Why Tenet Is More Than A Film

The first two times I watched "Tenet" I did not like it. YouTube movie reviews seemed to echo my first impression. They also seemed to echo the progression of my impression from 3rd to 40th time I watched the movie. I'm fairly certain I had never watched any movie as many as 40 times and I'm absolutely sure I had never watched a movie 40 times during the span of just of 1,5 years. So, what's the deal with it?

I think it kicked in the third time I watched it. Perhaps, the main contributor to my strong desire to keep re-watching "Tenet" solidified itself on that 3rd watch — familiarity. "Tenet", despite being packed with action and thrill, does not feel like a very stressful film. A lot of people complained that it lacked strong characters for whom we, as an audience, would care, yet it is this quality of "Tenet" which made it so simple of a choice for another re-watch. By the 10-th time I knew exactly what was going to happen, what each character was going to say and how they were going to say that. Yet it didn't make the film boring — on the contrary. But why?

The reason Tenet doesn't get boring is because it encapsulates a lot of details, hidden in layers. You peel off a layer once you know it by heart and then you start paying attention to another one and discover its gems. And while a lot of people remain stuck with fan-theories, I started noticing something that I couldn't find anywhere else: parallels to scientific world, references to other films, intentional mistakes and clearly intentional unexplained plot-holes. You could hardly call me a Nolan fan, but, perhaps, "Tenet" did spark my admiration for Nolan not just as a film director, but a true artist. So let's talk about things I kept on finding in "Tenet" that no one talks about. This won't be a comprehensive list — in fact it would probably cover mere 10% of the stuff that I discovered either myself or by watching other's reviews on YouTube as well as reading comments on reddit. For this reason, I will not re-iterate basic stuff such as "tenet is a polyndrome" or "last battle is ten minutes for each team, but in opposite directions of time, which is what the word ten-net is" or "red and blue colors are used not only in turnstiles, but by the film crew to send message to the audience" — this stuff you can find elsewhere. I'd like to talk about things that most might have missed.

The science

In the short scene at a hotel after Neil and The Protagonist crash a plane into the Oslo airport cargo terminal, The Protagonist tells Neil that the man they were fighting at the airport was likely inverted and Neil responds to that by suggesting that the inversion seems to be based off Feynman's notion of positron. Let's check with Wikipedia for a second here:

Feynman, and earlier Stueckelberg, proposed an interpretation of the positron as an electron moving backward[s] in time, reinterpreting the negative-energy solutions of the Dirac equation. Electrons moving backward in time would have a positive electric charge. Wheeler invoked this concept to explain the identical properties shared by all electrons, suggesting that "they are all the same electron" with a complex, self-intersecting worldline.

Wait a second, I seem to recall that other name from the film, Wheeler... Oh yeah, that woman, who serves in Ives unit, who'd be heading "the blue team" at the end of the film — her character's name is Wheeler. The same Wheeler who tells the protagonist not to come into contact with himself when inverted or "annihilation" - you-tubers labeled it "time-cop shit"... Let's read the first paragraph of that very same Wikipedia article:

When a positron collides with an electron, annihilation occurs.

Time-cop stuff, Wikipedia. Comon. Can't be real.

Now then, remember the scientist who explains the basics of inversion to the protagonist (Clémence Poésy)? Yeah, she says this to the protagonist: "One of these bullets is like us, traveling forwards through time. The other one going backwards." Let's read a bit more of that Wikipedia article:

...but it does not have anything to do with the macroscopic terms "cause" and "effect"...

The dialogue between the scientist and The Protagonist continues:

Okay, so Nolan did his homework. That's not surprising. He did his homework in Interstellar too, albeit not as thorough, but that's hardly surprising. What else?

Movie references

My favorite gem, which somehow was discovered on Reddit only recently and which, judging by the 0 comments left to the post, still largely escapes everyone's attention: a clear nod to "Back To The Future, part 2".

Another reference I found seems to be to the film "Casablanca" (1942). It couldn't be a mere coincidence, because the same line is repeated in the dialogue between the two male characters at the end of the film, mirroring a similar dialogue in Casablanca. While the "Back To The Future" reference presence is easy to explain, I'm not quite sure why Nolan references "Casablanca". I suppose this one might as well belong to our next category of Tenet gems.

The Unexplained

A lot of people get stuck on Tallin chase or the final battle in "Tenet", trying to wrap their heads around complex action sequences and the mechanics of inversion. They are indeed, complex, but, I feel like Nolan purposefully misleads the audience, while much more important, higher level questions, remain blissfully unanswered. I very much doubt any of the plot-holes described below are actual unintended plot-holes - they're way too thick for Nolan. So let me start with the two most obvious ones:

Why would Sator actually follow through with the future's plan to reverse the flow of time?After all, he's got a son, which he seems to love. The future cannot kill him — not without significant effort — only stop financing him. But given that he's dying anyway, he has literally nothing to lose by not following through with the plan.

Why would Volkov, Sator's right hand, want to blow himself up at the hypocenter and destroy everything with him? He isn't dying and he seems to be fully aware of the situation, because he hears Sator explain it to The Protagonist over the radio. He has zero incentive to blow himself up. We also have no backstory on him... Volkov is Tenet's most mysterious character, it appears.

At Freeport in Oslo, The Protagonist says "I'll take an eXpresso", which, he should've pronounced as "espresso" — a person who can recognize a Goya painting in a bag and is as sophisticated as him would never make this mistake, I thought to myself. Indeed, even more strange is the sight of a neon sign on top of a building we see in Tallin at the beginning of the chase, which says "eXpressio".

More than a film

So why is Tenet more than a film? Suppose, what I described in this article is, at most, 10% of all the things that one might be able to notice in "Tenet". Perhaps, the most obvious answer would then be in the form of a question: can you find a film with just as many details and references and unexplained (yet intentionally planted) details? Even if you could (which I doubt) I would still be wondering about Tenet's message: you see, unlike, say, Inception, it was not designed to leave us in ambiguity and forever wondering if that totem flipped. I think Tenet is the real maze we're supposed to find our way out. After watching it 40 times, I still haven't. But now 40 doesn't feel like a lot at all.