Early in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Tenet, a scientist (Clémence Poésy) demonstrates the film’s bizarre time travel gimmick for the nameless secret agent Protagonist (John David Washington). After a bullet rises off of a table into her hand as if dropped in reverse, she tells him, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Tenet was originally released in theaters in September 2020, when COVID-19 was rampant and sitting in a movie theater for two and a half hours was a dangerous and irresponsible prospect. Most Nolan fans who didn’t skip it experienced it first at home, no doubt to the filmmaker’s frustration. Nolan lobbied hard to preserve Tenet’s ill-timed theatrical release with a stubbornness that read, to many, as artistic vanity. But when watching Tenet on your television (probably with subtitles, given its overwhelming sound mix), it quickly becomes apparent why Nolan was so insistent that people experience the film in theaters. Through Poésy’s character, he delivers the audience clear instructions: Tenet is supposed to be felt, not understood, and the best place to feel a film is in a dark room with a massive screen, booming speakers, and a hundred people feeling it with you.
For one week, from February 23rd to March 1st, American filmgoers will get another, substantially less hazardous opportunity to see Tenet as it was intended to be seen, in either IMAX or 70mm film formats. To those of you who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend experiencing it first in its biggest, loudest form. And for those who, like me, saw it first at home on your couch in a state of peak pandemic-era depression, I implore you to give it a fair chance in its natural habitat as it returns to theaters to complete its real-life Temporal Pincer Movement.
I will not exaggerate by hailing Tenet as Nolan’s secret, unappreciated masterpiece, but its signature gimmick is a unique and spectacular expression of his fascination with time and cinema’s unique ability to bend it into interesting narrative shapes. Nearly all of Nolan’s films experiment with time in one way or another, usually with a rigid and explicit set of rules. Each scene in Memento takes place before the last, except the black-and-white interstitials, which are sequential. Dunkirk is split in three temporalities that each move at a different pace and gradually converge like the hands of a clock. These are fun and legible narrative structures, but they don’t necessarily require the medium of film to function. (Memento was a short story first.) Tenet presents characters and objects traveling through time simultaneously and in opposite directions, and then later presents those same scenes in reverse to tell a different story. Cause and effect become tangled and contradictory, and the audience witnesses them concurrently. This is an entirely new experience that would be impossible to convey in another medium. Tenet is pure cinema.
It’s possible to pick apart Nolan’s temporal turnstile, either to better understand the mechanics of the story or to find flaws in its internal logic. For some viewers, this Puzzle Box activity is part of the fun of science fiction or fiction in general. You can diagram it like the four, increasingly dilated timelines of Inception’s dreamscape, and it’ll mostly pass muster. It may even be necessary to have a notepad out while watching in order to make sense of its forward-and-backwards apocalyptic threat. But if you do this, then you are not taking Tenet as prescribed. It’s right there on the label: Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.
Likewise, in the era of CGI-washed action blockbusters, Tenet is the rare film that can still make you ask yourself “How on Earth did they do that?” Tenet’s action demonstrates not only the incredible things that can be achieved when practical and visual effects are harmoniously intertwined, but the awe-inspiring imagination of action designers, fight coordinators, and stunt performers. How does one stage a brawl between two characters who are experiencing time in opposite directions? How does one compose a car chase that works both backwards and forwards and makes linear sense for characters in either context? Some of these questions can be answered by searching for behind-the-scenes interviews and featurettes, and some of them require an elasticity of thought and an understanding of action design that you would only achieve from a lifetime of study.
Instead of overclocking your brain trying to solve Tenet, consider dedicating that attention towards the effortlessly charming partnership between John David Washington’s Protagonist and Neil, the winsome English spy portrayed by Robert Pattinson. Even under the weight of Tenet’s avalanche of plot, the budding friendship between these two enigmatic agents is a buoy of levity, a beacon of warmth, the stuff fan fiction is made of. Bask in the Michael Mann-inspired vibes and pulsing Ludwig Göransson score, and in Jennifer Lame’s editing, which keeps the near-constant exposition moving at a steady jogger’s pace. The individual components of this film are all impressive, but they’re even better if you decide not to think about them.
Like most of Christopher Nolan’s films, Tenet is a finely-tuned watch, but it’s the only one in which it doesn’t really matter what time it is.
Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.