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Edit School #3: Dissecting 'Tenet'

Updated: Apr 17

tenet disecting cover image

If your brain felt like it just took a quantum leap into the realm of WTF after watching Tenet, I'm sure half the planet felt that way too! It took me three consecutive watches and a whole weekend on Premiere Pro to finally feel like I got most of it lol. In Nolan's own words -

"The idea that you'd watch a large-scale studio blockbuster and come out feeling like maybe there are things you didn't understand. I think that's kind of fun. And as an audience member, I've always enjoyed movies that, if you want to see it a second time, you're going to see a different movie. You're going to see different layers in it."

So many hours and headaches later, I completely agree with the genius! So, here's an attempt to analyze how Nolan challenges conventional cinematic norms to tell a mind-boggling sci-fi spy film.

How Nolan Uses his Obsession with Time in Tenet

Nolan is known for pushing the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, but what he achieves with the mind-bending Tenet is something else altogether. The film centers on a protagonist who navigates through a world where objects and individuals can move backward through time, providing a setup that uses temporal manipulation to influence character dynamics and plot progression. In fact, the palindromic name of the film, which reflects its palindromic structure, is a fascinating wordplay on the final scene where the good guys (divided into two teams, one moving forwards in time and the other backwards) are on a ten-minute mission to save the present world from extinction. What's more, all the words of the Sator Square make an appearance in the movie in some form or another, whether as characters, locations, or organizations.

tenet time manipulation example

The way I see it, Tenet isn’t really about time travel as much as it is about time manipulation. I think the two most important concepts that help understand the film better are time inversion and the temporal pincer movement.

  • Time Inversion

This core idea of time inversion, made possible by technology that can apparently reverse the entropy of people and objects, is what drives the film forward (ironically). Inversion takes place when a person or thing passes through a temporal turnstile. Once on the other side, time is reversed, but only for the object or person that passed through; for everyone else, time is still proceeding in a forward direction.

time inversion example

When someone is inverted, they can move backward for a seemingly infinite amount of time. However, inverted time still flows at the same pace, which means if you're trying to get to an event that took place a week ago, you'd have to wait a full week.

  • Temporal Pincer Movement

This super complex concept is so important; it is explained by Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character, Commander Ives, on two separate occasions in the film, once exactly halfway through the film and once at the end, just before the climax action sequence. The temporal pincer movement is a time-bending tactical technique used in missions: you approach it moving forward in time, and then also approach it in reverse, moving backwards from the future, each side using the knowledge that the other side gained from having already experienced it. Except, both sides are actually experiencing it simultaneously. It's confusing, but it's what really blows your mind once you get it.

temporal pincer movement

If you extend these two concepts to the whole film, you'll see how two temporal pincers play out in the narrative, both a part of a macro temporal pincer that encompasses the entire film itself. Basically, Tenet takes the idea of a battle fought on two fronts and places us in the middle of a war between the past and the future.

Breaking Down Tenet on Premiere Pro

So, here's what Tenet's flow looks like as we follow the Protagonist through the film. The red sequences are the ones where he is moving forward in time, and the blue ones are where he (or a version of him) is moving backward in time. The purple sequences are points where he inverts/decides to invert.

breaking down tenet

Eventually, when we realize that the masked man the Protagonist fought in the Oslo airport was an inverted version of himself, it becomes clear that scenes from the first half of the movie involved characters who rewound from the second half. This is what the Protagonist's timeline looks like if we were to look at the intersections of both timelines, based on how far he went back through time inversion on each occasion.

tenet flow of sequences and events

Basically, Tenet delves into profound philosophical questions surrounding time by using the power of editing. The film's editing juxtaposes moments of decay and restoration simultaneously, while building towards a macro plot point which itself is about reversing entropy to restore the planet from decay. In the process, it blurs the line between cause and effect, prompting viewers to think of concept like determinism and the nature of reality. Total trip-balls, to very simply put it... and all this is without even getting to the insane story/character arc Nolan wrote for Robert Pattinson's role.

To Conclude

Through editing, Nolan finds the perfect balance between revealing important and exciting information to the audience at regular intervals to keep us at the edge of our seats while moving the story forward on a pre-decided geometric path. In the bargain, Tenet offers a unique cinematic experience that challenges perceptions of time and encourages viewers to unravel the intricacies of a narrative structure that is as fascinating as it is innovative.

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