I don’t believe I’ve written more about any single subject this year at Cineluxe than I have about Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet. Nolan has been quite vocal about his preference that his films be seen on the largest screen (i.e., IMAX) possible, and was insistent Tenet receive a theatrical release rather than bow on a PVOD streaming service. In accordance with his wishes, it was one of the first films to show theatrically in the States after closing restrictions were lifted, but it had a pretty dismal performance at the box office, grossing under $58 million in the US and Canada—not great for a film that had a production budget of $200 million.
As a fan of Nolan’s work, I went and saw Tenet at a theater, renting out the entire auditorium for a private watch party, and I had been looking forward to its home video release ever sense. I left that first viewing . . . confused. The story is incredibly complex, with physics concepts like entropy (“a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system”) and inverting (or reversing) entropy being key plot points.
Further complicating Tenet is Ludwig Goransson’s often aggressive, kinetic soundmix and blasting sound effects that pummel you almost constantly, especially during key sequences when you’re struggling to keep up with who is where (and when). Add to that the fact that characters are
TENET AT A GLANCE
Christopher Nolan’s big & loud cerebral spy thriller arrives on home screens—which means you don’t have to risk your life anymore to go see it.
Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX, Tenet looks gorgeous, with reference-quality video throughout.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mix is both fantastic and—thanks to some overly emphatic bass and hard-to-hear dialogue—damnably frustrating.
frequently speaking behind masks, which makes some of the dialogue all but impossible to understand. And it just adds to the frustration when you’re constantly asking yourself, “What did (s)he say?”
As I wrote after my first viewing:
Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. It will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.
Prior to watching for the second time, I did a bit of homework. Googling “Understanding Tenet” produces quite a few results of blogs, theories, threads, and videos from people who have really dug into the film and tried to dissect it to make it a bit more
Concepts like the Sator Square were new to me, and discovering how Nolan weaved this into the story added to my appreciation. You’ll notice that the words below read forwards and backwards, as well as up and down, forming a palindrome in both directions, playing into Nolan’s forwards-backwards time concept with Tenet.
While there is still a good bit of the film I don’t fully understand—maybe on a third or fourth viewing!—I will say I got far more out of a second viewing, thanks to the foreknowledge of why people were doing things and some other visual clues Nolan throws in if you know what to look for. And, with apologies to Mr. Nolan, I think Tenet actually works better at home.
Of course, if this is your first viewing, I’d suggest going in “blind.” Part of the fun is being thrown into this world and trying to figure out how to make your way in it. As Barbara (Clemence Poesy) says to our hero, the Protagonist (John David Washington), “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Nolan has said that while Inception was his heist film, Tenet is his version of a spy thriller. When boiled down to its essence, it’s about The Protagonist trying to stop Russian Oligarch/arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. How the Protagonist goes about uncovering Sator’s plans and draws close to him, how Sator intends on destroying the world, and how the Protagonist goes about stopping him are what make the story so twisty-turny and visually compelling. The film also benefits from the strong performances of Elizabeth Debicki as Sator’s suffering wife, Kat, and Robert Pattinson as The Protagonist’s partner, Neil. And Pattinson’s handling of Neil also makes me think that he is up to the task of playing Bruce Wayne whenever the next Batman film is released.
There are a couple of ways to watch Tenet, and depending how you do so will also affect your viewing experience. With the 4K HDR version from digital retailers like Kaleidescape or Vudu, you will see a constant 2.2:1 aspect ratio film. However, those watching the physical disc (4K or standard
Blu-ray) or watching the HD version of the film from Kaleidescape will see the film alternating between 1.78:1 and 2.2:1 ratios, switching to 1.78:1 for the scenes shot on IMAX. If you’re watching on a traditional direct-view TV, or have a 16:9 aspect-ratio projection screen, you will likely enjoy the alternating ratios, as the big action scenes will get bigger, filling your entire screen. But if you own a widescreen projection system—as I do—the constant 2.2:1 ratio is likely preferable and less disruptive to the viewing experience.
Shot on 65mm film and in IMAX and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, Tenet looks gorgeous. It doesn’t have that tack-sharpness of movies shot digitally, but looks like a movie shot on film in all the right ways. Grain is absolutely minimal, and the images on screen just look natural and terrific. In looking through my viewing notes, I wrote down the words “clean,” “clear,” and “crisp” repeatedly.
Edges are sharp and defined, and closeups bristle with detail. Much of Tenet takes place in the world of billionaires, and the trappings of luxury are beautifully displayed. You can really see and appreciate the character styling in the fine detail, texture, patterns, and prints in the clothing worn by the main characters. One scene where the characters are dining aboard Sator’s mega-yacht had so much fine detail to appreciate in the tablecloth and linens and other bits on the yacht that it was almost distracting. Daylight shots of the Amalfi Coast are also just stunning to look at, with the beautiful array of colors and sharply defined buildings contrasted against the craggy cliffs and water.
Blacks are clean, clear, and dark, and we get plenty of bright highlights in the form of explosions or bright lighting. Colors are bright and punchy when called for, like bright yellows of safety vests, or the red-orange of fireballs, or the warm, golden hues of a candlelit dinner. Throughout, Tenet delivers reference-quality video, with images that look incredibly natural, sharp, and detailed. While it might have been impressive on an IMAX screen, it absolutely looks fantastic viewed on a high-quality home theater.
As much as I wrote down about Tenet’s video quality, I have more notes about the audio. Presented in 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio (Nolan famously eschews immersive mixes like Dolby Atmos), the mix is both fantastic and damnably frustrating.
It’s fantastic in the way it is just filled with atmospheric sounds both subtle and overt in virtually every scene. Interiors are densely layered with little sounds—echoes, ocean sounds, machinery noises, background chatter, etc.—that fully place you in that space. While not an immersive mix, my Marantz’s processor did a wonderful job of upmixing the 5.1-channel track to provide a fully hemispherical presentation. A scene where gas is filling a room literally fills your room with the hissing jets of gas coming from all around. Another scene has the Protagonist in the middle of a train yard, and when the trains pass by left and right of him, the cacophony of the squealing and groaning and clacking of the wheels makes you experience what the characters is experiencng.
Dynamic sounds are dynamic and loud. Gunshots sound fantastic, having appropriate weight that engages the subwoofer and delivers the zip and snap of close misses, with bullets slamming into things with appropriate force. Wood splinters, metal thunks, glass shatters. Both the opening opera scene and later gun battle on the highway are perfect audio demos to show off your system.
You’ll also never need to wonder if your subs are working, which is a part of why the audio mix can be so frustrating. Bass is frequently on the verge of being overwhelming—I wrote down “bombastic”—or crossing over into just walloping you with low-end for no apparent reason, often from the musical score, which frequently is filled with a steady, deep, low-frequency hum, pulse, and throb. But when things blow up, your sub needs to be there to deliver, and it will produce couch-rattling, chest-stomping bass.
Dialogue intelligibility is still a very mixed bag. At its best, you can understand what characters are saying; at its worst, dialogue is so drowned out by background effects and music that it’s impossible to understand, or even hear at all in some cases. I’d say most of the film’s dialogue—spoken behind oxygen masks or just in very noisy environments—is challenging. On this second viewing, I decided to not to struggle and opted to just turn the subtitles on from the get-go, and that made for a much more entertaining experience. If you want to argue that you shouldn’t have to turn subtitles on to fully understand a film, you’ll get no argument from me.
But this is the audio mix Nolan wanted, and it’s the audio mix we’re stuck with, warts and all. Nolan says he likes viewers to experience the confusion and disorientation his characters would be feeling, and that he uses “dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.” Fortunately, at home you have the option of enabling subtitles—and rewinding—in case you missed something.
Whether you love it, hate it, are confounded by it, or just curious over the hype, Tenet is an experience that plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. And seeing giant practical effects play out on a big screen—yes, they literally blew up that 747—in pristine quality is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, unlocking the “I understand Tenet” achievement demands multiple viewings, which provide more appreciation and understanding over subtle details, giving it huge points for replayability.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.