Breaking Down All the Mysteries and Questions of Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet'

Plus, how two Thrillist Entertainment staffers saw the movie everyone's talking about but not that many people have seen.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Against all odds -- quite literally, the odds were stacked against this movie ever being released -- Christopher Nolan's latest mind game Tenet is finally out in theaters. After having delayed it numerous times, Nolan and Warner Bros. were dead set on releasing it in the summer of 2020, which made Tenet one of the first movies to herald the reopening of movie theaters in America upon its release over Labor Day weekend, following its late August international debut. It's also not exactly the easiest film to go out and see, both for those of us who are still leery of spending time in an enclosed public place and especially for anyone living in New York and Los Angeles, where theaters are still closed.

Yet, some admittedly crazy movie nuts -- including two Thrillist Entertainment staffers, Emma Stefansky and Esther Zuckerman -- did go out of their way to see Tenet in as controlled an environment as humanly possible. They emerged with some answers to the nature of Nolan's mysterious project, and a lot more questions.

How did two New Yorkers end up seeing Tenet

Emma Stefansky: I was fortunate enough to tag along with some fellow critics who had elected to rent out a movie theater auditorium for one of the early showings of the movie a few days before it opened -- Cinemark is currently renting out some of their auditoriums for people who would rather not sit in a big room with a bunch of strangers breathing the same recirculated air. There were four of us in total, so we could sit as far away from each other as we wanted, and I knew that all of them were shut-ins like me who weren't the type to have attended any wild COVID parties in the past two weeks. I've been pretty diligent about exposure avoidance during all of this -- washing my hands and my phone and wiping down my groceries and letting mail sit for a day before I touch it -- and I felt totally fine seeing a movie this way. I even got candy! As Tom Cruise said: Back to the movies!

Esther Zuckerman: I, too, traveled to the far-off land of Milford, Connecticut, where my boyfriend and I rented out an entire screening for our own personal "Private Watch Party." Did we feel a bit silly about the $149 expense when there was a sparsely attended showing of Tenet right across the hallway? Yes. But did we feel much safer having an entire 67-seat theater to ourselves? 100% yes. As two people who have been incredibly careful and extremely neurotic about COVID, we were a bit taken aback by the pre-roll ad for Cinemark that all but demanded people see Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters, but all in all it was a nice and safe (seeming at least) experience. It was also the closest thing we've had to a vacation since March. (Also: If you do travel from New York to Milford, I highly suggest making a pit stop at The Lobster Hut, a truck across the street from a car dealership that has one of the best lobster rolls I've ever eaten.) 

What is Tenet actually about? 

Esther: Honestly, this question is still extremely hard to answer, even after we have both seen this movie. As I said to our extremely spoiler-phobic boss: If nothing makes sense, can you even spoil something? On one hand, Tenet is very complicated. On the other, it's pretty simple. John David Washington plays a character whose name, as far as we know, is "the Protagonist." After being captured during an operation in Ukraine at an opera house, he is recruited to join an organization known as Tenet, which is seeking out the origins of an "inverse radiation" technology that essentially allows people and objects to reverse time. In explaining this to the Protagonist, Clémence Poésy's scientist tells him, "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." That's a pretty good way to approach the movie. Eventually, The Protagonist's hunt leads him to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the wife of the Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is orchestrating all this havoc. The Protagonist, helped by his new colleague Neil (Robert Pattinson), capitalizes on Kat's extreme misery in her unhappy relationship to get closer to Sator. (All Kat wants is to spend time with her son.) Mostly this just gives Nolan an excuse for some wild set pieces in which cars and other large objects move back and forth in time. I don't know, does that cover it, Emma? 

Emma: I think that's a good assessment of the setup here, without giving away any of the cool stuff. The backwards objects, which tend to be bullets that suck themselves back into guns and bars of gold that fall upwards into people's hands, have been "inverted" by people in the far future, who have been using Sator as their contact in the past (our present) to construct a doomsday device called "the Algorithm" that has the power to destroy the space-time continuum as we know it. Which would be very bad! We don't want that to happen. In hunting down Sator, Neil and the Protagonist (a great band name) utilize the inversion technology themselves to travel forwards and backwards in time to save the present. 

Warner Bros.

Was Robert Pattinson right when he said there was no time travel? 

Esther: Here's the thing. Robert Pattinson is a fucking liar. He lies all the time. Yes, there is time travel in Tenet -- it's just not historical time travel. The characters bop around between hours and days. It's sort of all about time travel, Robert Pattinson, you goddamn liar. Emma, do you think Robert Pattinson is a liar? 

Emma: Honestly, I have been thinking about this a lot, and I might have to disagree with you here! Here's my thought process: When we think about "time travel," what do we think about? Usually, time travel, as it is presented in pop culture, is the process of going from one point in time to another instantaneously, which means there's a portion of time that you end up skipping over completely. In Tenet, they call what they do "time inversion," which, instead of popping out of one point in time and popping back in again a few minutes or hours or days later, you have to repeat the period of time you just experienced, whether you're going forwards or backwards. That's how we get those action sequences like the big car chase in the middle of the movie that we see forwards one way, and backwards the other. And that's why, in order to get back to a specific point in the past, Neil and Kat and the Protagonist have to invert themselves and then basically hang out in a tent for a couple weeks. It's also why the psychos from the far future who invented this technology can't communicate directly with Sator -- we never meet anyone who is actually from the future in this movie (unless you count Neil's little twist at the end). 

Esther: Okay, fine, you win this one. But I maintain: They are still traveling... through... time! It's time travel. Just different. 

Emma: I'm your antagonist. 

Who gives the best performance in Tenet

Esther: I know I just got very mad at Robert Pattinson and called him a liar. But here's the thing: He's very good! Pattinson, for years now, has actively attempted to distance himself from his heartthrob reputation, giving great but Grade-A weirdo performances in the likes of Good Time and The Lighthouse. But here, he's got a classic movie star swagger that frankly is both very appealing and very hot. Like pretty much every character in this movie, Neil is a cipher. He basically just pops up next to Washington's Protagonist and becomes his BFF/partner. But Pattinson's innate charisma makes this totally work. He's so easygoing and floppy, casually explaining his plan to create a fire in a Freeport storing valuable art by crashing a plane into the facility. I would watch 10 more sequels just about Neil going on time inversion adventures and thinking up big fabulous stunts. 

Emma: I agree with you 100% here -- the minute I saw the stinger at the end of the trailer, with Neil's "That part's a little dramatic" line, I knew I was gonna have fun watching him. I've always respected Pattinson as an actor, but I've never wanted to, like, hang out with any of the characters he's played until this one. I wish Tenet was real so I could join up and be timecops with Neil and crack little jokes while bungee-ing off the sides of hotels. The scene where he cases the Freeport pretending to be a millionaire and asking all kinds of suspicious questions is one of Tenet's strongest. My favorite Nolan characters are always the ones that I want to see way more of, and I got the same feeling from Neil as I got from the Inception crew. I know these movies will never get sequels, but if they did, I wouldn't be mad. 

I also was surprised at how much I enjoyed John David Washington here -- his general stolidness is something that usually works against him in other roles, but here it's perfect, given how insane and over the top the rest of this movie is. And it works with Nolan's sense of humor (yes, he does have one!!), which is less about joke-a-minute comedy and more pithy little asides at the ends of interactions. Washington's scene with Michael Caine, half of which he spends arguing about men's fashion and the other half needling the poor waiter, is uproariously funny, not because anything anyone says is particularly hilarious, but because every character in it is trying to out-pith each other. 

Esther: Speaking of Nolan's odd sense of humor. I wanted to give a shout out to Master of Ham, Kenneth Branagh. Branagh, the lauded Shakespearean actor and director, dons his best sneering Russian accent as Sator and just seems to be having a blast in villain mode. Case in point, the best line in the movie: While threatening the Protagonist, Sator hisses: "It's very gratifying to watch a man you don't like pull his own balls out of his throat before chokes." First of all, that's fucking hilarious. Good work, Chris. Second, Branagh delivers this with such deadpan panache that I feel like he deserves maybe 10 Oscars.  

Warner Bros.

What is "the Algorithm?"

Esther: This is one of the more perplexing things about the movie. An "algorithm" seems like, well, an algorithm. But here, it actually appears to be a physical MacGuffin that's comprised of various little doodads that ultimately end up looking like a Bop It! 

Emma: Bop it! Pull it! Twist it! Invert it!

Esther: I mean, seriously! Emma, do you have a better handle on "the Algorithm?"

Emma: As I understand it, and I think someone in the movie says this at one point, the Algorithm is a mathematical formula that has somehow been converted into physical form. Which is utter bullshit, of course, but a cool thing to say about what is essentially a bunch of K'NEX. I'm sure there was some vital information given in the midst of the outrageous finale that makes it all make perfect sense, but I definitely missed it. 

Esther: K'NEX! Love that the only way we can make sense of Tenet is to reference childhood staples. Maybe that's actually all Nolan wanted, some way to pry into our nostalgia and fuck with our sense of time. 

Emma: Christopher Nolan, at heart, just loves doing puzzles. Speaking of that finale…

Does it matter that the end of Tenet doesn't make any sense? 

Emma: In a way, Tenet feels like Nolan lovingly poking a finger into the eyes of all those obsessives who create minutely detailed diagrams in order to "solve" his movies. (I maintain that Inception is perfectly easy to understand if you just pay attention!) When I heard people talking about how this one is his most unintelligible yet, I was pretty skeptical, but it turns out that, yes, Tenet is indeed his densest. The whole thing is a nearly three-hour expository info dump, with characters introducing new concepts every 20 minutes until it all culminates in this wildly confusing forwards-backwards battle scene wherein it's easy to lose track of who and where anyone is supposed to be anymore. I think I told you, Esther, that afterwards I couldn't wait to rewatch it with subtitles on, not because of the faulty sound mix that some people have been complaining about (for the record, I wasn't really bothered by it), but just so I can make sure I actually caught everything everyone's saying. Half the time, you can't even read their lips because they're wearing masks! 

The big battle sequence is, in my opinion, the movie's weakest point -- it's so loud, there are so many people running around, and you've just sat through two hours of people debating paradox theories while driving cars backwards down busy highways so your eyes just naturally kinda start glazing over. I do genuinely trust that Nolan knows what he's doing, though, since he's such a meticulous director and puts a lot of effort into writing these bizarre scripts. He covers his bases pretty well here, too, introducing the "grandfather paradox" early on to answer the question: If these guys go back in time to save the world, then how could any of this stuff have happened in the past to cause them to go back in time and save the world in the first place? Neil even says, point blank, "Don't think about it too much." What about you, Esther: Did you want a diagram of the whole thing by the end, or were you happy just "feeling it"? 

Esther: Emma, I'll admit that I'm rarely the type of viewer who actually wants a diagram of what I just watched. I'm all about feeling it, and I actually liked that Nolan basically gave the audience permission to do just that. That said, the only time I was slightly peeved during my viewing was as it drew to a conclusion and unleashed a torrent of expository mumbo jumbo and a barrage of explosions. There's a reason Nolan is known for his big-screen spectacle and he has a command of almost balletic cinematic flair like no other, and the way everything ties up felt messier than usual for him just in terms of how the action unfolds. For most of the movie, I was giddy. A highway heist is executed so gracefully I was pumping my fists and giggling with glee. It was totally okay to do that because I was in my own private theater, if you recall. Despite going out of my way to see Tenet in a theater, I don't agree with Nolan and Warner Bros.'s choice to release it in the midst of a public health crisis. I think it's reckless and possibly dangerous. And, yet, I can't deny how glorious it was to just feel the spectacle. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.