Tenet’s ending turns a disappointing movie into its own great sequel

Christopher Nolan’s script for Tenet is its own sort of temporal paradox, constructed on a structure that is both vital and likewise the worst method to experience it on very first watching. Characters continue about time inversion, confess they’re puzzled themselves, or simply state they don’t understand what’s going on either, and nothing looking like human inspiration. Nolan waits so long to provide the audience a factor to care, to provide something to link to on a psychological level, that it’s difficult to appreciate the spectacular action scenes or charming leads for the huge bulk of the motion picture’s two-hour-and-30 minute runtime.

Nolan wished to make a motion picture in which completion is the start is completion — however that’s not how human minds, or hearts, work. The start of the story, from the perspective of the individual muffling their sofa and cueing up Tenet, should be the start of the motion picture itself. Nobody, not even the ever-clever Nolan, can alter how real, direct time runs.

Which is why I enjoy Tenet a lot, in spite of its aggravations. Nolan wishes to keep pressing the limits of these type of smash hits, which indicates he’s going to stop working as much as he is successful. The failure here is that Nolan drops the audience into the middle of a complex tale of vengeance, adjustment of time, and our own malfunctioning presumptions of how experience is viewed, without troubling to provide us relatable, human-sized stakes for any of the characters.

The story is a complex trainwreck of cause, impact, and perhaps some sort of predetermination, and its heart doesn’t even begin to beat till right prior to it flatlines.

This is fantastic and I don’t care about any of it

Tenet’s plot is a doozy. The movie has to do with a CIA representative who eliminates himself while being questioned after a stopped working objective to save an American property throughout a terrorist attack on an opera home. The representative is being tortured, and would rather pass away than quit intelligence.

Then he gets up and is informed he was in fact being checked for a much bigger objective, and it has something to do with individuals and things he saw apparently moving in reverse in time in the opera home. His objective, in theory, is easy: Discover the source of the time-bending bullets and shut the entire thing down prior to the future sends us a nuke, or possibly something even worse.

Our hero, “Protagonist,” doesn’t appear to have any connections beyond his job. No household to miss him now that he’s seemingly dead, and no relationships to evaluate his focus. They discard him in a wind turbine out at sea for complicated factors, and he appears to immediately settle in and start exercising to remain fight prepared. He doesn’t require to inquire about a telephone call, as he has nobody to call.

Robert Pattinson wearing a bullet-proof vest as Neil in Tenet washed with red and blue light

Image: Warner Bros. Photos

He has pals though, consisting of a shadowy operative called Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, who appears to be having the time of his life. And he has what appears to be limitless resources, causing some enjoyable jokes about how pricey it is to be a Bond-style spy. However this is all simply window dressing and stylish dialog.

Who are the bad folks sending weapons moving back through time? We don’t know, and in fact we’re told no one knows. What is their goal? We don’t know. Can they be stopped? Everyone hopes so. Is there any reason to believe the future really does want everyone dead? Fear, according to the endless briefings throughout the movie. We can’t risk it. Which leads to scene after scene of people explaining the basics of time inversion to other characters while also admitting they have next to no idea what is going on, but something must be done.

Which is absolutely fine, in practice. Uncertainty leads to paranoia, and Nolan has created a situation for Protagonist in which he has very little reason to trust anyone, but knows he has to move forward (or backward?) because the stakes are so high. Or … that’s what we’ve been told. Protagonist is more of a human avatar for the mission than he is a human character, but the stakes, the details, and his role in things are all nebulous.

We can be sure of nothing, which could make for a tense film. Instead, Nolan’s tricks filled me with powerful ambivalence.

I am alone, and it all depends on me

Nolan usually starts a film with an emotional bedrock on which he can construct icy visuals and Kubrickian-style detail. I know that Cobb from Inception wants to go home, but can’t. Whatever else happens, those are understandable, relatable stakes. Cooper from Interstellar has to save the world as well, but to do so he has to leave his children on Earth while he searches for a new, hospitable planet, and time dilation means that he finds out his school-aged daughter has become a bitter, driven scientist while he’s still a middle-aged man.

More complicated, sure, but the idea of work keeping us away from our children and the cost to families is clear. The Prestige opens with rivalry, and the loss of a loved one. Memento is a clever puzzle placed inside a story about a man trying to avenge his murdered wife.

Each of these films goes off in strange, wonderful, frustrating, or baffling directions, and that’s part of the fun. A viewer never knows what they’re getting from a Nolan film, which is a rarity in modern blockbusters that often roll along on rails. But his movies tend to start on level ground, with immediately relatable stakes or motivations even in the midst of the preternatural. Viewers don’t simply understand it, they feel it.

But even the action setpieces felt strangely tertiary to Tenet’s story, and I struggled to sit through the movie the first time. Protagonist needs to find the time-inverted bullets, and to do so he needs the help of a woman named Kat who is being kept as a kind of trophy by a mobster who will keep her son if she leaves him. The arms dealer is blackmailing her with her connection to a counterfeit piece of art, which is being kept in a tax-free, ultra-high security warehouse at an airport. Sure.

A plane explodes as it crashes into a bank vault in Tenet

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Protagonist and his team have to get ahold of the counterfeit by crashing a plane into a hangar, fight more future soldiers who are moving backwards in time, and at the end hopefully they have the art which they can then give to the woman so she can get her son away from the arms dealer and then give him up to authorities and then maybe we’ll find out who is actually doing all of this from the future. I think.

In video game terms, this is a side quest, but it’s treated as one of the most important scenes of the movie. If they fail? I guess Protagonist would look for another angle. But at least they crashed some planes.

Kat and her son? They’re never shown together, so we never get to learn for ourselves what their relationship is like. We understand the evil man is an evil man because we are told he is an evil man. There is a grand, operatic story of greed, selflessness, and duty hidden inside Tenet, but it’s initially obscured by Nolan’s decision to show us everything except the things that matter most.

Which brings us to the final climactic battle, when Nolan’s grand plan snaps into view. This ending isn’t a failure, but one of the most ridiculously complicated ways of having your cinematic cake and eating it too that I have ever seen.

I’m almost angrier at how much I respect the script now.

TeneteneT

Tenet’s real story, the moments that lead to, cause, or are helped by the strange mixture of things we do see, happens almost completely offscreen for a reason. The audience is stuck with Protagonist and his questions because we’re experiencing the story in linear fashion with him, but it could be argued that the good guys had already won before the first shot was fired in the opening moments of the movie. We’re not seeing struggle, we’re seeing mop up.

Our hero wasn’t stuck doing pull-ups in isolation to contribute to Nolan’s dreamlike atmosphere, but because his future self was operating in his past-self’s present, setting up everything that was to come. He just needed to be out of the way. Protagonist has actually been working with Neil for literal years of raw time — depending on whether they were moving backwards or forwards, I guess? — not days or weeks. Neil knows everything that is going to happen, including how Protagonist will react to Neil the “first time” they meet, since he’s been doing this so long, under orders from the future version of Protagonist, who knows they will ultimately win because they already have.

John David Washington in Tenet wearing a gas mask

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The two men are partners, and friends. We realize this just as Neil runs back into the climactic “final” battle — from our point of view at least — to make sure it’s successful.

What we know, and what Protagonist knows, and what Neil likely has no illusions about, is that Neil is about to die. Neil has made peace with this, because he’s been given the opportunity to literally save the entirety of the world, and he doesn’t have to say goodbye to a friend he just met. From his point of view, they’ve been colleagues for quite a long time indeed. This isn’t even goodbye to Neil from Protagonist, because they’re about to “meet” for the first time at some point after this battle, at least from Neil’s point of view.

The important stuff happened off-camera because it had to. So much of what Protagonist was doing, and how he went about it, was designed to distract the major players at those particular moments while the actual plan to fight the future was taking place under the care of the future version of Protagonist, working backwards in a move they call a “temporal pincer attack.” Since Protagonist has already lived through the war and seen how the battles will go down, he knows every move he’s about to make will succeed.

The movie of that character’s journey, the one that takes place after this one, is where the actual exposition takes place, and where characters know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it will end up.

Would I like to see that movie? Absolutely. Would it be much closer to a standard blockbuster instead of this ridiculous Gordian knot? Surely. Nolan wrote and directed an epic, and then filmed what literally was a side-quest in the whole story. That makes for a cold, often annoying first watch, until the final minutes in which the actual stakes and reality of the situation are laid bare. Nolan shot the only part of the story that would allow our point of view character to feel like they were in danger, and to be unsure of what happens next.

The final battle scene in Tenet as soldiers run through a factory desert

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Pattinson’s performance can’t be oversold here; his sense of friendship and caring with Protagonist in the closing moments seem to prove that both are good, competent men who have supported each other and have developed a close bond. I don’t need to see the moment that Neil first meets Protagonist from the other point of view, because I understand it emotionally. Which is how two men get to say goodbye without either of them feeling like that friendship was lost. One knows this was the plan all along. The other knows that he’s about to see his friend again, and will in reality be able to help him survive this long. The emotional stakes have been successfully put in place and installed, it just happened at the end, not the beginning. Or rather the end of the least important part of this story.

I sighed at this moment in the movie before getting up and making another cup of coffee. I was about to watch the whole thing again, and I was pretty angry about it. This sort of trick, this overly complex method of storytelling shouldn’t work. And yet, upon the second viewing, armed with the knowledge that these two men are close friends even if they both won’t know it at the same time until much later, the whole thing sings.

Watching Neil play-act his way through his “first” meeting with Protagonist is a delight the second time around, with Robert Pattinson walking the fine line between telegraphing that he understands at least a little bit more than he’s letting on and tipping the game too early by winking at the audience. It’s an actor playing a character who is acting, and it’s masterfully done.

Kat’s story, which seemed emotionally disconnected in the first viewing, clicks together when you understand what’s going on. Knowing that she saw her future self during a climactic moment in her own past changes everything; we know the woman who jumped off the ship, the woman who seemed free to Kat, is Kat gives the loop a poetic sense of finality. She was jealous of herself, and she’s going to get everything she wanted. She just doesn’t know it yet, however we do.

Nolan did something neat in designing a magic trick that actually works better once you know how it was done, something the characters in The Prestige would be really jealous of certainly.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.