After multiple delays, Tenet, the latest film from summer blockbuster king Christopher Nolan, has finally hit (most) theatres in North America, and as was the case with several of his previous films, the Internet is investigating every frame and every (audible) word of the film, leaving absolutely no stone unturned (or inverted, in this case).
The intricacies of the plot are, as to be expected with a Nolan movie centered on Time, difficult to parse and not without holes. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it”, as the Tenet scientist advises the Protagonist early on in Tenet, simultaneously advising audiences on how to experience the film.
However, there’s one thing that we can be absolutely certain about and it’s that Tenet makes overt references to all of the director’s previous films. Some of them are more obvious than others, and others become impossible to miss once you see them. So, like the time-travel mechanics in Tenet, rather than travel directly back to the past, let’s go in reverse chronology, starting with Nolan’s most recent film.
On the surface, Dunkirk, which is based on the true World World II story of the Dunkirk evacuation, may seem like the direct opposite of a spy thriller with a premise centered on preventing World World III, but the surface is actually where the parallels begin. Namely: the imaged used in the movie poster for Dunkirk, which features our protagonist standing on a literal battleground, with soft outlines of structures in the background, and embers as accent colours for a primarily-blue image.
Compare that an image used for one of Tenet’s movie posters (see above), and the similarities are clear. Dunkirk also features a main character who spends over half of the movie in a mask (played by Tom Hardy, who has spent half of his career in a mask), but as long-time Nolan fans know, that’s about as common in his movies as Sir Michael Caine, who is, of course, also in the film that came before Dunkirk.
The third movie in Nolan’s “movie’s with one-word titles that start with In-” trilogy, Interstellar follows an astronaut on a mission to find a new home for mankind. While we follow the protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey, we see him experience an unexplainable anomaly in the upstairs room of his home, in front of the bookshelf.
As the story progresses, we then learn that the anomaly was the intentional result of a future version of himself revisiting that moment. That’s paralleled in Tenet, in which the Protagonist partakes in a highway chase and encounters a car driving inversely, only for him to later learn that the driver of that car was a future version of himself intervening. (The Anne Hathaway handshake scene is also very similar.)
Aside from that, late in Tenet, the main antagonist played by Kenneth Branaugh (who also appears in Dunkirk) alludes to a future where living on Earth becomes nearly untenable due to climate change, a reality that already exists when Interstellar begins.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The third movie in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises features a mano-a-mano fight scene between Batman and Bane on the catwalks above and around an open pit. That catwalk also includes a gated door, which Catwoman stands behinds as she watches the fight.
Near the end of Tenet, the Protagonist also finds himself on a catwalk with an enemy on the other end, except he’s on the other side of the gated door. And whereas Catwoman brought Batman to Bane and Batman loses the fight, the third person in the Tenet scene, whom we later learn is the Protagonist’s partner, Neil, helps the Protagonist win the fight and leave.
Undoubtedly Christopher Nolan’s most-discussed film, Inception features a truly spectacular fight sequence in a rotating hallway (which was filmed practically in a rotating set) and it remains one of Nolan’s best and most memorable fight sequences.
Tenet, of course, also features an important hallway fight sequence, but while the hallway isn’t rotating, the fight scene still featured unorthodox movement and acrobatics as a result of the respective films’ core, excuse the pun, tenets. (Dream layers in Inception, inversion in Tenet.)
Mirroring those differences are the “totem” objects in both movies. The spinning top in Inception lets Cobb know whether or not he’s in a dream, similar to how bullets in Tenet let the Protagonist know whether or not inversion is at play. Inception’s hallway scene and totem feature rotation. Tenet’s hallway scene and totem feature inversion.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Both The Dark Knight and Tenet begin with a team of baddies taking over a public space, but there’s another visual reference in Tenet that’s such an overt reference to The Dark Knight that it’s practically a homage (if you believe it’s possible for somebody to pay homage to their own work). The Dark Knight features Batman, as a means to an end, traveling to Hong Kong to extract a man who works with criminals. That scene begins with Batman flying downwards into a skyscraper and ends with the “Skyhook”, which pulls Batman and his target upwards and out of the skyscraper.
Tenet features a very similar scene, also early on in the movie. In order to infiltrate a heavily-secured skyscraper in a densely-populated city to get to a man who works with criminals, the Protagonist uses a device that pushes him upwards and onto the adjacent skyscraper. When it’s time to leave, he leaps over and runs down the side of the building. Both scenes also take place at night and are immediately followed by a cut to a sidewalk leading to a short set of stairs in broad daylight.
The Prestige (2006)
A top 5 Christopher Nolan movie (in my book), The Prestige follows the years-long duel between two rival magicians as they continuously try to one-up each other, particularly with newer and more improved versions of a magic trick called The Transported Man. That trick features the magician walking through a doorway, only to come out of a different doorway some distance away.
The crux of Tenet and it’s time-travel mechanic requires the same feat. A man walks through a doorway, referred to as a “Turnstile” in the movie, leaving the past, and exits through an identical-looking doorway, entering a different time. Of course there’s also the shared aspect in both movies of a double being created once you walk through the doorway, as well as a subplot where the protagonist teams up with the antagonist’s estranged wife/girlfriend.
Batman Begins (2005)
The parallel between Tenet and Batman Begins is less obvious because it’s more structural than visual, but both the rebirth of the protagonist and death of the antagonist follow the same structure.
As we all know by now, Bruce Wayne chose to become Batman due in large part because of the murder of his parents outside an opera house, after he requested to leave before the show was over. Years later, he joins a secret organization, the League of Shadows, after which he reinvents himself as Batman with what he learned.
Likewise, the events in Tenet are triggered following a trip to the opera that the protagonist himself interrupts, after which somebody he was with is murdered in front of him. Afterwards, he is recruited by a secret organization, Tenet, and he subsequently reinvents himself with what he’s learned, becoming a new man.
Fairly early on in both films, the protagonist also saves the man who ultimately becomes the main antagonist (Ducard, who turns out to be Ra’s al Ghul, in Batman Begins; Sator in Tenet), and at the end of both films, the antagonist dies without the protagonist himself killing them.
In Insomnia, Christopher Nolan’s most underrated film, a beloved book that belonged to a girl that was romantically involved with the antagonist helps Detective Dormer get to the antagonist. In Tenet, the Protagonist uses a beloved painting that belonged to the antagonist’s wife, Kat, to get to the antagonist, Andrei Sator.
Additionally, “We live in a twilight world, and there are no friends of dusk”, is a phrase that’s repeated throughout Tenet. Insomnia takes place in a setting where there’s perpetual daylight. There’s some kind of parallel there that I can’t quite explain — perhaps one is the inverse of the other — but I will fully admit that this one may be a stretch.
The movie that introduced the world to the mind-bending stories of Christopher Nolan, Memento, while vastly different in size and scale, actually shares some rather significant parallels with Tenet.
The gimmick of Tenet (that’s right, I’m calling it a gimmick) is, of course, the whole concept of inversion, which inverts entropy and can result in objects moving in reverse. Early on in the movie, the Tenet scientist explains this to the Protagonist saying that “It’s not time-travel; it’s reverse chronology.”
We see this visualized via the bullet holes that the Protagonist encounters, which are the result of gunshots he has yet to see. What he sees first, actually happened last. That’s reverse chronology in a nutshell. You know where this is going. Memento featured two timelines: a black-and-white timeline that’s in chronological order, and a colour timeline that’s, famously, presented in reverse chronology.
And here’s the kicker: both Memento and Tenet end with last second twists revealing that everything we just watched the protagonist do was the product of his own doing. Leonard Shelby, we learn, trapped himself in a loop, intentionally taking advantage of his anterograde amnesia. Similarly, in the final moments of Tenet, we learn that not only does the Protagonist work for Tenet, he started Tenet. “I realized we’re both working for me”, he says.
Christopher Nolan’s feature film debut, Following tells the story of a writer who follows random strangers around London as a means of finding inspiration. As fate would have it, one day the man picks a stranger who happens to be a thief involved in the criminal underworld.
The main parallel between Following and Tenet is that the main female character in both films is a blonde woman who’s romantically involved with a criminal she’s now estranged from. Then of course there’s the men in suits, as well as a cafe/restaurant conversation scene, both of which are in almost all of Nolan’s films, including Tenet.
And that’s that! Tenet was the Bond film Christopher Nolan has publically said he’s wanted to make, and it’s a fun spy film, but spy films usually don’t work as well when the stakes are something as grand as the world ending. The inversion of objects is cool to see, but it kind of loses its luster when it’s shown as much as it is in the movie.
There’s also not much subtext to Tenet. Memento is about the lies we tell ourselves. The Dark Knight is about Order and Chaos. The Prestige is about obsession. Inception is a metaphor about filmmaking. What’s Tenet about? It’s not particularly clear. The Sator Square connection is cool, but that’s not subtext because the Sator Square itself is a bit of a mystery.
And that’s okay! Movies don’t have to be about something. The world needs popcorn movies, now probably more than ever. Judged against Nolan’s own filmography, Tenet is good but not great, but it’s still better than most action movies out there. Either way, it’s great to have a new Christopher Nolan movie to talk about.
Three Small Details I Loved:
- When The Protagonist and Neil infiltrate the Freeport complex in Oslo, they’re holding teacups, plates included.
- Tenet features Robert Pattinson, who’s in the upcoming Batman movie, which exists in large part due to the success of the Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. “We live in a Twilight world” is also a recurring phrase in the Tenet and Robert Pattison is of course most known for his role in the Twilight movies.
- Tenet lets 6'3'’ Elizabeth Debicki be tall! At multiple points in the movie she towers over everyone around her (particularly her son), and she even gets to use her height to unlock the car door (from the back seat) during the highway scene. Let Elizabeth Debicki be tall!