What if you could reverse time for certain objects, like bullets? Or cars? Or people? That’s what the movie Tenet is about. It was made by the director who brought us Memento and Inception: Christopher Nolan.
The protagonist of the story is a CIA agent, who gets captured on a job and tortured, but takes a pill to kill himself instead of surrendering his teammates. The pill’s a fake but his actions get him recruited into a secretive organization called ‘Tenet’. An organization that’s trying to prevent people from the future ending time as we know it.
This sets the protagonist on a path that leads to objects with reversed entropy, traveling back in time, where we travel forward. He finds a shady business man, Sator, who turns out to work for the future. The protagonist tries to stop him, and… complexity ensues.
Memento is a somewhat complicated movie, as is Inception. Compared to Tenet, both are child’s play. Tenet is the most complicated movie I’ve seen to date, I think, although Existenz comes a close second.
Messing with time is Nolan’s thing, of course, but he’s really gone off the reservation on this one. There are a number of scenes which are revisited later in the movie from the viewpoint of different characters, or the same characters in a different timeframe. Understanding this one requires you to keep track of people traveling forward and backwards in time, events preceding causes, and people doing really batshit stuff with reverse bullets and freezing explosions.
I needed to look up a flowchart after the movie to understand how the big car chase scene in the middle of the movie actually worked.
Now, this doesn’t detract from the movie much, but it does force you to sometimes let things go and trust that the internal logic of the movie is correct.
The protagonist — John David Washington — of Tenet has no name. He is simply ‘the protagonist’. That’s a deliberate choice. It doesn’t matter who he is. He’s a nameless CIA Agent, a cross between James Bond and Jason Bourne. On the negative side, like with Bond and the Bourne, he doesn’t have a very good character arc. On the other hand, the story is not really about him.
Robert Pattinson plays Neill, the protagonist’s new sidekick. He quickly becomes an invaluable help, but he seems too capable. As the story plays out we learn there’s more to him. I’ll not spoil what. I always saw Robert Pattinson as the glittering vampire from Eclipse, but after Tenet, that has changed. He does a good job here.
Kat — played by Elizabeth Debicki — is the damsel in distress. Well, that’s a bit unfair. She has agency, and a story to tell. She got herself into the mess she’s in, and the protagonist is not really there to save her. It turns out she has to do that herself. She’s an interesting character, and Elizabeth Debicki gives her some extra flair. And, being over six and a half feet myself, I have to mention this: she is tall. Not as tall as I am, actually, but the tallest person in the movie.
Finally there’s Kenneth Branagh, the actor who also directed both Thor and Artemis Fowl, and he did a better job as an actor in this movie than as a a director of Artemis Fowl. He plays Sator, the Russian antagonist of the story. I just looked up if Sator actually a Russian name, and it isn’t. More on that in a moment. I like Sator as the bad guy, because his past, present, and way of looking at things give him a very good reason to want the apocalypse – I’ll keep it vague not to spoil things. An interesting bad guy can be more powerful than an interesting (but boring) good guy.
The Sator Square
So, back to Sator’s name. Googling it, I found the first hit is the so-called Sator’s Square, a drawing found in various places, one of which is Pompeii – yes, it’s about 2,000 years old. It looks like this:
It’s a two-dimensional palindrome (you can read it in all directions).
Now, of course, you notice Sator is the name of the bad guy and Tenet the name of the movie. The starting scene in fact takes places at an Opera house, and Arepo is the name of a forger mentioned in the movie. I’m sure Rotas is in there as well. Thinking about it, the whole movie is a giant palindrome.
Okay, spoilers follow below, so don’t read on if you still want to see it unspoiled – and definitely go see this movie.
Thinking about this a bit more, I realized the five major scenes of the movie are also set up as a five part palindrome: the first and last scene actually take place at the same time (the opera and the attack on Stalsk-12), and so do the second and third scene (the airport heist, normal and inverted). The scene in the middle, the car chase is a palindrome in itself, and we go through normal and inverted time back to back.
But, it gets more clever. The first scene, as it turns out, features Neill saving the protagonist but the protagonist ultimately dying, while the last scene features Neill also saving the protagonist, but him dying. Likewise the second and fourth scene feature Neill and the protagonist interacting during a fight, both from a different point in the timeline, and the protagonist fighting himself. In the third central scene, the protagonist and Neill also both end up going forward and backwards through the car chase.
The story around Sator and Kat also mirrors across the scenes, with Kat and Sator having a showdown at the time of the first scene and fifth scene, with Sator coming out ahead in the first scene and Kat in the fifth scene. The second and fifth scene don’t feature these two, however, mirroring discussions about who is helping whom between the protagonist and Kat bookmark those scenes. Finally, the central scene has two more mirroring showdowns between Sator and Kat, where each threatens the other with a gun, both failing to actually kill the other.
It’s… mind-bogglingly clever.
This isn’t really a character story, as much as a clever story puzzle. Like Memento you have to really think about it to appreciate how clever it is.
The obvious downside is that it’s so complicated that it detracts from the actual emotion in the story. And that’s a bit of shame. Still, this movie, for better or worse, is a work of genius.