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The People Who Never Stopped Loving Tenet

People who love “Tenet” tend to have a story about the first time they saw it, so let’s start with mine. I didn’t catch Christopher Nolan’s 2020 film in theaters — I live in Los Angeles, where there were tight COVID restrictions — so it wasn’t until the movie became available for purchase digitally months later that I finally was able to check out my most-anticipated movie of that year. I’ve been a fan of Nolan’s for a while — ever since I’d been dazzled by his sophomore feature “Memento” — and I was especially curious to see what he’d done after “Dunkirk,” the best film of 2017. 

But by the time I got to “Tenet,” I’d heard the negative buzz — how it was a disappointment, a needlessly complicated and convoluted pseudo-spy-thriller that involved time travel. Reviewers are often rapturous about a new Nolan film, but that hadn’t been the case here — the word was that the Oscar-nominated director, arguably the most prestigious of modern blockbuster filmmakers, had laid an egg. So rather than being excited, I was mostly wary, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. When I finally sat down to watch “Tenet,” I got a bunch of both — some incredible action sequences but also a storyline that was nearly impossible to follow. Practically avant-garde in its narrative structure, the movie was ambitious but also muddled, leaving me admiring the attempt but forced to admit it wasn’t one of his strongest efforts. Oh well, even the greats don’t always deliver the goods.

But then something happened: “Tenet” stayed with me. I hadn’t loved it, but I’d liked it, intrigued by the pieces that didn’t quite fit and curious to put them together in my mind. Perhaps there was more to the film than I had realized. There was obviously an intelligence at work — maybe I needed to apply my own to fully understand what Nolan had achieved.

We live in a culture in which you don’t have to wait long for movies to go from being labeled a dud to being hailed as a masterpiece. “Jennifer’s Body” was savaged by critics and died at the box office — it’s now a cult classic. “A Simple Favor” underperformed — now, there’s talk of a sequel because of the rabid fan base that sprung up around the film. “Babylon” was one of 2022’s biggest commercial bombs, so why does it have sellout screenings when it shows up at revival theaters? If a movie you adore was pilloried when it came out, just give it a moment — the internet will resurrect it soon enough. 

But “Tenet” is a special case. Again, released during the height of COVID when most new movies of any discernible quality were being delayed, the film received mixed reviews by Nolan’s standards and made “only” about $365 million worldwide. (It reportedly cost north of $200 million, meaning that, because theaters usually collect about half of a film’s grosses, this was his first movie in forever that didn’t turn a profit.) And yet, on Friday, “Tenet” returns to theaters, available in 70mm and IMAX, serving as 2024’s first major event release (a week before "Dune: Part Two" steals most of those screens). 

This is exciting news for exhibitors, who haven’t had much to be cheery about so far this glum box-office season. But it’s especially thrilling for the people who were onboard with “Tenet” from the very start. Critics and general audiences may have been chilly to the film — check around online, and you’ll see plenty of everyday moviegoers who thought “Tenet” was boring or confusing — but there’s also been a dedicated fanbase that has been preaching the gospel of this movie for years. On YouTube, on Twitter, on Reddit, on TikTok, they have delivered impassioned testimonials, reaching out to like-minded souls while also hoping to convert those who haven’t yet seen the light. For them, this weekend is validation and a victory lap. Each of them has their own story about how they first saw “Tenet.”

Ben Chinapen, 28, was living in Glasgow. An actor who had studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he had moved to London before the pandemic hit. “I was in a terrible place in a really boring neighborhood in London,” he tells me over Zoom from Toronto. “I was like, ‘I hate this,’ so I just went back to Glasgow to my old student apartment.” His place was in the middle of the city, and so when “Tenet” came out, as a Nolan fan, he was looking forward to checking it out. But when Chinapen got to the theater, masked up, there was almost no one there. “There’s multiple reasons why someone might not go to the cinema during that time,” he says. “But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to bomb, isn’t it?’”

Many of the film’s biggest fans loved “Tenet” from the start — Chinapen was not one of them. “I really was kind of meh about it,” he admits. “I remember being like, ‘Wow, this is inscrutable. This is on a new level of his complexity.’”

That’s certainly how reviewers felt, too. Whenever a film that did not open to thunderous ovation and gaudy grosses gets reevaluated, writers tend to oversell how unloved that film was. So let the record show that “Tenet,” in fact, got mostly favorable reviews — it’s just that it didn’t receive the sort of “best movie of the year” raves that usually accompany a Nolan film. In his three-star review for RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico summed up a lot of our initial feelings when he wrote, “It is 100 percent designed as an experience for people who have unpacked films like ‘The Prestige’ and ‘Memento’ late into the night, hoping to give Nolan fans more to chew on than ever before. More certainly seems to be the operating principle of ‘Tenet,’ even if the chewing can get exhausting.”

For those who don’t remember — or never could figure out what the hell was going on — this is a short plot description of “Tenet.” John David Washington plays a CIA operative, identified only as the Protagonist, who is recruited by a shadow organization calling itself Tenet. His mission is to stop a dangerous Russian baddie, named Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is communicating with the future. With the help of Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the Protagonist will try to prevent Sator from destroying the world. That seems simple enough, but the movie is far more complicated than that, dealing with entropy, inversion and temporal pincer movements. As a character advises the Protagonist — in a line that has become a totem for the film’s fans — “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” 

As someone who loves Nolan’s movies, Chinapen found himself sorting through his feelings after his first screening. “I was definitely disappointed,” he recalls. “I don’t know if I was ever angry, because I didn’t feel, like, crushing disappointment. But I just had this inkling of, ‘This must make sense, so I should go see it again.’ So I saw it a week or two later.” Even after the movie was no longer in theaters, he kept watching it, trying to fully comprehend the experience. “I didn’t even fully understand it until, I think it was the sixth time, when I specifically watched it with subtitles, where I was like, ‘I get it.’”

Chinapen’s journey to “getting” “Tenet” started with an image that had stayed with him — that of the Protagonist on the back of a red fire truck at the start of the film’s most inventive chase sequence. It became one of the key aspects of a 17-minute video he made in the summer of 2021, entitled “Tenet — A Misunderstood Masterpiece,” in which he shared his enthusiasm for the film and argued that it wasn’t a failure just because it had violated certain narrative rules or wasn’t emotional. (That latter criticism, by the way, really annoys “Tenet” fans. But more on that in a second.)

What prompted him to make the video, which has logged (to date) 2.2 million views, was, according to him, other viewers’ “fundamental unwillingness to understand [the movie] or engage with it in an actual productive way. Any time a filmmaker who’s done really well then makes a bold, clearly different kind of film, like, they’re not a stupid person. They didn’t just wake up one day and be like, ‘I’m going to do something dumb.’ They obviously put thought into it, so it’s like, ‘Well, trust the reputation — engage with it. Here’s a way that I’ve found to engage with it.’” But Chinapen also had another motivation: “Everything’s so toxic and terrible — the pandemic was raging — and I was like, ‘Here’s a fun little game you can play at home right now with this movie that maybe you had a bad experience with.’ It’s like you meet a person, have a really bad first impression with them, and then you hang out with them in a completely different context — you’re like, ‘Oh, I love this guy!’ You have a new friend now, and the world is better.”

Chinapen laughs self-deprecatingly as he describes his mindset. He has an easy sense of humor and a nerdy sweetness, qualities that he shares with the other four people I spoke with for this piece. As a Nolan fan, I sometimes lament a certain type of Nolan Bro that you encounter online — the sort of territorial, mansplaining bully who treats the director’s films as sacred texts, as the only example of true cinema. These jerks make the rest of us look bad — such as when they memorably complained, before “Dunkirk” came out, that Harry Styles fangirls were going to ruin the film for “real” movie lovers. Happily, I didn’t encounter any of that possessiveness in my conversations for this piece. The guys I talked to — and they’re all guys, in their 20s — love “Tenet” and Nolan in general. But they’re not weird or ugly about it.

On his Letterboxd profile, Nicholas Janzen, 28, describes himself as a “filmmaker and filmwatcher,” often taking to TikTok to riff on movie news or give reviews. In late January, he posted that his most-anticipated movie of this year would be the “Tenet” re-release, decrying how the film was “maligned” when it was initially released. The video quickly became one of his more popular recent posts. 

Responding by email, Janzen tells me about his first “Tenet” viewing. “I was living in Toronto during the initial lockdown, and theaters had been closed for nearly five months at this point,” he says. “But the allure of seeing a new Christopher Nolan movie on a big screen was too enticing to pass up. So, I went masked up with legitimate fear for my health to have this viewing experience. I was blown away by the concept and the technically audacious action sequences that use time in such a unique way. It’s one of the great modern action films utterly propelled by vibes.”

If you check out the comments to Janzen’s TikTok post, it’s a fairly representative sample of the range of opinions surrounding “Tenet.” For every person who knows it’s great, there’s someone who insists it’s overrated. Such differing takes are nothing new on the internet, but “Tenet” discourse is especially passionate, neither side ceding any ground. Janzen comes across as good-natured about such debates, but to those who would point to the film’s subpar commercial performance as proof of its artistic failure, he argues, “The fact that it did make over $300 million during the height of COVID is legitimately impressive and speaks to the strength of Nolan’s brand. Had it been held [until later in the pandemic], it only could have gone higher.”

Someone who definitely helped that box-office total was Kenneth Mulwee, 26, who now resides in Los Angeles, where he’s a composer. When “Tenet” opened in 2020, he was still living at home in St. Louis, where he saw the film 15 times in the theater. He’s planning on seeing it five times during its one-week-only re-release.

Although Mulwee has seen “Tenet” more than any other film on the big screen, multiple viewings isn’t out of the ordinary for him. “Some of my friends saw ‘Tenet’ eight times. I saw ‘Oppenheimer’ 10 times in IMAX — I think some of them probably [saw it], like, five or six.” If you think that’s a lot of “Tenet” watching, Mulwee quickly points out, “I’ve seen stories online of people who tried to see it 100 times theatrically. I was like, ‘Man, I thought I was crazy.’ There’s a lot of ‘Tenet’ fanaticism.”

Unlike Chinapen’s near-empty theater, Mulwee remembers his first “Tenet” screening being packed. “Missouri was very laissez faire about [COVID restrictions],” he tells me over Zoom. “This was right during the thick of it — people were wearing masks, some weren’t. I probably wasn’t — I was like, ‘I’m young, I’m healthy. I’m just too excited for a Nolan movie. I don’t care what’s going on in the world, I’m going.’”

His first viewing, he went by himself, instantly flipping for the film. “The night after, I was with a buddy. Most of those early showings, I was with friends ‘cause I had to bring them to see it — I was so in love with the movie that any person I could get to go with me, I was getting to go with me. By the later showings, I went by myself — everyone else was like, ‘Dude, I’ve already seen it.’ But I was like, ‘I’m not done,’ so I kept going.”

What kept drawing him back to the theater? For one thing, because there weren't a lot of new, interesting movies coming out at that time, “Tenet” was, essentially, the only game in town. But also, “Every time I would see it, I would pick up on a new detail,” Mulwee says, “and it just made me love the movie so much more. Just knowing all these complex details that you absolutely will not get the first time you watch it — or first five times you watch it.”

People’s obsessive rewatching of movies is hardly a new phenomenon. Rodney Ascher’s engrossing, thought-provoking 2012 documentary “Room 237” focused on different people who each had elaborate, sometimes ridiculous theories about what Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is really about. But the theories weren’t what made “Room 237” fascinating — it was the meditation on why certain movies strike a deep chord with us, and why it can be dangerous to go too far down the rabbit hole coming up with bizarre interpretations of a movie’s actual intent.

Talk to “Tenet” fans and you’ll hear the occasional pet theory. But guys like Mulwee mostly seem to respond to the movie — and Nolan’s movies in general — because of the intelligence and care he puts into them. “I’m definitely a knowledge-driven person,” he tells me. “I love to just read Wikipedia articles, just find something that’s even remotely interesting to me and start learning about it. ‘Tenet’ had me reading about entropy and thermodynamics, Maxwell’s demon, all this weird stuff. ‘Oppenheimer’ had me researching nuclear physics. Any kind of concept that is brought to the table, I’m interested in.”

But what also makes “Tenet” so rewatchable is its invitation to the viewer to try to figure out precisely how time travel, or inversion, works in the film. Not unlike a puzzler such as “Primer,” “Tenet” inspires fans to map out labyrinthine timelines that can explain what is happening when to different characters. After multiple viewings, including one in which I watched with the subtitles on as well, I have made peace with the fact that I’m never entirely going to “get” all of “Tenet.” But once I trusted that Nolan seemed to, I was able to enjoy the movie for the fleet, bravura experience it is — for its enigmatic, meticulous, playful/mad design. 

Those who find the movie willfully baffling — impenetrable for impenetrable’s sake — will be hard to convince. (In Jessica Kiang’s positive New York Times review, she observed, “The film is undeniably enjoyable, but its giddy grandiosity only serves to highlight the brittleness of its purported braininess.”) But for some, like Chinapen, that denseness — and some people’s utter exasperation with it — is part of the fun.

Asked to describe a typical Tenet Head, he says, laughing, “A Tenet Head knows that everyone hates this movie, loves it unabashedly, thinks the inscrutableness is funny and gets a kick out of it and also agrees it’s genius. I think there’s a bit of irony to it as well — there’s a bit of self-aware, post-irony of just like, ‘Isn’t it funny that we love this movie, but also it’s amazing.’ We’re aware of how we sound when we say ‘Tenet’ is amazing, because we were there — we saw it for the first time and we were like, ‘What?!’ But now we're past that. It’s kind of a joke, but a really sincere joke.”

Griffin Schiller, 28, went to the greatest lengths of anyone I spoke to in order to see “Tenet.” A video creator and film critic, he lives in North Hollywood but, as he puts it, because L.A. theaters weren’t yet open due to COVID, “I was the insane person who drove, I don’t know, three-and-a-half-hours, there and back, to go see it in Vegas for a press screening.” The long drive turned out to be only part of the ordeal, though: “The worst was that screening cut out right in the middle of the big action set piece. You’ve got the inverted army, you’ve got the regular army — it’s like this massive spectacle, it’s blowing your mind, ‘Holy shit, this is incredible!’ — and then, yeah, it just cuts out, and we’re sitting there for 15 minutes. They’re trying to fix it — they try and start it back over a couple of times, then they have to move us to another theater. The fact that the movie stayed with me — that I’ve loved it as much as I did — is a testament to just how great the film is, despite all of these horrible first-viewing things going on for me.”

Because Schiller follows the industry, he is not one to assume — unlike some “Tenet” fans online, jokingly or not — that the re-release is necessarily in response to the online fervor for the film. More likely, the decision by Warner Bros. is based on certain practicalities: An IMAX re-release will get people to the theater, where audiences can see a trailer for the studio’s next big IMAX spectacle, “Dune: Part 2,” which comes out next week. And, of course, Warner Bros. presumably wants to smooth things over with Nolan, who had made several films for the studio, including “Tenet,” but was so unhappy with the company’s strategy during the pandemic to release movies in theaters and on its streaming service simultaneously that he bolted for Universal, which put out his potentially Oscar-winning “Oppenheimer.” (In a statement in December 2020, Nolan famously declared of Warner Bros., “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”)

This touches on another aspect of the so-called “Tenet” backlash that occurred when the film opened in 2020. At the beginning of the year, before COVID became a reality for North American audiences, Nolan’s closely-guarded action-thriller was on the top of most people’s must-see lists. But once lockdown scuttled theaters, “Tenet” was pushed back from its July release date. Undeterred, Nolan seemed determined to figure out a way to get the movie into theaters — rightly or wrongly, there was a general impression that Nolan wanted to be the one who “saved” the theatrical experience. But was that a sign of arrogance or stubbornness on his part? In the midst of a global crisis in which so many were dying, who really cared about a movie right then? I often wondered if that contributed to some people’s negative feelings about “Tenet” — they felt that the film, with its elaborately clever narrative design, just seemed entirely beside the point at a moment of such fear and sorrow.

“I remember people questioning whether or not he should be releasing the film in that climate,” says Schiller. “I think those are valid questions for sure, and I don’t know if there [was] really any right answer. The thing that I admired is he saw an industry that he loved dearly — theaters — really suffering. And he was like, ‘Look, if I put this movie out here and I give these theaters something to show, I give people a reason to go back to the movies — maybe other films will follow suit.’ Where he probably went wrong is there was nothing necessarily set in line with other filmmakers or other studios: ‘Look, we’re going to release ‘Tenet’ here, you guys, maybe a couple of weeks down the line release this. We’ll give the theaters something to keep them going and off of life support.’ I think his intentions were in the right place. I know a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, he just wants to release the movie because he’s got this massive ego,’ but he was trying to save something that was important to him.”

Schiller did a traditional review of “Tenet,” but as time went on, he couldn’t stop thinking about the film. “Especially in a sea of negativity, I was like, ‘Let me try and do a little bit more here,’” he recalls thinking. “It’s [a movie] that just stuck with me — I was like, ‘No, man, there’s so much more here to dive into.’”

And, so, in early 2021, he made a video essay incorporating quotes from Nolan and others, including passages from Tom Shone’s 2020 book The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries and Marvels of Christopher Nolan, to make a case for why “Tenet” should be reappraised. Specifically, he discussed how the film connects to Nolan’s childhood passion for James Bond films — a passion that Schiller shares. When I talk to Schiller over Zoom, he has a litany of 007 posters behind him, some of them in different languages. 

“I’m a massive James Bond nerd,” he says with a laugh, “so I’m just picking up on stuff in this film that I felt was tailor-made for me. My dream project would be for Christopher Nolan to do a James Bond movie — ‘Tenet,’ to me, is the closest I think we’ll ever get to him doing that. [I was] really excited to see him go out there and create something original that is based on the feelings that he got when he was watching ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ when he was a kid.” 

Schiller’s love of espionage thrillers and Bond flicks started when he was young, “but I become more fascinated the older that I get, just because I think it’s a genre that gets better as you get older and have a better understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape. I grew up watching the Connery films as a kid — they’re great, who doesn’t like them? And ‘Casino Royale’ came out during a really pivotal time in my life — ‘Casino Royale’ was a big reason why I love movies as much as I do today. But, yeah, the espionage genre — I liked the characters, I liked how malleable the genre is. You can have a very serious John le Carré-type story and then you could do something like ‘Moonraker’ — they all feel like they belong in the genre.”

Most can see the Bond-like allusions in Nolan’s film, although even among “Tenet” fans, there’s debate about how worthwhile they are. Chinapen tells me, “This is something [my friend and I], who both are at the same level of obsession, actually disagree on. He [says], ‘This is [Nolan’s] James Bond movie,’ and I’m like, ‘This is not a James Bond movie.’” 

Another person I spoke with, Jason Carman, 23, also doesn’t sound like he’s that big of a Bond guy. At one point as I talk to him over the phone from his work in San Francisco, he describes the Protagonist as “pretty James Bond-like, minus the corniness, in the sense that he’s basically just trying to save the world.” But unlike my other interview subjects, Carman (who loves “Tenet”) has never experienced it on the big screen. That’s why he can’t wait for the re-release. 

“I’ve always wanted to see it in the theater,” he tells me, “so now I get to. I have three different viewings I’m going to. I have a personal one I’m going to, which is by myself — literally, no one else. There’s one I think that I’m co-hosting at a theater here in San Francisco, where a bunch of people I’ve worked with are seeing it — I’ve been told I’m giving the presentation after the film. Then there’s a third one, to be determined, that may be a date — we’ll see.”

If you’ve been banging the drum for “Tenet” all these years online, you may recognize Carman’s name — and know what he means by “the presentation.” 

He first saw the movie when it was available on Amazon, eventually rewatching it about 10 times. “It was pretty confusing,” he says of his first viewing. “I’d say I got 70 percent of it, and then by the end of the rewatch I was like, ‘Oh, I think I get 95 percent of it.’” But Carman went viral early this year in connection to Jenn Sherman, the Peloton instructor who became famous after Nolan jokingly mentioned at the New York Film Critics Circle awards banquet, where he was being celebrated for “Oppenheimer,” that he had been doing a workout when, all of a sudden, Sherman randomly ripped on “Tenet,” saying, “That’s a couple of hours of my life I’ll never get back.” The internet eventually tracked down Sherman, leading to some good-natured joking around on all sides. But in the midst of it all, Carman tweeted something extraordinary: “A girl I was going out with asked me to make a powerpoint explaining Tenet, I did. I’ve used it on 3 other dates since then whenever Tenet confusion comes up.” The tweet quickly started blowing up.

“There was a girl I was trying to impress,” he tells me when I ask about the origins of this presentation. “She made a joke about [‘Tenet’]: ‘Oh, well, you love it enough to where you’d make a PowerPoint for it.’ So I was like, ‘Actually, yeah, I would do that.’ A few days later, she came over and we shared wine — I pretended [to be a] drunk professor and presented this silly PowerPoint slide of the movie. The slides are quite bad — they don’t really do much explaining of the film. It’s really just a recap of the whole thing.

His original tweet went up on January 4th — there was such demand to see the PowerPoint that, a day later, he put up all 29 slides. A few days after that, he upped the ante, posting video of a first date he went on in which he showed his date, Harpriya Bagri, the printed-out slides so he could talk to her about “Tenet.” (She had seen the movie, but she didn’t know she was being recorded.) That video also went viral, with some commenters praising the wholesomeness of their good-natured back-and-forth, while others accusing Carman of mansplaining. Personally, I lean toward those in the former camp: Bagri clearly has a ball dunking on this guy — seriously, how many slides does she have to look at? — and the two of them really enjoy getting into discussing the ins and outs of “Tenet.”

“I was terrified,” he says of staging the surreptitious video shoot. “I make a lot of video and film for my job, but I’m always on the other end of the camera. I like that — I don’t really enjoy being on the front end of it, especially when it’s about me. You know that it’s going to go viral because of the context — it’s very nerve-racking.”

Carman had decided not to tell Bagri in advance so that her reaction to his nerdy presentation could be authentic, but he knew ahead of time he wasn’t going to do anything with the video unless he got her blessing. “We wanted to try to make a little piece of modern art,” he says, before stopping himself. “I know that sounds so conceited, but we wanted to try to keep it real, whether that meant naturally funny moments or naturally awkward moments. I realized that not telling her [ahead of time] would be a good way to approach that, but it was pretty nerve-racking for me, because I was like, ‘That’s sketchy.’ But [I thought], ‘I’m a good dude, if she becomes uncomfortable with it, the footage is getting deleted.’ But I just knew her from Twitter and in person, and I was like, ‘I think she’ll think it’s hilarious and great.’”

Not only was Bagri cool with it, she went back to Carman’s place with the people who’d shot the video so that they could all watch it and edit it together. “Me and my roommates and her and the two guys that helped me film it all came over and just cracked up at the full 40 minutes of uncut footage,” he says, laughing. “Twelve people just sat in a room, and we all made co-directorial decisions on what parts were funny, what parts weren’t.”

He and Bagri are friends — they’ve done joint interviews about the experience — but I was curious if the viral video helped get him dates with other women. “A third of the total comments [from] the whole experience were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy’s DMs are going to be flooded. There’s going to be so many women interested in him because it really displays nerdiness and care in a fun way that’s unique,’” Carman laughs. “I got a total of four DMs from interested women. Four. What I’ve learned is that, when women go viral, they get tons of DMs from guys. But I did go on one of those dates with someone, and it was really a fun date — a quality person and a very, very smart person. I was like, ‘Maybe that was a good quality filter for smart, nerdy, meticulous folks,’ but it didn’t work at a high-quantity level.”

Because my five interview subjects are men — and the loudest Nolan fans online also seem to be men — some may wonder if there’s something inherent in the director’s movies that lend themselves to be fixated on by guys. Sweeping statements about gender are reductive and stupid. (And I know plenty of women who adore Nolan’s movies.) But it’s tempting to think in broad stereotypes, associating men with a love of intricate riddles they can brag about solving — a brain-measuring contest, if you will — while women are less interested in intellectual (or, if you’re less charitable, self-absorbed, brooding action movies pretending to be about grand themes) cinematic exercises. 

When I put this question to my subjects, they struggled to explain why more of their male friends cottoned to Nolan’s movies. (As Mulwee puts it, “I think everybody that I know that had a girlfriend that would’ve seen ‘Tenet,’ I don’t think any of them were remotely interested in it — but all the guys were like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever!’”) But if you want to use another broad, reductive gender stereotype, suggesting that men don’t like films that are emotional, these five men will surprise you — many of them talked about a personal, visceral connection they have to “Tenet.”

“I cried at least twice watching it,” Carman says. “And I don’t cry a lot.” The ending, when Neil and the Protagonist say goodbye to one another, almost brings him to tears. “But it’s really the moments where the Protagonist has just the quickest moment of ‘Oh shit, am I going to do this crazy thing? I’m about to save the world.’ It’s one thing to run into a burning building — it’s quite a thing, actually — but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to run into the burning building and not know what the fuck is going to happen. There’s something about moving into action for the benefit of someone you’re trying to save [that’s] deeply emotional to me — that just gets me.”

For Carman, that feeling connects to the work he does. He aspires to be a filmmaker, like his heroes Nolan and George Lucas. But during the work week, “I am the head of content at a satellite company called Astranis. If you’re one of the four billion people who have no internet connection — you can’t afford it — our satellites are tailor-made for you. Then on the weekends, I do a weekly web series, with an emphasis in cinematic documentary filmmaking, about people who are building other tech things, like Astranis is, to try to change the world with technology for the better.”

The idea of helping others, whether it’s the Protagonist or himself, is something that’s important to Carman. “My personal life philosophy is to do the most with my life,” he tells me. He considers himself incredibly fortunate: “Being born in a state and a country that’s financially well off, I wanted work [that would] help the rest of the world who don’t have certain things — like clean water, consistent food, a safe place to live, the internet — and bring that to reality.” But the film’s exploration of time travel has also stayed with him, changing the way he thinks about his purpose — in particular, he’s focused on one line, when Dimple Kapadia’s arms dealer Priya says that, really, we’re all communicating with the future. (“Emails, credit cards, texts: Anything that goes into the record speaks directly to the future.”) Carman believes time travel is a reality, and we should think more about its daily implications.

“The stupid thing I just tweeted is going to be seen by my great-great-great-great grandchildren one day, in a way that normally maybe something like that never would’ve been seen,” he says. “I think more about time travel than the rest of the other big questions of fate, luck, ‘Is there a god?,’ things of this nature.”

For Chinapen, the Protagonist’s Blackness resonates, especially because it’s never commented on in “Tenet.” In Chinapen’s viral video, he delves into this aspect of the movie, commenting how refreshing it is to have a Black hero in a studio blockbuster whose race has nothing to do with who he is as a character. As an actor of color, Chinapen finds that encouraging.

“I’m half-white, half-Guyanese,” he says. “I haven’t looked into my genealogy very much, but it’s like Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese.” I found this part of his video especially illuminating, shining a light on how movie fandom can be intensely personal. But I told him that, although the Protagonist’s race is never brought up, in a sense I wondered if it is. Quite often, our hero is underestimated by the white characters he encounters — the Protagonist is told that he’s out of his depth trying to navigate this world of spycraft, leading me to wonder if their lack of respect from him was partly based on racism. Was Nolan very subtly suggesting that?

Chinapen takes a shine to that theory, in part because it connects with his own feeling of first seeing “Tenet” in Glasgow, “a city full of white people. I was watching it and feeling a disconnect and missing Toronto. One of the reasons I came back to Toronto was to be around the multiculturalism. [The Protagonist] is like, ‘Everyone seems to think I’m not getting it’ — and to be fair, he doesn’t get it, but he has the capability to get it — and then it turns out he’s smarter than all of them, because in the future he’s the boss.”

In their own way, each of my five interview subjects have helped sing the film’s praises, keeping it alive in the cultural consciousness despite not being as popular as Nolan’s blockbusters. But they don’t feel much ownership of “Tenet” and are pleased if their online contributions helped turn new people onto the film — or changed their mind about the movie. Speaking about his brief viral moment, Carman says, “A fear is that I’ve somehow maybe ruined ‘Tenet’ for people.” But all in all, his fleeting internet celebrity turned out okay. “Your coworkers and old teachers text you out of the blue — they’re like, ‘Oh my god, you’re on Twitter!’ Then everyone forgets about it, and you move on with your life and it’s wonderful. If there’s a way to be famous, it’s this.” That said, he did get a kick out of recently meeting a new coworker: “He’s like, ‘You’re the ‘Tenet’ guy! Do you want to get lunch? We can just talk about ‘Tenet.’’ We’re doing that next week — I think that’s pretty cool.”

“Tenet” will always be associated with the pandemic, part of the film’s legacy connected to COVID and Nolan’s attempts (mocked by some) to get his movie into theaters. Arguably, “Tenet” didn’t get a fair shake because of all the baggage around it at the time. But even if there hadn’t been a lockdown, Schiller believes, “The film would be divisive, just by virtue of the weirdness of it. [The movie’s plot] is a lot to grasp on an initial viewing, and when the film came out during the pandemic, people weren’t going to go back for a second viewing — and this is a film that demands repeat viewings.” 

Of course, there were people who kept going back, happy to relive the Protagonist’s journey again and again. But although the pandemic is over, some of those fans can’t entirely separate the lockdown from the experience of watching “Tenet.” “I remember when and where I saw most movies for the first time,” says Janzen. “So a part of me will always associate ‘Tenet’ with the pandemic and the real-world factors that informed its release. Obviously, many people opted not to see it in its initial theatrical run, so I would hope, particularly after the phenomenon of ‘Oppenheimer,’ audiences are more willing to take the leap and its legacy can be defined more by how it continues to be appreciated over time by fans and doubters alike.”

Even today, watching “Tenet” makes Chinapen think about the COVID era. “[The characters] wear those masks, which is a really evocative image,” he says, “and that takes me back. [The film] also reflects how weird it felt at that time — it’s one of those rare moments where a piece of art happened to mean something that it completely did not intend to, but just fundamentally culturally does, which is kind of beautiful.”

Funny enough, despite seeing “Tenet” 15 times during its initial release, Mulwee has never revisited it since. “I’ve watched scenes,” he says, “but I haven’t sat down and watched the film in its entirety at home — it’s so ingrained in my head [from those] theater experiences, it has to be that. That’s why I’m really excited for this re-release, because I can relive that: ‘This is how I know “Tenet.”’ That’s going to be great.”

But it also makes Mulwee think about how much has changed in those four years — not just in terms of the pandemic but also for himself. “Life was definitely different,” he tells me. “In Missouri, stuff was shut down, but not entirely. Back then, I was 23 years old — I lived with my parents. I didn’t have bills — I had no other obligations to do anything, so I just went and saw ‘Tenet’ as many times as I could. I had nothing else to spend my money on — I had nowhere else that I could really go. ‘Tenet’ was really my comfort food during the pandemic, especially in the early woes of it.”

He wonders if those memories will come back to him when he returns to “Tenet” in the theater, even though he now lives in Los Angeles to follow his ambitions to be a composer. “I’ll probably have flashbacks of what my life was and dreaming of being in L.A.,” he says, “because that was always the goal.” 

Mulwee measures the distance between now and then. “I remember exactly what seat that I always sat in at that theater [in St. Louis], and that’s going to be a completely different experience being in L.A. I think it’ll bring me back to those times which, for me, were good. The pandemic was bad as a whole, but I had a lot of fun with ‘Tenet.’”

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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