”

“Don’t come in contact with your forward self.”

“You have a future in the past.”

“You are inverted, the world is not.”

“The question is, can the future speak back?”

“Even the dead need allies.”

“I don’t think ‘bungee-jumpable’ is a word.”

“Where’d you go? Mars?”

“I just might be your second chance... At betrayal.”

“Lying is standard operating procedure.”

“What’s happened’s happened.”

“You got my pulse above 130. Nobody’s done that before. Not even my wife.”

“Does your head hurt yet?”

“We’re the people saving the world from what might’ve been.”

“Ignorance is our ammunition.”

“Talk to whoever’s in charge of loose ends.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”

Poster: “Ships in harbor are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

“I realized I wasn’t working for you. We’ve both been working for me. I’m the protagonist.”

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