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 in March 2019, and principal photography extended over three months in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and United States, from May to November. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot on 70 mm and IMAX. Time manipulation scenes were done both backwards and forwards. In excess of a hundred vessels and thousands of extras were brought into play during filming.
Delayed three times due to 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 has grossed $207million worldwide, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of 2020. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, who praised the performances, production value, and visuals, though some criticized the confusing plot and sound mixing.
An unnamed CIA agent—"The Protagonist"—participates in an undercover operation at a Kiev opera house. He is aided by a masked soldier with a distinctive trinket, who appears to "un-fire" a bullet through a hostile gunman. After rescuing an exposed spy and seizing a strange artifact, the Protagonist is captured by Russian mercenaries. He endures torture before consuming a cyanide pill. He later awakens to learn the pill was fake; his team has been killed and the artifact lost.
The Protagonist learns that he is now employed by a secret organization called "Tenet," whose mission involves the human race's survival. He is directed to Barbara, a scientist studying bullets with "inverted" entropy which allows them to move backwards through time. She believes they are manufactured in the future, and there exists a weapon that can wipe out the past.
The Protagonist traces the bullet cartridges to Mumbai-based arms dealer Priya Singh. Assisted by a local contact named Neil, he confronts Priya, who turns out to be a member of Tenet. Her cartridges were purchased and inverted by Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch originating from Stalsk-12, a former Soviet closed city, and who can apparently communicate with the future.
The Protagonist approaches Sator's estranged wife Kat, an art appraiser who unknowingly sold Sator a forged Goya drawing. Kat reveals that Sator uses the drawing to keep her under his control. To enlist Kat's help, the Protagonist plots to steal the drawing from Freeport, a facility within Oslo Airport. Inside Freeport, they find a machine (later referred to as "Turnstile") from which two masked men emerge; the inverted one attacks the Protagonist, while Neil chases after the normal one. Neil prevents the Protagonist from killing the inverted man, adding that he "took care" of the other one. Priya explains that Turnstile is developed in the future and can invert the entropy of objects and people, and that the two masked men were the same person.
In Amalfi Coast, believing the drawing was destroyed, Kat introduces the Protagonist to Sator, only to learn later that the drawing is still intact. The three go on a boating trip, during which Kat attempts to drown Sator, but the Protagonist saves him. Posing as a freelancer, he offers to help Sator retrieve a case of Plutonium-241.
Sator square, providing the film title, location of the opening sequence (Kiev Opera), and character or firm names (A. Sator; Arepo the Goya forger; and Rotas Security in Oslo Freeport).
In Tallinn, the Protagonist and Neil ambush an armoured convoy and steal the "Plutonium," which is actually the artifact lost in the botched Kiev opera house siege. His escape is compromised by two vehicles driven by inverted individuals, one of which is Sator, who holds Kat hostage. The Protagonist gives Sator an empty case. Sator retreats, leaving Kat in the speeding vehicle. After saving her, the Protagonist is captured and taken to Sator's warehouse containing another Turnstile. In a confusing interrogation, an inverted Sator (who shoots Kat with an inverted round) and a normal one demand the location of the artifact, about which the Protagonist lies. A team of Tenet operatives led by Ives arrive and free the Protagonist.
The Protagonist takes the mortally wounded Kat through Sator's Turnstile to invert her whole self, neutralizing the effect of the round. He returns to the ambush site and chases after Sator. His vehicle is overturned and Sator sets it on fire. He is saved by Ives' team again. Neil reveals that he has secretly been a member of Tenet from the beginning. They travel back to Freeport a week earlier. There, the Protagonist fights his past self before reaching the Turnstile and un-inverts himself. Neil takes Kat through the Turnstile which un-inverts both of them.
Priya explains that the artifacts are parts of an "Algorithm" capable of catastrophically inverting the entire world. Future humans had been using Sator to assemble it. Priya plans for Sator to gather all the parts of the algorithm in one place, which he now does. Kat reveals that Sator is dying from pancreatic cancer, and they deduce he will trigger the algorithm with a dead man's switch, believing that the world should die with him. Kat believes Sator will kill himself during their vacation in Vietnam when they were last happy together. The Protagonist, Neil, Kat, and the Tenet forces invert back to that day so Kat can delay Sator's death while Tenet secures the algorithm.
Tenet tracks the assembled algorithm to Stalsk-12, located in Northern Siberia. They commence a "temporal pincer movement"; half of their troops move forward in time to the blast zone, while the other half moves inverted. In Vietnam, Kat finds Sator on his yacht and pretends to be her younger self. In Stalsk-12, the Protagonist and Ives are prevented from reaching the algorithm by a locked gate; an inverted masked corpse with a red trinket on its backpack springs to life, saves the Protagonist from a gunshot, and unlocks the gate. Kat, unable to let Sator die believing he succeeded, prematurely kills him just as the Protagonist and Ives secure the algorithm. Kat dives from the yacht's deck, witnessed by her past self.
The Protagonist, Neil, and Ives break up the algorithm's components and part ways. The Protagonist notices a red trinket on Neil's rucksack. Neil reveals that he was recruited by the Protagonist years earlier, and this mission is the end of a long friendship.
In London, Priya attempts to have Kat assassinated, but is killed by the Protagonist, who has realised that he is the future mastermind behind Tenet.
Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema employed a combination of 70 mm film and IMAX, prioritizing Panavision lenses that would best accommodate lower light. Segments that concerned time inversion were captured both in backward and forward mobility and speech. To ensure proficiency in handling firearms, Washington and Pattinson attended the Taran Tactical firing range in Simi Valley. They also did some of their own stunts. Over one hundred watercraft were recruited, together with catamarans, the megayachtPlanet Nine (onto which an Mi-8 helicopter would land), icebreakers, speed- and fishing boats, and a cargo tanker. The windfarm vessel Iceni Revenge was brought through Denmark, Estonia, and Italy for all three months.
Ludwig Göransson was chosen as the composer as Nolan's frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer had committed himself to the 2020 film Dune. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Göransson recorded musicians at their homes. Researching retrograde composition caused him to generate melodies that would sound the same forward and backward. He experimented with distorted industrial noise and, to represent Sator's irradiated breathing, asked Nolan to tape his own in studio. Göransson produced ten to fifteen minutes of music each week. The first scoring session was held in November 2019, continuing into early 2020. The Tenet soundtrack contains "The Plan," a song by Travis Scott.Jennifer Lame replaced Nolan's long-time editor Lee Smith, who was occupied with 2019's 1917. Lame was tasked with unsupervised editing during the principal photography and would look at dailies.DNEG created about 280 VFX shots. Sound designer Richard King sent a team to Eagle Mountain to record the Chinooks and Mi-8, and to Southampton for the F50 catamarans. Others were hired for the aural atmosphere of Oslo, Mumbai, and Tallinn. King got the audio for both live and blank automatic weapon rounds at a gun range in San Francisquito Canyon and rented a runway to test how the vehicles sounded.
Marketing and release
In August 2019, Warner Bros. debuted a forty-second teaser ahead of Hobbs & Shaw previews. It was attached to Indian showings of Joker in October. The first trailer was published online in December, when a cinema-exclusive prologue played in certain IMAX theaters before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The latter was introduced during Indian IMAX screenings of Birds of Prey in February 2020. A TV spot appeared that May, promoted in Fortnite's Party Royale mode. The logo, stylized by Nolan as TENƎꓕ, was altered for this trailer due to its similarity with that of a bicycle parts manufacturer. The final trailer, out in August, featured Scott's single. An exclusive making-of video was uploaded on August 26.
Distributor Warner Bros. Pictures 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 paucity of available movies afforded it more screens per multiplex than would otherwise be possible.
As of September 13, 2020[update], Tenet has grossed $29.5million in the United States and Canada, and $178million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $207.5 million. With a production budget of $200million,Tenet is Nolan's most expensive original project.IndieWire speculated that the marketing could push the final sum to $300–350million, though analysts predicted lower advertising costs than usual, owing to inexpensive live sports ads.Observer estimated it would need to make $450–500million in order to break even. Nolan is reported to receive twenty percent of the first-dollar gross.
According to industry tracking, Tenet was projected to take $25-30million internationally over its first five days. In South Korea, pre-sale tickets sold out all IMAX screenings and weekend previews totaled $717,000 from 590 venues. Another four days there yielded $4.13million from about 2,200 screens, bringing the cume to $5.1million by the end of the week. The film debuted to $53million in forty-one countries, grossing $7.1million in the United Kingdom, $6.7million in France, and $4.2million in Germany.Tenet made $58.1million in its second weekend, with China ($30million from first showings), the U.K. ($13.1million), France ($10.7million), Germany ($8.7million), and South Korea ($8.2million) as its largest markets. Its third weekend garnered $30.6million, comprising $16.4million from the U.K., $13.2million from France, $11.4million from Germany, $10.3million from South Korea, and $10.2million from China.
With 65% of the American and Canadian theaters operating at 25-40% capacity, the first eleven days acquired $20.2million from 2,810 theaters; $2.5million in Canada, $12million in the U.S., and the rest from previews. The second weekend added another $6.7million.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Tenet holds an approval rating of 73% based on 251 reviews, with an average rating of 6.98/10. 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 47 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported 80% of filmgoers gave it a positive score, with 65% saying they would recommend it.
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." 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 21⁄2 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 31⁄2 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".
Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post opted not to review the film, citing the absence of a digital option to watch it. Hornaday wrote, "We were held hostage to Tenet's marketing rollout—given a high-minded sheen by Nolan's vaunted artistic purity—and we chose not to play."
^Seven weeks of filming in Estonia came at a cost of €16.5million; Warner Bros. Pictures paid a rebate that was reimbursed at thirty percent.
^It took one week to secure the permission to shoot in Mumbai. The planned schedule was completed in half the time.
^Tronsli Drabløs, Øystein; Alnes, Espen; Tunheim, Helga (September 5, 2019). "Hollywood-stjerner i Oslo" [Hollywood stars in Oslo] (in Norwegian). NRK. Archived from the original on September 17, 2019. Retrieved July 15, 2020.