“What happened, happened. It’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse for doing nothing.”
Kudos to Christopher Nolan for being adamant about having his film “Tenet” (2020) get a theatrical release — and to single-handedly save the very idea of them — in the midst of a pandemic. Warner Brothers had originally scheduled it to hit theatres on July 17, 2020. It was then pushed back to July 31 and ultimately to August 12. If anybody could do it was Christopher Nolan, whose name recognition as an auteur has made him a box office darling. He doesn’t need big stars attached to his movies to sell them because he has become the main reason for seeing them. It’s quite striking that at the core of his latest film there’s still an independent quality even though it was made on a budget of steroids. As I pointed out in an earlier write up about “Inception” (2010), here’s a filmmaker who deals with epistemological and metaphysical ideas, the notion of time itself, our perception of things and personal identity. His film “Interstellar” (2014), which delved into theoretical physics, was praised for its scientific accuracy by the American Journal of Physics, which also called for it to be shown in school science classes. Doesn’t sound like popular stuff, eh? Well, he makes it all accessible. Here’s one of the most imaginative directors who works on a big canvas, and who doesn’t talk down to his audience.
“Tenet” is slam-bang entertainment and very challenging, and that’s a good thing. It may be the most divisive of his films, but it’s still required viewing by any serious film geek. I loved it! On a surface level you can just go for the ride. It plays like a spy thriller. Heck, I’ve seen James Bond films that are preposterous and uninvolving and yet so popular (the entire Pierce Brosnan ouvre can be described as such), but they’re made worthwhile to me by the exotic locations, a villain who wants to destroy the world and those action sequences. Nolan grabs the tropes that make those films so enticing. We fly off to exotic locales. It opens with a heartstopping sequence in the Linnahall in Estonia, where there’s also a memorable car chase on the Parnu Highway. In Mumbai India, the two main characters run up a skyscraper as if they were ziplining. And the Amalfi coast adds glamour to the proceedings with a massive yacht and an ultra cool speedboat ride on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The nemesis is straight out of Bond territory, rich, with a foreign accent (Russian in this case) and world annihilation on his mind.
The title of the film is a palindrome (a word that reads the same forward and backwards) – a key fact when it comes to understanding how the narrative unfolds visually). It alludes to the Sator Square, a two-dimensional word square containing a five-word Latin palindrome (Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, and Rotas). It appeared in early Christian as well as in magical contexts. The name of the villain played by Kenneth Branagh and other elements are taken from the Sator Square. An opera hall plays a prominent role in the opening (wink, wink).
Now to the good stuff, the plot. The Protagonist (yep, that’s his name!) is recruited to become a secret agent and given the word “tenet” as the key to unlocking his pathway to preventing the onset of World War II. It turns out that the future has declared war on the past because of climate change. “We’re being attacked by the future,” we’re told. A technology known as ‘inversion’ was invented in which people and objects can travel ‘in reverse’ through time. It’s explained that this is done by reversing the measure of the number of possible arrangements the atoms in a system can have – ‘entropy.’ Characters are able to leap through time with the understanding that it is a “closed-loop” – meaning that in the present has already happened. Are you blinded by science yet? A scientist, Laura, explains the concept of time inversion to The Protagonist early in the film and gives him a piece of advice that we should all take while watching “Tenet”… “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Eventually, The Protagonist (an appealingly stoic John David Washington) comes into contact with a rich Indian contractor (a nice turn by Bollywood star Dimple Kapadia) and an over the top evil Russian oligarch (Branagh eating scenery) and his sad and abused wife Kat (a terrific Elizabeth Debicki). The film is stolen by a misleadingly dubious Robert Pattinson as Neil, a British intelligence officer who becomes The Protagonist’s sidekick.
As expected the film looks stunning. There’s forward moving action while simultaneously other action is moving in reverse. It’s all awe-inspiring and deservedly won the Oscar for special effects at the 2021 ceremony. One scene is mind-blowing and involves a mirror that separates the main players from future versions of themselves. The present is in blue tones, and the future in neon reds – and the play between the colors becomes a wonderful form of both visual and mental sexiness.
Neil: “It’s the bomb that didn’t go off. The danger no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW Max and HBO NOW. Available to rent on Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW and Vudu.
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh
Writer & Director Christopher Nolan on the Idea Behind “Tenet”
“I had this notion of just a bullet getting sucked out of the wall and into the barrel of a gun. It’s an image that I had in ‘Memento’ to demonstrate the structure of that movie, but I always harbored this ambition to make a film where the characters had to deal with the physical reality of that. In a way, an idea comes to the fore when the time is right for it, and it’s a hard process to quantify, so I was doing all these other things. There are things that you learn how to make and everything in ‘Tenet,’ interestingly, on the surface of it, they’re all versions of action or particular ways of filming things that I’ve tried before in a different form. You’re building on what you’ve done in the past.” (cinemablend.com)
The Visual Effects of “Tenet”
“It’s Chris Nolan on steroids, almost,” says visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson, who’s been nominated for an Oscar and Visual Effects Society Award for the film. “It’s an extreme version of playing with the idea of time,” he says of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s September release. Reading the script, Jackson recognized that it was going to take effort to determine the look. It wasn’t in the cards to simply present forward action and reverse it, or have effects that feel like fantasy. For “Tenet,” visuals had to tout an unusualness that was grounded in the real world. The philosophy for the VFX was rooted in in-camera shooting — to harness compositing or CG only when necessary. Jackson, who started out in practical effects before moving into visual effects, was comfortable sitting between the two worlds, and with Nolan having involved key departments early on, including special effects supervisor Scott Fisher, they could discuss ideas at length. Early conversations leaned into how objects or people would move backward in time. On screen, an inverted person moves backward, but from their perspective, they are traveling forward, and the world around them is moving in reverse. “The discussions were like exercising a muscle you never used before. We needed to be able to visualize the forward and backward events together while at the same time thinking about the point of view on an inverted observer,” Jackson notes. The impetus for approaching more ambitious scenes came from the 3-D previs that Jackson designed on a laptop. One sequence was a pulse-pounding car chase (shot in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia) that had action moving forward and backward in a ticking will-they-get-away thrill ride. The previs, or digital preview of the action, became an integral resource for Nolan and team as a way to check if the story points were chronologically correct. “It was a difficult scene to figure out, because the audience not only sees it once normally but also later on in the film in reverse. With the previs, we could scrub through the sequence to make sure it all made sense logically from any point in time and from anyone’s perspective,” he explains. Another weighty scene involved crashing a real 747 airplane. “That was a huge one,” Jackson says. “Our initial thought was to create it with miniatures and CG, but because we had to a do a scene leading up to the crash earlier, it worked out so that we could build the set and generate the full-sized crash.”
To pull off the sequence, it was shot at an airport in Victorville, Calif., using a decommissioned plane that was restored for the film. Production built the set piece that the plane would crash into, and then visual effects enhanced the explosion and cleaned up other areas to the single-take shot. “We added some CG trees that were sucked into the engine reacting to the blast and tidied up the fence line and removed all the tow ropes, but the meat of the shot was in camera,” Jackson says.
It wasn’t only the crew that needed to think palindromic. Actors and stunt teams learned their actions both forward and backward as well. The key to any scene, especially fighting sequences, was figuring out what was the most difficult thing to do backward. Whatever that was, it would be filmed forward and the footage reversed in post. For instance, if someone was falling down, that action couldn’t be performed in reverse, so it would be filmed in forward motion. Then the actor playing opposite the actor falling would perform his own actions backward to create the scene. This allowed postproduction to keep the action as it plays out, or reverse it, depending on where it landed in the story. This was evident during the climactic battle sequence. Among the chaos is one of Jackson’s favorite moments, where the VFX team got to explode and implode a building at the same time. To piece it together, two exact buildings were constructed and blown up from matching camera angles so they could reverse the action of one of them and composite the two elements together to achieve the effect. “It’s a good example of one of the uses where we had to add CG components to the top of the building falling, because the dust from the plate explosion was so strong you couldn’t see the building anymore. It was a big job but still based on visual effects and how we have to tidy things up.” Even for such an imposing concept, the visual effects team needed to turn over only about 300 shots, far less than any current superhero film. “That number is not unusual for Chris,” Jackson says. “Figuring out ways to shoot real effects is ideal. If we don’t have to do any work in post, it will be that much more pleasant for him.” (latimes.com)
About Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema
Born in Switzerland and raised in The Netherlands, van Hoytema studied cinematography at the National Film School in Poland, but only after the Netherlands Film Academy rejected his application — twice. Upon graduating, he returned to Amsterdam and tried to gain a foothold in the industry. He served as a clapper loader for Jules van den Steenhoven, NSC, and as a camera trainee for Robby Müller, NSC, BVK, and although he worked with each cinematographer just once, both became mentors. In an effort to find work, van Hoytema returned to Poland, where a film-school friend offered him a job pulling focus on a Swedish TV series. His friend departed the production early, leaving van Hoytema to finish one episode; this marked his first director of photography credit. He began shooting a steady stream of Scandinavian productions, and one of these, Tomas Alfredson’s vampire story “Let The Right One In,” was an international hit, bringing van Hoytema to the attention of filmmakers around the world. Van Hoytema won three Guldbagge Awards (Sweden’s equivalent to the Academy Awards) in just four years, for Let the Right One In,” “Flickan” and “Call Girl.” His credits also include “Bad Faith,” “The Girl” and “Chlorox,” “Ammonia” and “Coffee.” He is also a member of honorary cinematographer societies in Sweden (FSF) and The Netherlands (NSC)…His other feature credits also include “Spectre,” “Her,” “The Fighter” and “Let the Right One In.” (theasc.com)
About Editor Jennifer Lame
Editor Jennifer Lame has rapidly built one of the most impressive resumés in contemporary American filmmaking since her breakthrough in 2012 with Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” – a collaboration that has continued on all of Baumbach’s films since, including 2019’s “Marriage Story.” Lame’s other credits include Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), Sebastián Silva’s “Tyrel” (2018) and Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” (2018). Her most recent film is Christopher Nolan’s epic and intricate science-fiction spy thriller “Tenet.” (lecinemaclub.com)
About Writer and Director Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan was born in London in 1970, to an English father — who spent time shooting commercials in Los Angeles and returned home with stories about the Beverly Hills Hotel — and an American mother, who had worked as a flight attendant. His childhood was apportioned between London and Chicago. Jonah, who is six years younger, told me that his very earliest memories were of his older brother making stop-motion space odysseys, painstaking processes of tweaking the gestures of action figures. They went to the movies constantly, and Jonah recalls that they brooked no distinction between the arty and the mainstream; they’d go to Scala Cinema Club in London to see “Akira” or a Werner Herzog film one month and then go to the Biograph in Chicago to see “The Commitments” the next. (When Jonah was 13 or 14, Nolan gave him two Frank Miller volumes, “Batman: Year One” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” which the two revered.) Nolan went to an English boarding school with a military inflection and then on to University College London, where he read English literature. He chose U.C.L. because of its film facilities, which included a Steenbeck editing suite. He and Emma Thomas, his wife, began dating in their first year. Together they ran a film society, screening 35-millimeter films to make money so members could shoot 16-millimeter shorts.
Nolan made his first film, “Following,” on $6,000 over the course of a year, shooting perhaps 15 minutes of footage each Saturday. It’s a very clever con-man/murder drama that owes more than a little to Hitchcock, with a sliced-up, rearranged chronology that prefigures “Memento.” Emma moved to Los Angeles, for her job with the production company Working Title, and Nolan, who was having trouble raising money in the clubby world of English filmmaking, soon followed. He and Jonah discussed the idea for ‘Memento’ on their road trip from Chicago to Hollywood. They went on to film it over 25½ days on a budget of $4.5 million. After that, when he came across the script of “Insomnia,” a remake of a Norwegian psychological thriller, Warner Bros. had the option. Nolan was interested but couldn’t get a meeting. His agent, Dan Aloni, called Steven Soderbergh, an early fan of ‘Memento.’ Soderbergh told me that he “just walked across the lot and said to the head of production, “You’re insane if you don’t meet with this guy.” My sense even then was that he didn’t need our help except to get in the door.” Everything happened very quickly. Nolan made the film on a budget of $46 million, and Soderbergh and George Clooney signed on as executive producers. Soderbergh visited the set in Alaska. “I got there and was having a conversation with Al Pacino: ‘How do you feel? How’s it going?’ Al said, ‘Well, I can tell you right now, at some point in the very near future I’m going to be very proud to say I was in a Christopher Nolan movie.’ ” The film went on to gross $113 million worldwide and showed Warners he could handle the demands of a studio movie…
…The success of “Insomnia” was what gave Nolan a shot at the resurrection of Warners’ Batman franchise…In writing and shooting “Interstellar,” the chief constraints that guided him were scientific; the film proposes some potentially batty possibilities for gravity and space-time, but it felt essential to Nolan that the physics behind the movie be at least speculatively plausible. He and Kip Thorne, the Caltech scientist whose theories formed the germ of the original project, met every few weeks for about five months. According to Thorne, Nolan told him that he “wanted a movie that did not violate any well-established physical laws.” Even the graphics, Thorne told me, “are perfectly modeled — precisely what I think you’d see if you went chasing light rays around wormholes. They fit with Chris’s desire to have the graphics done in accord with the equations of general relativity.” As Nolan’s productions and their budgets have grown — “Batman Begins” cost $150 million, “The Dark Knight” $185 million and “The Dark Knight Rises” $250 million — those, too, have become another set of equations to optimize, and he has said that he writes his scripts to fit the production methods he’ll use…Though he was making his first Super 8 films at 7, it wasn’t until he’d made “Following,” in his late 20s, that he really began to understand film as a mode of mass communication. He toured festivals with that movie, and it was only when he saw 400 people in a room in communion with his film that he understood how dependent he was, and the film was, on their response…At the budget level I’m able to work at, I really try to give the audience the most technically compelling experience I can give, with picture and sounds, something they haven’t seen before.” (nytimes.com) His next film, “Dunkirk” (2017), which he also wrote, centres on the evacuation of Allied troops from France during World War II. The action drama earned universal acclaim and was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including best picture. In addition, Nolan received an Oscar nod for his direction. In 2020 he wrote and directed “Tenet,” a time-bending action thriller that centres on a C.I.A. agent trying to avert a world war. (britannica.com)