“TENET” (2020) dir. Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
This review will either fascinate you or bore you to death. Read to the end to find out which!
Those who know me know that I am an enigmatology enthusiast. That is, the study of puzzles. I could write an entire review on the use of the word “TENET” for the movie title alone, as the word itself comes with deep meaning in history and in puzzle craft…and I might! Christopher Nolan is of puzzle-mind, has been from his first features, and has carried that love with him through every one of his films. I like Nolan’s work a lot because it tickles me in my enigmatism (word coined here).
Nolan uses the famed Sator Square as inspiration for names used throughout the film. Judging the content of the film, I am also guessing he used the Sator Square as a blueprint for the entire plot of the film. A brief explanation of the Sator Square can help with the theme of the movie, even if you don’t want (and don’t need) to understand the intricate logistics of this film’s version of time travel. The Sator Square is a five-word Latin palindrome, meaning the same backward and forwards. The five words are: SATOR (the name of our main villain), AREPO (the name of an enigmatic art forger), TENET (a password for access to people who know about the inverted objects, and possible name of a secret organization), OPERA (the opening extraction scene by the CIA), and ROTAS (the name of the security company at the Oslo Freeport). The earliest example of the Sator Square comes from the ruins of Pompeii (a location mentioned in the film, and partly taking place nearby in the Amalfi Coast) but has also been unearthed in Rome, England, and Syria to name a few. This square will read the same top-bottom, bottom-top, L-R, R-L. It can also be rotated 180 degrees and still be read in those same ways. The Square’s symmetry group is the Klein four-group, which is a group with four elements, in which each element is self-inverse, meaning that the function is its own inverse. One of the photos I’m adding is of the Sator Square so you can see for yourself and see what I mean, why I said it, and how it relates to the film.
In the movie, the “Protagonist” (John David Washington) is a CIA agent that gets caught and tortured during an extraction operation at an opera house. Instead of giving up information to the enemy, he takes a cyanide pill. He doesn’t die, and instead wakes on a boat and discovers he has passed a ‘test’ by taking the pill instead and is now recruited by a secret organization called Tenet. We are pushed through the opening scenes and storyline too quickly in the first ten minutes. It seemed like a race to get to the fun action stuff. I wish they spent a little more time here in the beginning while giving us all this exposition, as understanding what the hell is going to be happening for the next 120 minutes leans greatly on the idea that the watcher can grasp as least a little bit what they are about to be seeing. As we all know, Nolan loves to have loud music, loud sound effects, and almost muted voices amongst all of it. The first twenty minutes are no different for him. I think he must have gotten made fun of so much for it by now that he just does it to fuck with us. Hats off for not giving up but his movies now forever will require subtitles so you can hear the very important lines that are being said, even though he clearly doesn’t want you to hear them. So, the first ten minutes are like listening to Bane if he was a scientist trying to explain string theory to a deaf guy.
What we and the Protagonist discover is that there are objects in the world that have inverted entropy and move backward through time! Cool idea, impossible to truly understand as a casual watcher. If you are a casual watcher, don’t think too hard about all the action and reverse time travel. It’s not worth the headache. Just know that some things move backward in time. To us, the people moving forward through time, it will look like these objects are moving backward, when in fact, they are moving forwards into the past with inverse energy. To them, it looks like we are all moving backward. This creates some very fun things visually in the film.
This idea and the visuals he uses to represent it are where Christopher Nolan truly shines as a filmmaker. This story could not be told in any other medium except cinema. It is an idea that can only be carried through by showing the viewer in moving visuals and sound. He is telling a truly individual and original story made to be told through the art of filmmaking. It’s beautiful and loud and visually stunning. The sequences of backward motion vs. forward motion are shown in an interesting way and a way that is purely Nolan. It will remind you a lot of “Inception”, especially the hallway fight scene. It’s clear he meant to do this, as the rest of the film’s color, cinematography, and sound mimic many of the ideas from that movie. A spiritual universe cousin, maybe.
We find out that people or a group of people in the future have created machines that can make this inverse matter, or matter with inverted entropy, and send it back to the past, presumably with the idea to change things. We learn that they messed up somewhere along the way. The future is somehow dim and without more future. Why they decide to come back to the past to “murder the world” is never really made clear, but also, we don’t really care, do we? Bad people doing bad shit for reasons no one will ever know. It’s not that pertinent to the story being told. Just know that they are trying to go back in time and kill their own grandfathers. The big problem is that if too much inverse matter ends up in the past (where we live) and the inverse matter being sent back ends up having more mass in the world than the straightforward matter we have all come to know and love, the world dies. Poof. Boom. Whimper? We’re not sure how, but clearly no good.
When something enters these machines, they come out the other side as inverse. This means people, too, so when our Protagonist comes out the other side, he needs to learn backward gravity, inverse motion, and opposite thermodynamics. Ha can’t inhale the air because the air refuses to bond to the sacs in your lungs that are breathing backward compared to the rest of the world. The idea of traveling back in time has an interesting idea (and makes the most sense when it comes to logical time travel. That idea is that if you want to travel back in time, you move backward at the same speed as moving forward. So, if you want to go back a day, it takes a day to go back. If you want to go back ten days, it takes ten moving backward. Once you go through the inverse matter machine, your clock starts, and you move backward as long as you are out on that other side. You must go back to that machine or another machine in the world to get turned back forward, or you will continue going back forever. And you can’t breathe the air…sooo, that’s gonna be a problem.
Some parts of it are really well thought out and other parts are glossed over…and that’s fine. Our brains are still trying to figure out if he picked up the bullet or the bullet jumped into his hand…If he never put his hand over the bullet would it have ever known that it was once dropped out of his hand to know that it could jump back into his hand at the right time? Yeah…that shit. Don’t sit with the specifics too long. Just enjoy the ride there.
And that’s the plot! There’s some stuff in there with a girl and a bad guy that is helping bring the matter from the future to the past. He has a generic bad guy quality about him and a convenient bout of suicide fancy, so he wants to die and take the whole world with him (including his wife and son). Take out the inverse matter and time travel, and it seems like a straightforward Bond film. It’s got the hot girl that changes sides, the spy protagonist who fights better than he dresses and knows how to get what he wants. It’s fun. The action sequences are astounding and look practical instead of CGI messes. I thought the overall production quality of the locations was not that exciting. The buildings didn’t stand out, the rooms weren’t dressed very well. He didn’t use much in the way of thematic color palettes or bold choices when it came to fabrics or walls. It probably would have been too distracting or blurry with how fast the movie ran through each spot.
Okay, back to the square now that you know the themes and mechanics of time travel. My favorite part of the movie. He took the idea of the Sator Square, a palindrome of names that goes forward, backward, 180, and inverse. He took that idea of words and turned it into a 3-D world. What happens if you take TIME and make it into a Sator Square palindrome. At the end of the film you see a very cool war scene with two teams, a red team, and a blue time, like laser tag. This felt so much like a little boy getting to make a laser tag war movie it made me giggle, but off-topic. The two teams split up and do what they call a “temporal pincer movement”, where non-inverted red team troops and inverted blue team troops make a simultaneous attack. This is mind-boggling, as the inverted team is doing everything backward. That means the red team is going into the war dodging bullets and running away from falling buildings from the aftermath of what the inverted blue team has already done. Walls are unexploding and trapping people behind the walls, buildings are un-collapsing just to be shot and blown up at a different place by the red team. It’s all very cool, but also is a great way to show the idea of the Sator Square if it existed in time at coinciding moments. What would happen if you could read every angle of the Sator Square in 3-D space at the same time, be able to see every side of a cube at one single moment in time…what does that do to time, or to us the knower? The idea of the Sator Square made physical in 3-D space is a puzzler’s dream and nightmare.
The names he attached to each character/place that form the square have solid meaning behind them. Attached to each word is what it was in the movie and what its meaning is from the Latin.
SATOR (antagonist) – Sower/Seeder – The man who found the first inverse matter and worked with the future to plant it all over the world. The beginning of the end.
AREPO (the unknown and unseen art fake) – A hapax legomenon. In Latin, a word that only exists once in a text or by a creator. We never meet this character. He is only heard about in passing and never again.
TENET (code word and secret organization) – Possess, Masters – The people who are trying to protect the code from being used to end the world. By the end of the movie, the people in TENET are the ones guarding the code that will end the world.
OPERA (opening scene and the scene of the Protagonist’s “awakening” – Care, Aid, Service – The opening scene that awakens the Protagonist to this secret danger that lurks in the world. By aiding his own country and taking the pill, he shows his service to the cause.
ROTAS (security group protecting the machine) – turn, rotate – This is the place where we discover the first turnstile, the machine that takes matter and turns it inverse.
Did I like it? Yes and no. The little idea of one single square of words made into such a rich tale has me floored. His execution seemed rushed at parts, and like he passed over some aspects to lean in on others. This is not surprising when you are making a studio action film during a pandemic.
One of my first favorite movies was “Memento”. I obsessed over it. I loved it. The way he created a story and told it backward in such a beautiful way was awe-inspiring to me. He continues, to this day, to create things that are not seen in cinema. I don’t love all of his movies, but I enjoy every single one. Even if so much of it is trite and boring and sometimes a little overwhelming, Nolan proves to us that he loves filmmaking, and knows how to tell a story using that medium in an effortless combination of artistry and action.