Stream this Sunday: How to Watch Tenet by Joe Sullivan

Welcome to Stream this Sunday, a column built to talk about what is easily available to stream. We’ve all seen the social media posts—“Need something to binge.” Especially during the pandemic, it seems, even with the plethora of choice, we still just don’t know what to watch. Since there is no longer your handy, weekly TV Guide, we hope this column will help you make an informed decision on your streaming habit.

You might be thinking, But there are multitudes of platforms used to stream films; how will you narrow it down? The answer is we probably won’t. We will talk about all types of films that strike our fancy, from big budget blockbusters to tiny arthouse films to old TV series to the new made-for-Netflix obsessions. If it’s streamable, and we had an idea about it, we’ll write about it here.

Up this week: Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan. Tenet is available for rental or purchase On Demand through Amazon, iTunes/Apple TV, Google Play, and Microsoft.

There are two quotes that sum up what I imagine are going to be the two most consistent responses to a viewing of Tenet.

“Don’t try to understand it—feel it.”

Clémence Poésy, playing an unnamed scientist, delivers these lines while first introducing us to the time traveling mechanics of Tenet. It’s a useful quote for any individual viewer to keep in mind, as Tenet is a movie meant to be felt much more than it’s meant to be a clearly-comprehended narrative—at least the first time through.

The second quote comes from my wife, who uttered these words from our couch while glancing up from her phone approximately an hour into our screening of Tenet.

“Honestly—I have no idea what’s going on. What the &^*$ is happening.”

Whether or not you will enjoy the experience of watching Tenet will hinge on your capacity to let go of trying to achieve a depth of understanding of the plot or characters and just go along for the ride. It’s built around striking visual sequences—don’t waste processing power on the mechanics of the plot when you could be appreciating the visuals.

And Tenet is a story that’s clearly about the ride.

The most interesting thing about the film is its unique take on time travel. Time travel films are nearly a genre in and of themselves, many of which have somewhat shared, consistent logic. One of the most common similarities of most time travel movies is the “who” and the “what” are much more important than the “how.” In other words, the characters and destination are much more important than the journey. The journey back itself is nearly always a blip, a singular moment in time that is part of a character’s necessary journey forward. Whether we’re talking about a DeLorean or a souped-up phone booth or a trip through the quantum realm, the actual physical action of traveling through time is not the point. The point is what the characters will do once they are there. For that reason, the trip through time is often instantaneous—in a flash you’ve crossed decades or centuries and find yourself in a new time.

Christopher Nolan fundamentally changes that approach to time travel. The nature of time travel is much more fluid—characters are able to go into machines called turnstiles and be spit out the other side in the exact same location and surroundings, but this time experiencing the flow of time in the opposite direction. It’s a fascinating concept, not only because it’s interesting visually but because it creates a sort of palindrome effect in several major sequences.

In Tenet, the focus on time travel is on the journey through time itself, not the characters or the destination. The complexity of the characters is of secondary importance to how those characters are moving through time and space.

Nothing makes that clearer than the name of our lead. John David Washington plays a CIA operative called Protagonist who is roped into a mission to save the world. His character name says a lot about what we need to know about him as a character—namely nothing. He doesn’t need to be a fully formed human character—he needs to be a solid protagonist on this world-saving journey that will require him to go back and forth through time.

What are his hopes? His dreams? His quirks? Does he have a family?

Who cares?

To get bogged down into those details is to miss the point—Nolan is trying to create a feeling here, not complex human characters. It’s a unique choice, but a deliberate one that I’ll touch on later. All that matters here are the questions, Does the audience feel Protagonist is capable and smart? Does the audience feel Protagonist can continue to propel himself through a world of intrigue, danger, and a seemingly never-ending number of missions to complete? That’s enough.

And make no mistake, there are a metric ton of missions to complete. Most action thrillers have a McGuffin of some kind—Tenet has several. Protagonist at various points in the film is chasing after Indian arms dealers, British intelligence contacts, forged drawings, plutonium, and a mysterious algorithm on which the fate of the world depends. None of these things matter, really. In Tenet, the characters and the plot are so loosely defined so as to be nearly abstract.

This isn’t a slight. It’s intentional, at least to a degree. Watching Tenet, you quickly realize it’s deliberately abstract. Nolan is aware his focus is on visualizing his interesting use of time and makes sure to infuse those visuals into several gripping sequences. And if the goal is crafting knock-your-socks-off action sequences, does it matter if you take a minimalist approach to characters and plot specifics? Remember, don’t try to understand it—feel it.

And the big action sequences are quite impressive. The first action sequence to take advantage of Tenet’s use of time is a heist set in an Oslo freeport. In the same way that Nolan’s Inception played with the concept of a heist (a group of thieves inserting something instead of removing it) Tenet builds this particular spectacle around a heist meant to get into the most secure part of a freeport and find—what? They don’t know, but they’ll know it when they see it.

Technically though, the freeport heist is a lot of fun to watch. Nolan has always tried to make use of practical effects whenever possible. In The Dark Knight, Nolan used practical effects to literally flip a semi-truck end over end. In Tenet, Nolan crashes a full-size airplane into a building in a relatively slow-moving but very visually impressive stunt. And all of that is meant, within the story at least, as a distraction. The meat of the freeport heist is Protagonist’s discovery of the aforementioned turnstiles and the ensuing fight scene he has with an “inverted” antagonist. It’s a very well-choregraphed scene. Washington imbues his character with a rough, athletic brutality with the way he fights. And since this fight scene serves as the audience’s first introduction to inverted time “in the wild,” there are a lot of moments that feel off in a way that is true to Tenet’s use of time. Moments in the fight choreography that feature movements happening in reverse, or guns skittering across the floor and flying into the hands of combatants make for a fight scene that is compelling and unlike anything we’ve seen in films before.

The next major sequence takes place near the midpoint of the film. It’s another heist—this time it’s mobile: as Protagonist is trying to steal plutonium from a moving vehicle, the caravan drives through highways in Estonia.

Towards the beginning of the sequence, Protagonist sees an upturned car flip itself upright and begin to drive backwards. Primed by the previous freeport fight scene, the audience is aware enough of the concept of inversion to understand that is what’s going on, but there isn’t much more than that to understand yet. The plutonium heist goes wrong, and Protagonist ultimately is able to utilize a turnstile to move backwards in time to try to make right what went wrong, and ultimately he ends up being the person driving (and flipping) the car that we’d seen get flipped at the start of this sequence.

What makes this particular sequence interesting is that it is the first sequence to incorporate an inversion in the middle of the sequence, which means it’s the first time the audience has to experience the fullest possible extent of the palindromic time travel mechanics of Tenet.

And much like the palindrome “go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog” there’s not much rhyme or reason to the phrase as you read it through the first time. It’s once you get to the end and read it back that something that felt off the first pass through makes a little more sense on the way back.

The audience gets to have the same experience a little longer once the plot necessitates that Protagonist, now inverted, go back to the Oslo freeport. Being able to revisit the Oslo freeport scene through a new temporal perspective hammers home this new way of experiencing time. We get more complex fight choreography that now makes a little bit more sense because of the newfound understanding you have about the “direction” the characters are going.

What this doesn’t do, however, is tie us any closer to the characters. There isn’t any exploration of the psyche of a man who is moving forwards and backwards in time. The star of the scene, and really of the whole movie, is the concept of time inversion itself, much more so than any of the human beings who are participating.

Picasso once said, “If I paint a wild horse, you might not see the horse . . . but surely you will see the wildness!” Picasso was more than capable of creating realistic figures and landscapes in his work, but that can also be viewed as a limitation if he’s trying to achieve getting the viewer to feel something as opposed to observe it. Picasso might need to trade off shape and form and do something different with color and light to achieve the effect he’s hoping to achieve. Nolan does something similar with Tenet, trading off characters and plot for visuals and structure.

Tenet is like a mainstream, arthouse Mission Impossible movie. It has all of the globe hopping, all of the world-ending McGuffins, and all of the action sequences of that massive series, but instead of focusing on well-known characters and clear plots, Tenet focuses on this central idea of inverting time and how it can impact the film’s visuals, the action sequences, and even the structure of the film itself.

Whether all of that is enough for you as a viewer to enjoy it depends entirely on your ability to accept that, as it pertains to characters and plot, you’re going to be given the minimum. But if you’re invested enough in the ideas explored and the visuals and the action sequences, these typically minimal aspects might be more than enough to go along on this journey with the Protagonist—as long as you don’t waste time trying to understand it(just feel it).

But be warned: if ideas and visuals don’t get you excited for this film, if you’re not interested in a somewhat abstract action thriller that’s aimed at keeping you moving forward and not answering your questions, you may very well find yourself glancing up from your phone and asking no one in particular what the *&^! is happening.

Stream this Sunday is curated by Joe Sullivan, a UCR Palm Desert MFA alum. If you are interested in contributing, please send a pitch with a quick description of the content to

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