Tenet is a 2020 science fiction action thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who produced it with Emma Thomas. A co-production between the United Kingdom and United States, it stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh. The film follows a secret agent who learns to manipulate the flow of time to prevent an attack from the future that threatens to annihilate the present world.
Nolan took more than five years to write the screenplay after deliberating about Tenet's central ideas for over a decade. Pre-production began in late 2018, casting took place in March 2019, and principal photography lasted six months, from May to November, in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot on 65 mm film and IMAX. Scenes of time manipulation were filmed both backwards and forwards. Over one hundred vessels and thousands of extras were used.
Delayed three times because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet was released in the United Kingdom on August 26, 2020, and United States on September 3, 2020, in IMAX, 35 mm, and 70 mm. It was the first Hollywood tent-pole to open in theaters after the pandemic shutdown, and grossed $363 million worldwide, making it the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2020. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, and won Best Visual Effects at the 93rd Academy Awards; it was also nominated for Best Production Design.
A CIA agent, the "Protagonist", participates in an extraction operation at a Kyiv opera house. A masked soldier wearing a red trinket saves his life by "un-firing" a bullet through a gunman. After seizing an artifact, the Protagonist is captured by mercenaries. He is tortured and consumes cyanide. He awakens to learn the cyanide was a test of loyalty; his team has been killed and the artifact lost.
The Protagonist is recruited by an organization called Tenet. A scientist briefs him on bullets with "inverted" entropy, meaning they move backward through time. She believes they are manufactured in the future, and other inverted objects seem to be remnants of a war in the future. The Protagonist meets Neil through a CIA contact, and they trace the inverted bullets to arms dealer Priya Singh in Mumbai. They learn that Priya is a member of Tenet, and her cartridges were purchased and inverted by Russian oligarch Andrei Sator.
In London, the Protagonist approaches Sator's estranged wife Kat, an art appraiser who falsely authenticated a forged Goya drawing. She tells him that Sator purchased the drawing from the forger, Arepo, and is using Kat's authentication as blackmail to control her in their relationship. The Protagonist and Neil plot to steal the drawing from a freeport storage facility at the Oslo Airport. There they fend off two masked men who seemingly emerge from a strange device. Afterward, Priya explains that the device is a turnstile, a machine that can invert the entropy of objects and people, and that the masked men were the same person traveling in opposite directions through time.
On the Amalfi Coast, Italy, Kat introduces the Protagonist to Sator, and learns the drawing is intact. Sator plans to kill the Protagonist, but the Protagonist saves Sator's life after Kat attempts to drown him. Sator and the Protagonist strike a partnership to retrieve a case that supposedly contains plutonium-241. In Tallinn, the Protagonist and Neil ambush a convoy and steal the case, which actually contains the artifact lost in Kyiv. They are ambushed by an inverted Sator holding Kat hostage. The Protagonist gives an empty case to Sator, who retreats after receiving it. The Protagonist rescues Kat but is soon captured and taken to a warehouse with a turnstile.
In the warehouse, the inverted Sator shoots Kat with an inverted round, while the non-inverted Sator demands the location of the artifact. Tenet operatives led by Ives arrive and rescue the Protagonist, and Sator escapes into the turnstile. The group takes Kat through the turnstile, inverting them and reversing Kat's bullet wound. The now-inverted Protagonist travels back in time to the ambush site, where he attempts to retrieve the artifact but is intercepted by Sator. The Protagonist's car is overturned and catches fire, but Neil saves him and reveals he is a member of Tenet.
The Protagonist, Neil, and Kat travel back in time to the freeport in Oslo. The Protagonist fights his past self, enters the turnstile, and reverts, followed by Neil and Kat. Later, Priya explains that Sator is collecting the artifacts to assemble an "algorithm" which is capable of catastrophically inverting the entropy of the Earth.
Kat reveals Sator is dying from pancreatic cancer. They learn that Sator is using a dead man's switch to trigger the algorithm. Kat believes Sator will travel back in time to commit suicide during their vacation in Vietnam, so that the world will die with him at the last moment he was happy. The Protagonist, Neil, Kat, and Tenet troops travel back in time to that day, where Kat disguises herself as her past self to keep Sator alive long enough for Tenet to secure the algorithm. Tenet tracks the algorithm to Sator's hometown in Northern Siberia, where it is heavily guarded. They launch a "temporal pincer movement", with non-inverted red team troops and inverted blue team troops making a simultaneous assault. At a critical moment, an inverted blue-team soldier wearing a red trinket sacrifices himself to save the Protagonist and Ives. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, Kat kills Sator just as the Protagonist secures the algorithm.
The Protagonist, Neil, and Ives break up the algorithm and part ways. The Protagonist notices that Neil is wearing the red trinket. Neil reveals he was recruited by the Protagonist in the future and this mission is, from his perspective, the end of a long friendship. Since she knows too much, Priya attempts to have Kat assassinated, but she is killed by the Protagonist, who realizes he is the mastermind behind Tenet.
- John David Washington as The Protagonist, a CIA agent
- Robert Pattinson as Neil, The Protagonist's handler
- Elizabeth Debicki as Katherine "Kat" Barton, an art appraiser and Sator's estranged wife
- Dimple Kapadia as Priya Singh, an arms trafficker
- Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Fay, The Protagonist's CIA boss
- Clémence Poésy as Barbara, a scientist
- Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby, a British Intelligence officer
- Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch who communicates with the future
Tenet went under the working title Merry Go Round during pre-production.
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki were cast in March 2019. Pattinson said the script was kept so secret that he was only permitted to read it once while locked in a room. The casting of Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh was announced as filming started. Himesh Patel joined in August, with Denzil Smith being added the following month. Martin Donovan was revealed upon the release of the first trailer. In January 2020, Sean Avery announced his involvement in production.
Kapadia's screen test was shot by director Homi Adajania while working on his 2020 film Angrezi Medium. Caine worked with Washington for a day.
Principal photography began in May 2019 and took place in seven countries — Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and United States. Filming in Estonia happened in June and July, with the Linnahall, Pärnu Highway, and adjacent streets closed to facilitate it. Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart expressed concerns about potential disruptions as the original shooting schedule required that the arterial Laagna Road be closed for one month. Production eventually reached a compromise involving temporary road closures and detours. The city government later granted a two-day extension to allow filming to be completed. Scenes were shot in Ravello, Italy and Hampstead, England at Cannon Hall late August, and on the roof of the Oslo Opera House and in Tjuvholmen, Norway, and in Rødbyhavn, Denmark at Nysted Wind Farm early that September.
A five-day shoot occurred later that month in Mumbai, where Nolan had traveled in February and April for location scouting. He decided on Breach Candy Hospital, Cafe Mondegar, Colaba Causeway, Colaba Market, Gateway of India, Grant Road, Royal Bombay Yacht Club, and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. A restaurant set named "Chaand" was built near the hotel, but never used, serving only as an alternative. Forty boats were positioned at the Gateway of India, where the crew also rescued a man who had attempted suicide. A stunt where someone jumps off a building was done in Grant Road, and a helicopter was applied for aerial footage of the hospital.
Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema used a combination of 70 mm film and IMAX.
Warner Bros. originally scheduled Tenet for a July 17, 2020, release in IMAX, 35 mm, and 70 mm film. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was first delayed to July 31, and subsequently August 12. Executives calculated that each postponement cost Warner Bros. between $200,000 and $400,000 in marketing fees. After briefly being held up indefinitely, Warner Bros. arranged the film to be released internationally on August 26 in seventy countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Preview screenings commenced in Australia and South Korea on August 22 and 23. It moved to select cities in the United States on September 3, gradually expanding in the ensuing weeks. On September 4, it came out in China. Tenet became the first Hollywood tent-pole to launch in theaters following their prolonged shutdown. The lack of available movies afforded it more screens per multiplex than would otherwise be possible. It became available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital services on December 15, 2020. On March 2, 2021, Warner Bros. announced that in light of the New York state government allowing movie theaters in New York City to re-open the following Friday (March 5) following a nearly year-long shutdown (causing theaters in the city to miss out on the film's initial theatrical run), they would be re-releasing Tenet at select theaters in the city that same day. Tenet was released on HBO Max on May 1, 2021.
The first trailer was published online in December, when the prologue played in select IMAX theaters before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It was introduced in Indian IMAX screenings of Birds of Prey in February 2020. On May 21, 2020, the second trailer was posted online, it was also promoted in Fortnite's Party Royale mode. The film's inverted logo had been altered around this time because it came to light that a bicycle brand had the same design.
Tenet grossed $58.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $305.2 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $363.7 million. With a production budget of $200 million, Tenet is Nolan's most expensive original project. IndieWire speculated that the marketing could push the final sum to $300–350 million, though analysts predicted lower advertising costs than usual, owing to inexpensive live sports ads. Box office analyst Jeff Bock estimated it would need to make $400–$500 million in order to break even. In November 2020, rival studios expected the film to lose up to $100 million, but Warner Bros. insisted losses would not top $50 million. Nolan was reported to receive twenty percent of the first-dollar gross.
Tenet was projected to take $25–30 million internationally over its first five days. In South Korea, pre-sale IMAX tickets sold out and weekend previews totaled $717,000 from 590 venues. Another four days there yielded $4.13 million from about 2,200 screens, bringing the cume to $5.1 million by the end of the week. The film debuted to $53 million in forty-one countries, grossing $7.1 million in the United Kingdom, $6.7 million in France, and $4.2 million in Germany. Tenet made $58.1 million in its second weekend, with China ($30 million from first showings), the U.K. ($13.1 million), France ($10.7 million), Germany ($8.7 million), and South Korea ($8.2 million) as its largest markets. Its third weekend garnered $30.6 million, comprising $16.4 million from the U.K., $13.2 million from France, $11.4 million from Germany, $10.3 million from South Korea, and $10.2 million from China. Two weeks in Japan accumulated $11.4 million. Tenet opened in India on December 4, 2020, and made about $576,000 in the first three days. Tenet became the highest-grossing film of all time in Estonia, with a total gross of $1.2 million.
With 65% of American and Canadian theaters operating at 25–40% capacity, the first eleven days acquired $20.2 million from 2,810 theaters; $2.5 million in Canada, $12 million in the U.S., and the rest from previews. The second, third, and fourth weekends added $6.7 million, $4.7 million, and $3.4 million, respectively. Tenet remained atop the box office in its fifth weekend with $2.7 million, before ceding to The War with Grandpa in its sixth weekend.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 70% of 353 critics gave Tenet a positive review, with an average rating of 6.9/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "A visually dazzling puzzle for film lovers to unlock, Tenet serves up all the cerebral spectacle audiences expect from a Christopher Nolan production." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 69 out of 100 based on 50 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale, and PostTrak reported 80% of those gave the film a positive score, with 65% saying they would recommend it. Keith Phillips of The Ringer wrote that Tenet has the makings of a cult film: "With a failed release due to the pandemic, a muted critical reception, and a twisty narrative that demands multiple viewings, Christopher Nolan's 2020 film has all of the elements that eventually lead to niche fandom."
Guy Lodge of Variety described Tenet as a "grandly entertaining, time-slipping spectacle." The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw felt it was both "madly preposterous" and "amazing cinema". Kevin Maher of The Times awarded the film a full five stars, deeming it "a delightfully convoluted masterpiece." Robbie Collin of The Telegraph likened it to Nolan's Inception and praised the "depth, subtlety and wit of Pattinson and Debicki's performances." In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers praised the film for being "pure, ravishing cinema", and praised Washington's performance, calling him a "star-in-the-making" and writing, "A former football running back, the actor brings a natural athletic grace to the stunts and hand-to-hand combat that forge a visceral bond between his character and the audience." A review for The Dispatch called Tenet "the perfect movie to mark the return of theaters because it captures so much of what makes the medium of cinema great." James Berardinelli noted that, "[Tenet] may be the most challenging of Nolan's films to date when it comes to wrapping one's mind around the concepts forming the narrative's foundation: backwards-moving entropy, non-linear thinking, temporal paradoxes ... The film contains some of Nolan's most ambitious action sequences to-date but one wonders whether the plot density—a not inconsiderable obstacle for some who prefer not to devote their undivided attention for 2+1⁄2 hours—might prove to be problematic." Mark Daniell of the Toronto Sun gave the film four out of four stars, deeming it "the cinematic equivalent of a Rubik's Cube, presented in towering Imax and featuring a polished cast set amidst some of the world's most gorgeous locations." Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it 3+1⁄2 out of 4 stars, and noted that the movie "reaches for cinematic greatness and, though it doesn't quite reach that lofty goal, it's the kind of film that reminds us of the magic of the moviegoing experience."
Jessica Kiang of The New York Times described it as Nolan's "time-bending" take on James Bond, praising the film's cinematography, score, editing, acting and "immaculately creaseless costumes", while also deeming it a "hugely expensive, blissfully empty spectacle". LA Weekly's Asher Luberto also highlighted the similarities between Tenet and the James Bond films, but also felt it was "a daring, surprising and entirely original piece of work, reverent in its spectacle and haunting in its mesmerizing, dreamlike form." Branagh's Andrei Sator was described by some critics as a stereotypical Russian villain. Christina Newland of New York noted that Sator is "played by a silly-accented Kenneth Branagh as a Bond-villain-esque Russian mastermind." Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter felt Washington was "dashing but a little dull," but remarked that Debicki's performance "adds a color to Nolan's palette, and [she] has persuasive chemistry with Branagh in their joint portrait of a violent, dysfunctional love-hate relationship." She further concluded that Tenet makes "for a chilly, cerebral film—easy to admire, especially since it's so rich in audacity and originality, but almost impossible to love, lacking as it is in a certain humanity."
Mike McCahill of IndieWire noted that it was "the summer's most keenly awaited event movie" but gave it a "C-" grade and called it "a humorless disappointment". Poor sound mixing on 35 mm movie film "often" rendered dialog inaudible, stated Brian Lloyd of Entertainment.ie; viewing the film on Digital Cinema Package files reduced the problem. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune awarded the film 2 out of 4 stars, writing, "I wish Tenet exploited its own ideas more dynamically. Nolan's a prodigious talent. But no major director, I suppose, can avoid going sideways from time to time." New York Post's Johnny Oleksinski also gave it 2 out of 4 stars, calling it Nolan's most "confusing" work so far, but acknowledged being "swept up by Nolan's incomparable cinematic vision. He is one of the few directors working today who consistently churns out visually seismic, sophisticated action films". Kathleen Sachs of the Chicago Reader gave it 1+1⁄2 out of 4 stars, concluding that Nolan "doesn't show much growth in his most recent self-indulgent work."
|Academy Awards||2021||Best Production Design||Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas||Nominated|
|Best Visual Effects||Andrew Jackson, David Lee, Andrew Lockley and Scott Fisher||Won|
|Art Directors Guild Awards||2021||Excellence in Production Design for a Fantasy Film||Nathan Crowley||Won|
|British Academy Film Awards||2021||Best Special Visual Effects||Scott Fisher, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Lockley||Won|
|Critics' Choice Awards||2021||Best Cinematography||Hoyte van Hoytema||Nominated|
|Best Editing||Jennifer Lame||Nominated|
|Best Production Design||Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas||Nominated|
|Best Score||Ludwig Göransson||Nominated|
|Best Visual Effects||Tenet||Won|
|Critics' Choice Super Awards||2021||Best Action Movie||Tenet||Nominated|
|Best Actor in an Action Movie||John David Washington||Nominated|
|Golden Angel Award in Chinese American Film Festival||2020||Most Popular U.S. Film in China||Tenet||Won|
|Golden Globe Awards||2021||Best Original Score||Ludwig Göransson||Nominated|
|Hollywood Music in Media Awards||2021||Best Original Score in a Sci-Fi/Fantasy Film||Ludwig Göransson||Won|
|Best Original Song in a Feature Film||"The Plan" – Jacques Webster II, Ebony Naomi Oshunrinde and Ludwig Göransson||Nominated|
|Hugo Awards||2021||Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form||Christopher Nolan||Nominated|
|Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards||2021||Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Sound Effects and Foley for Feature Film||Richard King, Joseph Fraioli, Mark Larry, Michael W. Mitchell, Angela Ang, Bruce Tanis, John Cucci, Catherine Harper, Alyson Dee Moore, Chris Moriana, Dan O'Connell, Shelley Roden, John Roesch and Katie Rose||Nominated|
|Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Feature Underscore||Alex Gibson and Nicholas Fitzgerald||Won|
|People's Choice Awards||2020||Favorite Action Movie||Tenet||Nominated|
|Favorite Action Movie Star||John David Washington||Nominated|
|Satellite Awards||2021||Best Motion Picture – Drama||Tenet||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography||Hoyte van Hoytema||Nominated|
|Best Original Score||Ludwig Göransson||Nominated|
|Best Sound (Editing and Mixing)||Willie D. Burton, Richard King, Kevin O'Connell & Gary A.Rizzo||Nominated|
|Best Visual Effects||Andrew Jackson||Won|
|Saturn Awards||2021||Best Science Fiction Film||Tenet||Pending|
|Best Director||Christopher Nolan||Pending|
|Best Writing||Christopher Nolan||Pending|
|Best Actor||John David Washington||Pending|
|Best Supporting Actor||Robert Pattinson||Pending|
|Best Editing||Jennifer Lame||Pending|
|Best Music||Ludwig Göransson||Pending|
|Best Production Design||Nathan Crowley||Pending|
|Best Special / Visual Effects||Andrew Jackson, Andrew Lockley, Scott R. Fisher, Mike Chambers||Pending|
|Set Decorators Society of America Awards||2021||Best Achievement in Décor/Design of a Science Fiction or Fantasy Feature Film||Kathy Lucas and Nathan Crowley||Won|
|Visual Effects Society Awards||2021||Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature||Andrew Jackson, Mike Chambers, Andrew Lockley, David Lee, Scott Fisher||Nominated|
Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Times noted that Warner Bros. did not put Tenet on the Academy's streaming platform or send out screeners to awards voters.
Following (1998) • Memento (2000) • Insomnia (2002) • Batman Begins (2005) • The Prestige (2006) • The Dark Knight (2008) • Inception (2010) • The Dark Knight Rises (2012) • Interstellar (2014) • Dunkirk (2017)