Thursday, 27 August 2020

Movie Review: Tenet

 “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” - a line that crossed Oppenheimer's mind as he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear device in 1945. Perfectly describes the main villain of Tenet.

After a career spanning 22 years since The Following, Christopher Nolan never ceases to amaze the audience with his mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, head-scratching existential and epistemological themes, exploring the concepts of time, memory, space, identity and superhero. His unconventional narrative structures of the plot often surprises people, Tenet is no exception as well.

Once again, this is another creative, never-before-seen blockbuster packed with original, ambitious ideas by Nolan, while also seems like a culmination, or maturation of Nolan's past successful works. Memento has non-linear storytelling, with narratives going backwards and forwards in time; Interstellar has time-travel with manipulation of gravity, the relativity of time in different worlds; Inception has heist structured with the concept of dream layers rather than conventional treasure vault infiltration. Tenet structures its spy espionage with the new concept: Time inversion.

Despite what's being said in the media, Tenet is really not about time travel, but time inversion - or rather the reversion of entropies of objects or persons. Time travelling is the capability to jump to a specific point in time of the past. Time inversion happens when an object's entropy is reversed, giving us the perception that something moving backwards in time. In Tenet, if you want to travel back to 40 years ago, you have to live those 40 years in reverse. Tenet can be said as Nolan's most confusing film, much like the Protagonist's trainer, Laura mentions:"Don't try to understand it. Feel it." 

Tenet is remarkably fast-paced, the movie swiftly opens with a terrorist siege at the Kiev opera house in Ukraine, where we're introduced to the Protagonist (yes, our main character doesn't have a name), the key item at stake is part of the Algorithm, a doomsday device that's capable of reversing the world's entropy, which is essentially the item that triggers a temporal war between the people of the past and future.

Confused? Your mind's hurting? For many, Nolan's films often requires multiple viewings due to its complexity. "Temporal pincer movements", "temporal turnstiles" aren't that easy to get in the first viewing. In Nolan's past works, heavy expositions are usually provided to ease the cinemagoers to understand what's going on, due to the complex nature of ideas, plot presented in the film, which is the subject of criticism by many. This time it's different. This sci-fi spy espionage action thriller trusts the viewer's capability to think its complex plot points fast and understands it well to make sense of what's going on. Nolan's films tend to be wildly satisfying should the viewer willing to put the effort of giving some thoughts of what it tries to present.

As usual, Nolan's approach to visual effects and action scene design is heavily grounded and minimum computer rendered effects are done, to provide a heightened sense of reality. Nolan really uses a real Boeing 747 to do the crash sequence. The reversed car crashes, time-synced explosions or even hand-to-hand moving in backwards action sequences are quite impressive.

However, it's to say that Tenet is not really Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, despite it's a thrilling, great blockbuster to behold. Tenet does struggles on its characterization part. Many characters in the film are well-casted, lines are delivered wonderfully, but they're not sufficiently well-developed, much of the time was given to the plot and action instead. Tenet still suffers from lack of emotional depth of its characters, a common criticism for some of Nolan's works, voiced out by many critics in the past. It's not as neat as the grand existentialism showcase of Interstellar or Inception's multi-layered dreams (also personal loss of Cobb that affects his work as an Extractor).

The ending of Tenet is less ambiguous this time around, it closes where it starts. It's a neat way to wrap things up much like Memento. Overall, Tenet is an incredibly bold, creative undertaking which took Nolan 5 years to complete the screenplay for us to see it in the big screen now. It's an achievement.

Rating: 8.5/10

Questions & Answers about TENET Explained


Q & A for Tenet

*Warning – major spoilers: do not read if you haven’t seen Tenet yet*

There are total of 18 questions with answers provided for each of them. Brace yourselves.

1.       What’s Tenet?

The word “tenet” itself is a palindrome (spelt the same way forwards as it is backwards), with a definition that says “a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy”.

It’s also the title that refers to ten minutes forward and ten minutes backwards that happens in the climactic battle of the film. It’s also the name of the secret organisation that was founded by the Protagonist in the future, which also recruits the Protagonist in the past.

Hence the reason why Tenet has been described earlier in the film with a hand movement in which all fingers merge together to combine into one whole – a closed loop.

2.       What's time inversion?

The most important misconception to be clarified is that time inversion is not time travelling. Time travelling is the capability to jump to a specific point in time of the past. In Tenet, if you want to travel back to 40 years ago, you have to live those 40 years in reverse.

The scientific basis of time inversion differentiates it from time travel. Hence the reason why we see characters in the film inverted and having to live in reverse in order to reach a different point in the timeline of their story, meaning they cannot jump back to a week in the past, they have to live that week in reverse to reach that point.

In the future, a technology has been developed by an unknown female scientist that can reverse the entropy of people and objects to move backward through time. Time inversion is being used by the people of the future to start a temporal war (hidden World War III) with the people of the past, Tenet is the secret organisation founded to stop it.

In Tenet we see time inversion as though we are watching the inverted objects on rewind while the rest of the scene plays in a linear motion. This means that boats appear to be sailing backwards, cars motoring and guns firing in reverse from the eyes of the person who’s inverted. As Washington’s trainer Laura explains to him as he fires an inverted bullet: “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.”

3.       What’s entropy?

As Nolan puts it in the film's production notes: “Every law of physics is symmetrical – it can run forwards or backwards in time and be the same – except for entropy."

Entropy, is the degree of disorder in a system. The entropy of an object is a measure of the amount of energy which is unavailable to do work. Entropy is also a measure of the number of possible arrangements the atoms in a system can have. In other words, entropy is a measure of uncertainty or randomness of a system.

According to the second law of thermodynamics (universal law of increasing entropy), as time moves forward, entropy can never decrease – it either increases, or remains the same. Which could mean that what we think of as time is, in fact, merely a perception governed by our observations of entropy. If we see disorder decreasing, we think we're seeing something moving backwards in time.

Ice melting, salt or sugar dissolving, making popcorn and boiling water for tea are processes with increasing entropy in your kitchen. By reversing the entropy, ice doesn’t melt, salt or sugar doesn’t dissolve, popcorn will never be made, and water for tea doesn’t boil.

“The theory being that if you could invert the flow of entropy for an object, you could reverse the flow of time for that object, so the story is grounded in credible physics," Nolan says. "I did have (Nobel Prize-theoretical physicist and consultant on Interstellar) Kip Thorne read the script and he helped me out with some of the concepts, though we’re not going to make any case for this being scientifically accurate. But it is based roughly on actual science.”

Entropy is like Murphy's Law applied to the entire universe as there are more things that can go wrong than right. The difficulties of life do not occur because the planets are misaligned or because some cosmic force is conspiring against you. It is simply entropy at work.

4.       How does the characters in Tenet perform time inversion?

People become inverted by passing though large metal turnstiles which look like a giant revolving door, which are created at some point in future. After going through them, you can move backwards in time from the point you entered. From this point, once you enter another one, you shall move forward from the point in time you have travelled back to. Characters must wear a face mask so their bodies can work - regular air doesn't go through inverted lungs, it goes out.

Tenet presents a number of these machines, with the majority of the action focusing on one vault in an art storage facility in Oslo, and another in a warehouse in Tallinn. The reason why objects can move backwards in present time is because these things have manually had their entropy reversed at some point in the future.

5.       Who reversed the objects?

It is suggested that Russian billionaire Sator and his men have done so after inverting themselves through the turnstiles. One theory is that, when these people fired their weapons at different points in time, the bullets would remain there until “caught” by the weapon that fired them.

6.       When entropy is reversed, how does it affects everything around us?

In this palindromic world, everything plays in reverse, including all bodily reactions. Oxygen moves from your lungs out into the air. When you're engulfed in flames, heat was drawn out from your body so rather than burn, you freeze (absence of heat, or rather the entropy or the flow of energy of the flames was reversed). The Protagonist is shown a bullet with inverted entropy that returns to its gun.

If you contact your “forward” self, it will cause “self-annihilation,” as both forward and reverse entropies of the same object clash each other, meaning you kill yourself. Protective gear is worn in an attempt to prevent this from happening.

7.       What was Sator's plan?

A: Russian billionaire Andrei Sator is in contact with people of the future. Sator plans to set off a doomsday device, also known as the Algorithm that will reverse the entropy of the entire planet. He's dying from inoperable pancreatic cancer and believes if he can't live, no one can. Sator travels back to the holiday with Kat in Vietnam when they were both happiest, planning to die there peacefully and set off the doomsday device with a dead man's switch linked to his heartbeat.

8.       What's the Algorithm?

A: Nine objects, hidden in nuclear facilities, form a doomsday device called the Algorithm that reverses the entropy of the Earth. Setting off the Algorithm ends all life as we know it.

9.       Why is the future working with Sator?

A: In the future, everything is destroyed. An unknown agency is working with Sator to kill everyone in the past, because they're responsible for the damage happened in the future. At some point in the film, the Protagonist asked Neil if they're willing to destroy their ancestors, it should threaten their own existence as well (the grandfather paradox). However, both Neil and Sator replied that it’s the desperation of survival that triggers the decision. They have no other choice. The people in the future believe that reversing the entropy of the Earth will induce change and provide a different better future than the doomed one that they live in.

10.   Why Sator, a madman with a God complex is chosen instead?

A: Sator grew up in the Soviet Union in a closed city with secret facilities - Stalsk-12, such as nuclear research sites with a plutonium production plant. Sator was in the right place at the right time as a teenager, when he dug up a piece of the Algorithm in the rubble of his home in Siberia. The female scientist in the future who created the Algorithm has been hiding the pieces back in time, realizing no one should have the technology. The unknown agency charges Sator with recovering the pieces and dropping the finished Algorithm into the "dead drop" (“leaving it somewhere for someone to find later”) in his nuked home town, where they'll find it centuries from now. The agency buries time-reversed gold bars that Sator digs up for payment.

11.   Oppenheimer and The Manhattan Project was briefly mentioned in the film. Who is he?

The first detonation of a nuclear device, conducted on July 16, 1945 was a result of the Manhattan Project which Oppenheimer led. As he witnessed the first detonation, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Oppenheimer died at the age of sixty-two in Princeton, New Jersey on February 18, 1967. As wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the birthplace of the Manhattan Project, he is rightly seen as the “father” of the atomic bomb.  

12.   Who saved the Protagonist at the opera siege in Kiev?

A: While foiling the terrorist siege at the Kiev opera house, the CIA secures an unidentified object (which later turns out to be a piece of the Algorithm). After retrieving the object, the Protagonist, a CIA agent, is saved by a masked gunman. We see the gunman wearing a red string on his back -- the same red string Neil wears on his backpack at the end of the movie. So it was Neil who saved the Protagonist in the opening gunfight.

13.   How did Kat survive after being shot?

Because normal Kat was shot in the abdomen when inverted Sator reverts a bullet. Inverted bullets are fatal as her wound won't heal as the wound (as a result of the bullet shot) keeps ‘reverting’ backwards in time. So the Protagonist and Neil take her backward in time before transporting her to the Oslo freeport art storage facility, where they enter another temporal turnstile to allow her to move forward through time again to allow her body to heal.

14.   Why is Kat under Sator’s control?

A: Kat accidentally sold Sator a forged Goya painting for millions. Sator knows it's fake and blackmailed his wife to stay with him (prison otherwise), and is keeping her child away from her as a kind of emotional hostage. Sator also is using the fake Goya painting as a means to access the freeport at Oslo airport, where he also build a temporal turnstile machine in the building for him to access when in need. To gain her trust, the Protagonist and Neil try to steal the painting from the freeport in Oslo Airport.

15.   What is the Temporal Pincer Movement? How does it work?

At one point in the film, this term is mentioned by Ives. It is a tactic used by people who move through the turnstiles to help you receive knowledge you learned in the future – it’s how Sator has been devising his plan the entire time. Once the information has been learnt, the idea is to then invert yourself (so you’re travelling backwards), so you can brief either past self or someone else. This, in turn, creates a loop of information.

It is worth remembering throughout:

“Blue” with oxygen masks = inverted

“Red” and no oxygen masks = not inverted

(If inverted and outside, you can’t breathe regular air).

The movement occurs four times in the film:

1)      During the highway chase scene when Sator threatens to shoot his wife Kat if The Protagonist doesn’t tell him where the plutonium (actually it’s 9th part of the Algorithm) is hidden

The turnstile in Tallinn has two sections, which are separated by a glass pane – one side is “blue” and depicts an inverted Sator, the other is “red” and depicts The Protagonist in the present. This means that Sator in the preceding highway sequence had been moving back in time after going through the turnstile (we know this, because he is wearing an oxygen mask). Half of Sator’s men enter through a temporal turnstile, allowing them to move backward through time, while the other half move forward. Sator makes off with the piece of the Algorithm with the benefit of knowledge shared between the two teams. A few scenes later, The Protagonist goes through the same turnstiles and returns to this scene – he is now inverted. In fact, we learn he was the one behind the wheel of the car driving the opposite way in the previous highway sequence, so his past and future self almost collided.

2)      During the climactic battle sequence involving the “red” and “blue” team.

Sator plans to activate the Algorithm in the past. He’s buried it in his former hometown, Stalsk-12, under several bombs. When they explode, it’ll activate the algorithm buried underneath them, changing the entropy of the world. Sator is dying of terminal cancer, he’s using his fitness tracker as a dead man's switch to plan to kill himself on his luxurious yacht when he knows his past self isn't there, activating the Algorithm to destroy the world.

The Protagonist, Neil and Ives set out on a mission to remove the Algorithm before the bomb explodes, while Kat heads to the yacht to stop Sator killing himself before they succeed in removing it from the bomb. The Protagonist goes forward in time with Ives as Red Team, Neil lives as the inverted Blue Team. The woman that past Kat saw jumping off the yacht when she returned on that day was actually her future self after she had killed the future version of Sator.

In the end with Neil's help, the Protagonist and Ives remove the Algorithm in time, which is lucky as Kat decided to kill Sator just as they take it. 

*A battle follows where one half of the team is working backwards to the explosion and the other working forwards. “Blue” team of operatives move through a temporal turnstile to invert backwards to one hour before. They will experience what the “red” team will experience an hour before they do, meaning they will then be able to brief them on what has happened/will happen.

To do this, they go back 10 minutes so they can then fill in the non-inverted “red” team on what will happen. This means that, they work in tandem to prevent Sator’s Algorithm from activating before the blue team have to move back through the portal to return to a normal timeline. If it does activate, it will reverse the entropy of the world, which means the future ceases to exist. The teams will both have 10 minutes to pull off the mission: the blue team moving backwards to their point of entry, the red team simply moving forwards to when the blue team entered – “tenet”, where two tens merging together.

3)      During the Oslo Freeport plane crashing incident where the Protagonist tries to save Kat’s life

During the rescue operation, the protagonist and Neil in the past are attacked by two masked men, who was, in fact, one person. That person is The Protagonist himself, twice. First, we initially see the Protagonist and Neil live forwards in time normally to steal the painting and crash the plane at freeport. They later relive those events in reverse order to save Kat. Here we see the person who the protagonist fights actually is the inverted Protagonist himself, the person who bumps into Neil is actually the "inverted back to normal forward" Protagonist himself.

4)   the entire movie is a temporal pincer movement itself

The protagonist was hired to work for a secret organisation named Tenet, who was actually founded by a future version of the Protagonist himself to stop the end of the World. In the end of the film, after killing Priya to save Kat, he inverts himself back into the past to guide past version of himself, Neil, Ives and Priya about what's to come in future.

16.   How did they set off 2 explosions in that building?

A: In the closed city where the Algorithm is stored, two teams participate in the operation to stop the doomsday device's detonation. The red team is moving forward in time, while the blue team is time-reversed. They're using the "temporal pincer movement" over a 10-minute period, with the blue team kept separate from the red up in helicopters. By setting a timer, the red team (those moving forward in time), detonates a bomb in the bottom half of the building at the 5-minute mark, while the blue team does the same in the top of the building by counting backward from 10 minutes to the same moment.

17.   What happened at the end with Neil?

A: In the Algorithm room, the Protagonist and Ives encounter a locked gate. On the other side, they see the corpse of a masked soldier, who wears a red string on his backpack. One of Sator's men tries to shoot the Protagonist, but the masked man springs back to life, takes the bullet and unlocks the gate, allowing the Protagonist to prevent doomsday. He then reverses out of the tunnel. We later see the red string on Neil's backpack, when he reveals that he was recruited by the Protagonist in the future. So the masked soldier who dies is Neil. This is the reason why Neil was always one step ahead and knew what was coming, why he knew that The Protagonist never drinks on the job.

As Neil explains, this is the end of the story for him as he has to go back into the inverted side of the battle, so that he can open the gate and step in front of the bullet meant for The Protagonist. Neil's loop is closed, but for The Protagonist, this is the beginning of their story together.

18.   Everyone's working for the Protagonist?

A: The Protagonist travels to London to save Kat from arms dealer Priya, who believes she must tie up loose ends. The Protagonist shoots Priya, realizing now he will revert back in time and found the secret organization Tenet.


Note: Some answers are modified according to my own understanding about the film. Answers with ‘A:’ are left unchanged from the sites.

Some Questions are written by me and some are taken from the following sources:


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