A Reading of Tenet

Jan 18, 2021

There is an old saying in this universe, to never judge a book by its cover. It begs us to suppress our first reactions and our judgement until we have gone through the text in full, until we have seen and understood what we need to. I say this, because on the day I first watched Tenet, back when it was out in cinemas, I thought it was a giant mess, I thought it was edited poorly, the sound mix was bad, and what I value most in a story was simply missing: characters.

Here I am, several months later, the movie is available online. I watched it 4 times and I think it has a deluge of brilliance behind it is disappointing shell. More movies like Tenet need to be made, and it is my pleasure to invite you in a journey through some of the ideas hidden here.

Regarding spoilers, there may be plenty. However, this is not a movie that can be spoiled for two reasons. Firstly, watching the movie without knowing the main narrative beats is painful. Plenty of red herrings are present and when combined with an overwhelmingly fast and dense plot delivery, you are likely to not have a great time. Secondly, the final reveal is what makes this movie worth thinking about. Discussing that reveal (and the movie) can give you a map for your viewing experience. Moreover, we can talk about it without downplaying its significance. There is no cathartic experience worth discovering yourself. Many stories are more valuable when explored firsthand, yet, this is not one of them.

The hero's journey

Most stories follow certain patterns we have grown used to. We join the adventure of a charismatic human trying to overcome some deep flaw, we join a couple who learns that love conquers all... Essentially, we are used to stories which tell us we can be better, we are the masters of our destiny, we are heroes shaping our own future.

Tenet presents itself as such a story at first, but it lies. It has much more to say about its world than its characters. Tenet feels bad because we expect it to follow our rules, and it does not.

Here, it is technically not unfair to compare our plot to that of a game. In that medium main characters are often quite shallow to allow us to project ourselves onto them. Likewise, game narratives are usually quite simple, and unimpressive, because gameplay takes center stage. We use commander Shepard as an excuse to see the world of Mass Effect, and similarly in Tenet we use Protagonist as a proxy to explore the world.

Mechanics of time

Tenet wants us to see objects, people, and events as they move both forwards and backwards through time. Brilliant, stunning, and thrilling for all the action! However... Say you want to use this concept in a movie... You thus run into a ginormous problem. You must define and solve your version of "temporal inconsistencies". How does the plot make sense, how are paradoxes solved and why not kill baby Hitler? There are many ways to explain temporal shenanigans, "replace the future but be careful" and "create multiple realities" being the most common two. I was particularly impressed by what Avengers: Endgame did by using "the past as a setting”, but nothing that happens there has cascading effects. Regardless, none of these options work when applied to moving through time in reverse.

This is important, so let us picture it clearly. When moving backwards through time, characters do not just make discrete choices to change events, they continuously act upon the world. Whatever solution you want to use for the "temporal inconsistencies" problem, it must not only solve paradoxes but do it in real time, continuously. Every single punch must make sense to a viewer, without invalidating the previous 5 seconds of screen time.

How does Tenet solve that? Simply. Tenet removes free will from the equation. It assumes a fatalist view of a deterministic universe. This solves all paradoxes; all we see at every frame is the state of a fixed unchangeable world. Tenet uses this as a strength and at least in part constructs the entire plot and main reveal around determinism and the illusion of choice.

Protagonist is the perspective we see this universe through. We see his order of events not "the" order of events, we hear characters describe the explosion from act 3 somewhere in act I, we know that Neil traverses the events of the movie multiple times without witnessing them, and we even see conversations out of order. All these make sense if the story told is frozen.

To make a simple analogy, imagine you must explore an amusement park and want to see all the rides. The park is fixed, the rides won't move, thus you will visit each one in a certain sequence. The absolute timeline of Tenet is this park, and what we experience is just a particular route through. Any route would be valid, and no route would suddenly displace rides around.

None of this implies the real world is deterministic, that is a conversation for a different time.

Conflict and stakes without free will

The resolution of the movie has our protagonist victorious in his mission and learning the whole operation was created by himself, he also sees his friend, Neil, sacrifice himself willingly, apparently "choosing" to do so. This is an effortless decision, an obvious one. He goes back into the bunker because he will have always gone back into the bunker. Neil doesn't act here, instead he accepts his destiny, just as Protagonist will do the same in later adventures.

To a certain extent, this is what the inner conflict is about, not saving the world, not saving Kat, but accepting fate. Our imaginary antagonists are presented as a force wishing to change the past, Sator sees his wife and health slipping away and does not accept that. Moreover, despite perceiving free will and agency, the good guys fight to preserve the state of the world. There's enough in this movie to support this perspective.

After the revelation, our main character becomes the hand of destiny. He transforms into a force which guarantees time plays out as it always had. Thus, the name Protagonist is as fine as any other, as destiny is fulfilled by any and all within our little cinematic universe.

Dialogue and sound mixing

You fight for a cause you barely understand with people you trust so little you've told them nothing. When I die the world dies with me and your knowledge dies with you. [...] Your faith is blind, you're a fanatic.

There is of course more to this final conversation with Sator. It is about radiation, Kat's destiny, the future of humanity and the grandiose God complex our villain has. However, this fragment stands out to me, for it is likely the most honest description of Protagonist anyone offers directly. If our character truly becomes the hand of destiny, he is a blind fanatic who does not need trust, only knowledge about the outcome of his efforts.

As it happens, most dialogue in tenet looks like that. It is dense, hard to decipher and often filled with codewords. Moreover, it is introduced out of order. Characters often describe a past we, as viewers, did not have access to yet, and they often lie or hide things because it is "standard operating procedure".

Let us look at one of the simpler ways we are being lied to via dialogue: "we live in a twilight world". This is supposed to be a password of sorts, aaand it's used once before Protagonist is an official member of the tenet organization, and once by the antagonist. It is essentially a huge red herring that doesn't go anywhere. Instead, blink and you will miss it, the word "tenet" used in the middle of a phrase conveys allegiance more than our supposed access token and it is used effectively to disarm a few tense situations. There are a lot of those making parsing each phrase for plot related content notoriously difficult.

I do not think we are supposed to hear the text fully on a single pass through this movie. Honestly, its contents only make sense after the mechanics of time are understood, and after we are aware that information is not given in the chronological order of our own viewpoint. I am not defending Nolan’s decision to mix sound to achieve this and make voices unheard. Yet, if I am accurate, I can understand why the movie would incentivize action over meaning the first time through. There is a good chance I would have made the same flawed choice in his place.

Conclusion

To me, Tenet is a movie about accepting destiny. I am sure this is not the only way to read the story, but most other perspectives I tried to take felt dry, and stale. It is also a movie where Nolan moved further outside of his comfort zone trying new approaches to storytelling, many of which failed. I cannot criticize that, I can only appreciate as an imperfect bold attempt, and I can only hope to see more films alike.

Other bits and pieces

There are a ton of other cool details hidden and may or may not fit into this view. In no particular order, behold! Easter eggs (there are many more).

  • Protagonist appears behind Kat when she calls him "surprising" her. Is this a different protagonist from the future who already knows about inversion?
  • Kat's son, Maximilien, is probably Neil. Would make sense in many regards...
  • Kat's journey both starts and ends at the same moment in time and space. Although she is sonless in the movie, max is never actually motherless from his perspective.
  • Consistent thematic use of gas masks and suffocation as a danger even before "bring your own air" is explained.
  • All main characters "die" on screen: Neil is shot ending his journey, protagonist dies to start his! Kat is shot by Sator, Sator is shot by Kat.
  • Protagonist is shown doing pull ups both forwards and in reverse.
  • Kat waits before jumping from the boat to be seen by her past self.
  • Every action sequence mentions the number 10 (referring to minutes or seconds). Even before the bungee jump sequence Protagonist claims he only needs 10 minutes there.