Christopher Nolan has long been known for his high-flying, mind-bending, and time-twisting story concepts throughout his directorial career, from the reversed narrative of Memento to the five-dimensional time-travel tesseract of Interstellar, and countless other fantastic twists and turns in-between. These mind-bending concepts often lead to thrilling visuals, but are almost always integral elements of the plot as well, and are rarely done as gimmicks. In Memento, the story told backwards not only leads to a clever twist at the end(/beginning), but the scenes played in reverse order also serve to put the audience in the place of the main character, who cannot form new memories and so has no idea what just happened to him. In Inceptionthe multiple layers of dreams-within-dreams deliver a kick to both the characters and the audience with the turn of a teetering top.
Those same integrated elements of story, visuals, and mind-warping twists are perhaps more on display in tenet than in any other Nolan film to date; it isn’t the best of his films, but it certainly combines the most examples of the unique elements of Nolan’s style together in one action-packed and nearly incomprehensible film about objects, people, and plot lines moving both with and against the current of time and colliding with the past and future in variously stunning ways.
Nolan’s movies always give you something to think about when you leave the theater, and usually do an excellent job of drawing the audience into a fascinating world that they want to return to and rewatch. Layers of the complexity of his narratives become more apparent whenever you rewatch one of Nolan’s films, and you almost inevitably end up picking more and more nuances that you missed the first (or second) time around. Here, too, tenet is the most dramatic example of this tendency in Nolan’s work. If you saw it in theaters, you could be forgiven for coming out impressed by the visuals but utterly bemused by the plot (or, to be honest, what on earth was even happening half the time). If you decide to watch it again, though, you might find that it is actually a dramatically better movie than you remember. Nolan’s movies always benefit from a rewatch, but tenet practically requires one. Whether that reflects well or poorly on the film is difficult to say, but it is certainly better the second time.
One of the benefits of a rewatch is that it addresses one of the most persistent problems of the movie in the first place: comprehensibility. After you’ve seen it once and started to sort out the mess of intersecting storylines colliding in time, the movie becomes much easier to understand. Even if you still didn’t understand the “time-inversion” concept after the first time (honestly even the actors didn’t), understanding the idea of the film and where the plot is progressing (and reversing itself) makes for much smoother viewing as the story becomes easier to piece together.
Another massive benefit of a second viewing is, ironically, something Nolan himself probably wouldn’t agree with. The director has never been shy about voicing his support for the in-theater experience of watching a movie, but there is at least one significant advantage to watching the movie from the comfort of your home: the tender mercies of closed captioning. To be fair, the visuals and sound effects of Nolan’s movies are perfectly suited to the theater and best experienced there, but tenet is also a film that has a heavy dose of important dialogue often overrun by those same sound effects and the pulsing soundtrack. When you no longer have to worry about straining your ears to hear a line of whispered dialogue only to have your eardrums shattered by the sound of a gunshot, it is much easier to follow the narrative and the flow of important information in dialogue.
One of the things that benefits most from an overall better understanding of what is going on in the plot is that it actually reinforces one of the best things about the movie in the first place: the visuals and action sequences. In theaters, the reverse car chase and the temporal pincer attack at the climax of the movie were stunning to watch but extremely confusing to follow. When the plot becomes more comprehensible, though, it makes those set-piece action sequences even better, as you can appreciate both the tension of the action and also appreciate the finesse and artistry that went into making it in the first place.
Finally, perhaps the most significant improvement from a first to a second viewing is something that Nolan’s films, in general, and tenet in particular have often been criticized over: the emotional connections and character development. tenet has been singled out in many critiques as the pinnacle of Nolan’s tendency to focus on plot and action over character. John DavidWashington, as the main character, doesn’t even have a name, after all. He is simply “The Protagonist.” One of the things clarified by another viewing, however, is that there is actually a surprising amount of depth to the emotional connections in the movie, some of which are actually strengthen by the intricacies of the plot.
The most apparent emotional character focus of the movie is easily Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), whose love for her son forces her to stay close to her emotionally abusive husband Sator (Kenneth Branagh), despite the fact that he makes his life a waking nightmare. One of the more nuanced developments of her character in the movie, however, is seen in the way that she moves from someone defined by her terror and emotional submissiveness to Sator, until she comes to the point at which she becomes an integral part of the plot’s climax, and she entirely flips the script on Sator, emotionally manipulating him to buy time before finally having the wherewithal to take him down and escape from under his thumb.
For The Protagonist, as well, there is an interesting emotional journey throughout the plot. His friendship with Neil clearly grows with their common experiences, and the twist at the end where Neil (Robert Pattinson) reveals their long friendship has more emotional weight the second time, as the audience understands the turmoil Neil is suffering that is hinted at throughout the plot: due to the imperative of the mission, he cannot reveal to The Protagonist that they have been lifelong friends .
This realization also hits harder with a second viewing in the way that it impacts Washington’s character. One of the more subtle revelations about the film was the idea that Kat’s son Maximilian actually becomes Neil when he grows up. A second time through the film, with that understanding, the last moments of the movie pack a much harder emotional punch: Neil as a young boy has turned from a friend into more of a son figure to The Protagonist, and his inability to interact with Kat and her son no longer means that he is always protectively watching over her and his friend, but he will always have to do it from a distance.
One of the most compelling results of a rewatch is also tenet‘s callbacks to classic films. It can be easy to miss on a first viewing because of the confusion of the plot, but the final scenes where the three last men standing face off against each other before splitting up the algorithm has the stamp of the standoff from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly all over it. The name of “The Protagonist” himself, in that connection, could be a reference to “The Man with no Name” from that film. Neil also cribs the lines from casablanca when he says his farewell at the end: “I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship.”
No doubt there are countless further layers I haven’t even touched on, as there almost inevitably are in Nolan’s films. But while tenet may have been one of the most confusing films ever on a first watch, it’s worth another go around.
See you in the beginning, friend.
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