Tenet: Nolan’s Masterful Take on Time Travel

I have taken unimpeachable precautions during this pandemic—my hair, which hasn’t seen a barber in months, can attest to that fact—and going to a movie theater, even with social distancing guidelines in place, still has some risk involved. But director Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet looked oh-so-enticing, and the AMC near me had a preview screening and, well, I took my first big risk of the COVID era. It was worth it. (Provided, you know, I don’t get sick.) Tenet is a masterpiece; a gloriously innovative storyline with incredible visuals to match, the perfect movie to mark the return of theaters because it captures so much of what makes the medium of cinema great.

(Jokes aside, I have to add the unusual but necessary note that I’m not sure that I can, in good conscience, encourage readers to go to the movies while coronavirus is still a pressing concern. After seeing the film, I returned to my strict adherence to CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines. But it’s a sunk cost at this point; I saw the movie, so here’s a review.)

Even more than most films, this movie deserves to be watched without having been spoiled. But some background is necessary, so consider yourself warned.

Tenet is a time travel movie, but one unlike any other film in the genre—at least any film I’ve heard of. It follows John David Washington’s character (he’s unnamed but identified as Protagonist in the credits) as he attempts to avert a world-ending event, in which the entropy of the entire world would be reversed. This process, which the film dubs “inversion,” was created in the future to allow objects and people to go back in time. This isn’t a classic take on time travel, where characters use a machine or portal of some sort to instantaneously travel back in time; an inverted person doesn’t jump from one point in the time to another, they remain in the timeline, moving against the flow of the time stream. Everything around them appears, to them, to be moving in reverse, while they appear to be moving in reverse to everyone experiencing time normally. This premise alone would make the film fascinating—especially with the clever ways in which the characters find to use time to their advantage—but how Nolan puts it to the screen is absolutely jaw-dropping. It would be easy enough to make things move in reverse, but Nolan puts the viewer in scenes in which there are characters on both sides of time: inverted characters interact with a backward world, fights take place between normal and inverted characters, bullets are caught rather than shot.

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