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 lasted 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. Scenes of time manipulation were filmed both backwards and forwards. Upwards of 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 has grossed $359million worldwide, making it the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2020. However, it failed to break even due to its costly production and marketing budget, losing distributor Warner Bros. Pictures as much as $100million. Tenet received generally positive reviews from critics, who praised the visuals and production.
A CIA agent, the "Protagonist", participates in an undercover operation at a Kyiv opera house. His life is saved by a masked soldier with a distinctive red trinket, who "un-fires" a bullet through a hostile gunman. After seizing an artifact, the Protagonist is captured by mercenaries. He endures torture before consuming cyanide. He awakens to learn the cyanide was a test of his loyalty; his team has been killed and the artifact lost.
The Protagonist is employed by a secret organization called Tenet. Their scientist shows him bullets and other objects with "inverted" entropy that allows them to move backwards through time. She says they were made in the future (“the detritus of a coming war”), and a weapon exists that can wipe out the past. Aided by a local contact, Neil, the Protagonist traces the bullets to arms dealer Priya Singh in Mumbai. He discovers she is a member of Tenet; her bullets were purchased, and then time-inverted, by Russian oligarch Andrei Sator.
The Protagonist approaches Sator's estranged wife Kat in London, an art appraiser who unknowingly sold Sator a forged Goya drawing. Sator uses the drawing to blackmail her and keep her under his control. The Protagonist plots to steal the drawing with Neil from a free port facility in Oslo Airport. There, they find a machine, a "turnstile", and fend off two masked men. Priya explains that the turnstile can invert the entropy of objects and people, and the masked men were the same person: one inverted and one normal.
In the Amalfi Coast, Kat introduces the Protagonist to Sator, but learns the drawing is intact. The three go boating and Kat attempts to drown Sator, but the Protagonist saves him. The Protagonist offers to help Sator retrieve a case he says contains Plutonium-241. In Tallinn, the Protagonist and Neil ambush an armoured convoy and steal the case, which contains the artifact lost in Kyiv. They are ambushed by an inverted Sator, who holds Kat hostage. The Protagonist gives Sator an empty case and he retreats. The Protagonist saves Kat, but is captured and taken to Sator's warehouse.
The inverted Sator shoots Kat with an inverted round, while the normal Sator demands the location of the artifact; the Protagonist gives him false information. Tenet operatives led by Ives rescue the Protagonist while Sator escapes. The group take Kat through Sator's turnstile to invert her, reversing the effect of the round. The Protagonist returns to the ambush site and chases Sator. His vehicle is overturned and Sator sets it on fire; the Protagonist is saved by Ives' team again. Neil reveals he is a member of Tenet.
The Protagonist and Neil travel back in time to the free port in Oslo. There, the Protagonist (revealed to be the two masked men that he and Neil earlier fought) fights his past self and enters the turnstile to revert himself, followed by Neil and Kat. Priya explains that the artifacts are parts of an "algorithm" Sator is assembling, capable of catastrophically inverting entropy.
Sator square provides the film title, location of the opening sequence (Kyiv Opera), and character or firm names (A. Sator; Arepo the Goya forger; and Rotas Security in Oslo Freeport).
Kat reveals Sator is dying from pancreatic cancer. He will trigger the algorithm with a dead man's switch, believing 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 Sator's hometown of Stalsk-12 in Northern Siberia. In a "temporal pincer movement", red team troops move forward in time, while the blue team troops move backward. The Protagonist and Ives are aided by a masked corpse of a blue team trooper with a trinket on his backpack after seeing him dying in reverse. In Vietnam, Kat boards Sator's yacht and kills him as the Protagonist and Ives secure the algorithm.
The Protagonist, Neil, and Ives break up the algorithm and part ways. The Protagonist notices the red trinket on Neil's rucksack. Neil reveals he was recruited by the Protagonist years earlier from his perspective, but years from now from The Protagonist's perspective, and this mission is the end of a long friendship for Neil, but for The Protagonist, it was the beginning. Priya attempts to have Kat assassinated, but is killed by the Protagonist, who has realized 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 2021 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 of 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, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures 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 prologue was introduced during Indian IMAX screenings of Birds of Prey in February 2020. A TV spot appeared that May, promoted in the video game Fortnite. The logo, stylized by Nolan as TENƎꓕ, was altered for this trailer due to its similarity with that of a bicycle components manufacturer. The final trailer, out in August, featured Scott's single. An exclusive making-of video was uploaded on August 26.
Warners 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 will become available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital services on December 15, 2020.
As of December 6, 2020[update], Tenet has grossed $57.6million in the United States and Canada, and $302.3million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $359.9million. 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. Box office analyst Jeff Bock estimated it would need to make $400million in order to break even. In November 2020, rival studios expected the film to lose up to $100million, but Warner Bros. insisted losses would not top $50million. Nolan was reported to receive twenty percent of the first-dollar gross.
Tenet was projected to take $25–30million 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 $4.13million 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. Two weeks in Japan accumulated $11.4million.Tenet opened in India on December 4, 2020, and made about $576,000 in the first three days.
With 65% of 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, third, and fourth weekends added $6.7million, $4.7million, and $3.4million, respectively.Tenet remained atop the box office in its fifth weekend with $2.7million, before ceding to The War with Grandpa in its sixth weekend.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Tenet holds an approval rating of 71% based on 282 reviews, 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 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".
^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.