“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it”, says cryptic Scientist Laura, as she tries to unravel the convoluted plot of this film to the Protagonist. This quote sums up pretty much the whole movie and Christopher Nolan trusts the audience to figure out this puzzle on their own as they journey on with the Protagonist. Tenet’s storytelling doesn’t just ignore conventional storytelling rules; it actively works despite them.
Tenet is the story of a secret agent, known as “The Protagonist” who travels through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission to prevent an attack from the future that threatens to annihilate the present while learning the secrets to manipulate the flow of time. The movie is about Time inversion, not Time travel. In massively scaled sequences, time moves forward, backward, and zig-zags at the same time. Nolan’s love of James bond also can be seen as the movie showcases characters in pinstripe suits globetrotting exotic locations.
A Cinematic Palindrome
A palindrome is a word, number, phrase, or a sequence of characters that reads the same backward and forward. Using this concept as the very structure of the film, the characters move forward and backward in time to invert and mirror their origins just like a palindrome. The title itself is a palindrome (TENƎꓕ) and it acts as a precursor to the entire movie being a closed loop.
Symbolic Color Palette
What complements several scenes in the movie is the color palette used, which comprises mostly hues of grey, dark blue, black, and dark brown. This is found in each element of the narrative such as clothing, buildings, and automobiles. Most of the locations used in the movie are tucked away in Northern Europe. These countries are characterized by cold, sometimes dull, and mostly, desolate environments. This, enhanced by the color palette subconsciously sets up a certain mood and tone of eeriness in the minds of the viewers.
One would think the color palette is isolated to the location of the movie, but even the scenes shot in Mumbai, a coastal city having a tropical climate, are bathed in this color palette. As the camera spans the skyline of Mumbai, we observe a dull shade of grey and overcast sky similar to the opening scene in Linnahall, Tallinn, Estonia.
Nevertheless, when the plot thickens and the color palette starts to intensify, the scenes in Amalfi act as a refresher for the eyes with its cool color palette.
The use of the colors red and blue is seen prominently throughout the movie. The colors are most evident in the gripping scene where the Protagonist is being interrogated by the antagonist. They are both divided by a glass screen and the Protagonist’s side is engulfed in red whereas the antagonist’s side is engulfed in blue. This scene’s color palette may also serve as a purpose to make the audience experience the same feeling of anguish, despair, and danger the characters feel.
In various other scenes, these two colors are not only used in simple elements such as clothing but are also used as the key elements in the climax which takes the narrative forward. A precursor to these two colors can be noticed in the opening credits which feature the Warner Brothers and Syncopy logos in red and blue respectively. These two colors basically symbolize Time inversion. The color red perhaps symbolizes an artery, going forwards in time and blue symbolizes a vein (backflow/ inversion), going backward in time. Both flow together as a never-ending cycle like a Mobius Strip. As the good battles evil over reality, understanding who is inverted and who isn’t may become confusing. By infusing Tenet with such sophisticated color palettes, the filmmakers aid us in identifying these characteristics.
Also to be noticed is the light to the dark amber palette which is evidently used during important sit-downs between the main characters. This color palette is perhaps used as a precursor to a scene of action, danger, deceit, or of grave importance.
The Impact Of Built Vs. Unbuilt On The Viewers
On a visual level, it might be overwhelming at first, but once you understand the mechanics of the film, it transforms into an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. The film begins with the brutalist architecture of Linnahall in Tallinn, Estonia. As the dull-colored clouds dominate the mildly overcast and greyish sky, the brutalist architecture of the building visually complements and enhances the tone of the narrative. The brutalist architecture echoes the daring and unapologetic nature of the characters in the opening scene.
The killer scene is of course the corridor fight scene which we see twice. The narrow corridors and underground vaults don’t just act as apt locations for the narrative but also as a subtle yet impactful way of making the audience experience the same amount of uncertainty and suspense the characters feel as they venture into the unknown.
As the narrative moves forward, the color palette and the cold, desolate ambiance points towards a possible empty post-apocalyptic wasteland. The narrative is such that it doesn’t lead to the wasteland but instead makes the audience drive the narrative in their heads of a functioning world ending up in a wasteland, something similar to the one seen in WALL-E. Having said that, the climax does dawn on the audience with a tone of impending doom and this is echoed by the location of Stalsk-12 in northern Russia. Stalsk-12 is the epitome of the movie’s theme. The abandoned city with its empty dilapidated buildings and eroded structures; the audience is reminiscent of the potential wasteland imagined by them.
The cold and dreary environment also projects a possible aftermath image if a nuclear explosion were to take place. The journey of the characters across this wasteland keeps us on the edge of our seats as we experience the characters’ sense of anxiety and uncertainty, driven and enhanced by the desolate surroundings.
Creating A More Immersive Experience For The Viewers
The action scenes were breath-taking and unlike anything we’ve seen before. Creating a more immersive and enduring experience is the background score of the movie. The Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson uses his music score as a way to guide and set the mood for the film. The music score dictates the pace whilst the story transitions into different scenes quickly. It enhances the energy of the riveting action scenes and heated fight sequences. Ludwig Göransson has also crafted a unique sound that enhances the mind-bending central element of the movie, Time inversion.
Real Locations Used
The movie is shot in multiple locations and each location adds a whole new dimension to the narrative. The locations used in the movie are:
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Rødbyhavn and the Nysted Wind Farm, Denmark
- Mumbai, India
- Amalfi Italy
- Oslo, Norway
- California, USA
- Southampton, United Kingdom
- London England
The movie will leave you wondering what exactly happened and more importantly, how they executed certain scenes. Christopher Nolan avoided computer graphics or green screens as much as possible. So, when you see a car flipping or a building exploding it really happened on camera and this just makes it all the more fascinating.
Using time literally and metaphorically as a creative hook, the audience is strapped on for an inexplicable journey as they are transported from one exotic location to another by the Protagonist. The symbolic color palette, set design, costumes, music score, and real-time locations create a visual hierarchy which in turn leads to a series of mind-bending experiences for the audience.
Tenet is a visually staggering puzzle for the audience to unlock and as we do, we’re slowly immersed in Nolan’s world finally leaving the movie thinking, is time even real?