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Dazzling visuals rule Nolan’s complex spy-thriller “Tenet”

Updated: Jun 24, 2022


Former professional football player John David Washington, plays the nameless CIA secret agent “The Protagonist.” The Italian village of Ravello was the perfect backdrop for “Tenet.” Russian billionaire Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) parks his 75-meter motor yacht off the coast as The Protagonist pilot’s a speedboat with Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) onboard.

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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2020; PG-13 for intense violence and action, some suggestive reference and brief strong language; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: “Looking at the World in a New Way: Making of Tenet” documentary

NO DOUBT producer/writer/director Christopher Nolan is a Hollywood traditionalist. He captures all of his movies on old-school film stock and completely believes in the theatrical community experience. Last week Nolan blasted Warner Bros. when they announced its entire 2021 theatrical lineup would simultaneously premiere on the HBO Max streaming service. He told ET Online, “It’s very, very, very, messy... Yeah, it’s sort of not how you treat filmmakers and stars and people who have given a lot for these projects. They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.” From Nolan’s perspective, the studio has some sure-fire blockbusters with “Dune,” the fourth “Matrix,” “The Suicide Squad, “In the Heights” and Godzilla v. Kong.” “They’re meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences…and now they’re being used as a loss-leader for the fledgling streaming service without any consultation,” he says. Warner and Nolan have collaborated for nearly two-decades starting with “Insomnia” (2002) and the rest of his Warner films have earned 25 Academy Award nominations and nine Oscar wins with The Dark Knight trilogy, “Inception” and “Dunkirk.”

(1-4) The opening action sequence was filmed at the 4,200 seat Linnahall in Tallinn, Estonia, the former Lenin Palace of Culture and Sports of the Soviet Union, which stands in for the National Opera House in Kyiv, Ukraine. Terrorists hit the hall and The Protagonist assists in a CIA operation to spoil the attack and the theft of plutonium.


This year, high expectations swirled around Nolan’s mine-bending British-American spy thriller “Tenet,” originally scheduled for a theatrical release July 17. But, because of COVID-19 it was delayed three times and finally got off the ground in late August. “Tenet” ended up grossing just over $350 million globally – more likely 60 to 70 percent below pre-COVID expectations – as America’s biggest markets New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were stuck in pandemic lockdowns. The film stars John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”), a former professional football player, and son of Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who plays the nameless secret agent “The Protagonist.” Robert Pattinson (“The Twilight Saga,” “The Lighthouse”) plays his partner Neil and Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V, Murder on the Orient Express”) is the main antagonist, the ruthless Russian billionaire Andrei Sator. Elizabeth Debicki provides an emotional performance as Sator’s estranged wife Kat, who loves her son more than anything. The “Tenet” narrative is extremely complex involving a mission to save the world from World War III, and with this home 4K presentation, you’ll be able to view it over and over to unravel its puzzling storyline. The colors blue and red provide key elements to time travel as the characters move forwards and backwards via “time stile” machines, which inverts their entropy. The cast and crew used a variety of techniques including a lot of in-camera photography running both forwards and backwards, actors performing backwards, or cars driven backwards. “It’s literally a project that can only exist because the movie camera exists,” says Nolan. Visual effects were used sparingly for final touchups as needed.

(1-2) The Protagonist is kidnapped and threatened with torture at a Ukraine trainyard. He bites on an apparent suicide pill before revealing any information. (2) He awakens from a medically-induced coma and is recruited by Fay (Martin Donovan) for a special assignment to save the world. “All I have for you is a gesture in a combination with a word: Tenet,” Fay tells him. “Use it carefully. It’ll open the right doors, but some of the wrong ones, too.” (3&4) He’s transported to a wind turbine before being introduced to a new technology that allows objects to have their entropy reversed and move backwards through time. A bullet manufactured in the future returns to the gun he’s holding.

“This film is so complex and ambitious. I don’t think he would’ve been able to pull it off ten years ago.” – Producer Emma Thomas

In terms of scale, it's Nolan’s biggest film. The production was filmed in Estonia, Denmark, Norway, Italy, India, England, and the U.S. for the final battle sequence subbing for a remote location in Russia. “I wanted to go all around the world again,” says Nolan during the multi-part Making of documentary. He and production designer Nathan Crowely traveled extensively to find the right environments, says Thomas, who’s also Nolan’s wife. All of the action sequences were filmed on IMAX’s larger-than-life 70mm film, which the filmmaker has used since “The Dark Knight” (2008). The individual frames are nearly 10 times larger than the standard 35mm and equal around 18K in digital resolution. The remaining footage was captured on 65mm. “Tenet” is his first film that doesn’t incorporate 35mm footage. By eliminating the disparity between the IMAX and 35mm footage, the experience is more seamless. Over the years Nolan films were exhibited on IMAX prints including “Interstellar” (2014) – a joint venture between Paramount and Warner. Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captured over 60-minutes of the sci-fi thriller on IMAX, which ended up at 50 IMAX locations worldwide. The same approach was given to his World War II epic “Dunkirk” (2017) with 70 percent shot on IMAX cameras, including footage from British Spitfire aircraft putting you inside the cockpit during the heart-pounding aerial dog fights. I witness “Dunkirk” on a seven-story IMAX screen in Southern California from a 70mm print and the IMAX scenes were just breathtaking. The aspect ratio bounced from the squarish IMAX 1.43:1 ratio to the super widescreen 2.20:1 ratio for the 65mm and 35mm footage. For “Tenet” the number of IMAX screens showing 70mm prints was down to only 13 for the entire world and five of those were closed because of COVID-19. I witnessed an IMAX Digital showing on a five-story screen in Northern California and the IMAX scenes were just breathtaking. The aspect ratio varied from 1.90:1 for the IMAX footage to 2.20:1 for the 65mm footage. Its overall sharpness was down several notches compared to my “Dunkirk” watch, because the digital IMAX projectors can only produce a 4K resolution.

(1&2) The Protagonist arrives in Mumbai, India, to get information from billionaire Sanjay Singh. (3) He meets British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) at the Bombay Yacht Club to plan the operation. (4) Singh (Denzil Smith) has little information, but his wife tells him that the arms dealer he’s looking for is Sator. (5&6) The best option to access Sator is through his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who dearly loves her son Max.


EXTRAS During a short featurette included with the digital copy, Thomas says, “I feel like every film that we make we move further in the direction of making IMAX cameras be a part of our package. At this point, they’re the workhorse for us.” Nolan also has made it a point to get everything in-camera and doing things as real as possible, says stunt coordinator George Cottle, who’s worked with Nolan since “The Dark Knight.”

“I’ve been making films for the big screen for a long time now. That’s what inspires me creatively as I’m writing the script, as I’m thinking about what this going to be, as I’m casting it. Everything is about that ‘larger than life’ experience that we’re intending to give the audience at the end of things.” – Christopher Nolan, filmmaker

Nolan views “Tenet” as a classic spy story. The Protagonist is assigned a mission to save the world from World War III by an underground organization headed by Sator. “I grew up loving spy movies, particularly the Bond films.” For today’s audience, Nolan felt it needed bigger possibilities. The film’s main concept is inversion, “which is the idea that the entropy of an object, or person, indeed, could be reversed.” He does point out that its based roughly on real science. “Every law of physics is symmetrical. Every law of physics can run forwards or backwards in time and be the same, other than entropy,” he says. The script is based on the theory that if you can invert the flow of entropy, “you could have an object that the direction of time is reversed for that object,” he says. For the actors, multi-readings of the script were needed to grasp its deeper meanings. “I kept going back, to enjoy and delight in the fact that so many things paid off,” says actor Kenneth Branagh. Nolan likens Branagh’s performance to the late Heath Ledger brought to the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” “Because it really wasn’t the type of villain where you get overly concerned with the justifications for the behavior. It’s really much more about a destructive presence in the world and having to respond to that.”

(1) Kat tells the Protagonist about her abusive husband and how he controls her because of a forged painting that she gave him. (2) The Protagonist and Neil plan a way to get the painting from the Freeport warehouse at the Olso Airport. Neil gets a walking tour of the facility. (3&4) The plan involves crashing a 747 into the building.


For Washington, the script provided understanding into “how we’ve learned behavior, how we love, how we hate, how we react…All of those things, due to how time is perceived.” The director was enthralled with his leading man’s grasp of the story. “His read was immediate and precise. He and I both felt that we had an opportunity here to try and create a character with more warmth and generosity as a motivation for going to the extremes for the greater good.” VIDEO

No matter your 4K setup, a 55-inch or a 12-feet screen across a dedicated theater room, this presentation of “Tenet” is one of the finest visual experiences ever created for home viewing. The original 70mm IMAX footage and the original 65mm footage was more likely scanned at 6K or higher, but mastered in 4K. The natural film grain is smaller than on most films captured on film stock since it's sourced from a much larger negative. Plus, there are no signs of digital noise reduction or edge enhancement.

The aspect ratio varies between the IMAX footage that was originally shown on 70mm prints in a handful of IMAX theaters in the squarish 1.47:1 ratio. For the digital IMAX showing it was cropped at a 1.90:1 ratio, which I viewed. And, for home viewing, the IMAX footage is framed the 1.78:1 ratio. All of the 65mm footage is locked at the 2.20:1 ratio in the theater and home. For my 4K setup viewed on a 2.05:1 ratio screen, I framed “Tenet” at the 1.90:1 ratio matching the digital IMAX showing. (That’s the ratio used for this review’s HDR frame shots. The top and bottom of the 1.78:1 frame are slightly cropped.)

Reference level sharpness and clarity are the hallmarks of Nolan’s IMAX filmmaking and you will be blown away with the clarity, from the close-ups to the distant villas on an Italian cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. “IMAX has this extraordinary strength and power in terms of how deeply they can take the audience into the story,” says the director. The camera magazines that hold the supersize film stock can only hold a couple of minutes of film. “So, it makes you bring your “A” game pretty quickly,” says actor Himesh Patel (“Yesterday”), who plays British agent Mahir.

The HDR10 toning has deep-deep black levels, while the highlights are never in question or overblown. The expanded color spectrum provides some of the bluest waters you’ve ever seen as The Protagonist drives a speedboat with Kat Sator onboard toward her husband’s 75-meter yacht anchored off the Italian village of Ravello. The nighttime scenes are bathed in warm tones, while the IMAX footage leans toward a warmer tonal balance.

AUDIO Nolan continues to avoid the Dolby Atmos or the DTS:X height speaker setup, but pumps his standard six-channel DTS-HD master audio soundtrack with unbelievable frequency response – especially with the pounding bass. In the IMAX theater, I felt the overall “Tenet” sound was dialed too loud, but for my home setup, the standard level sounded perfect. The bass response was so powerful it made my ceiling-mounted projector vibrate. I never had a problem with my previous JVC projector, but with the Sony, it’s more prone since the plastic housing is much lighter. Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther,” “Creed”), provides the fast-moving electronic score that detours to an electric guitar riff during a kitchen fight sequence, a salute to the Bond theme. The overall soundstage from front to back is well balanced, with music cues and effects pushed to the surround speakers. The biggest issue is understanding the dialogue at times – especially when The Protagonist is wearing a mask. I decided to load the subtitles, which helps during those brief moments of fuzz talk.


The complex storyline is going to require multi-viewings. That’s good news: With its gorgeous international locations, “The Tenet” is 4K is the perfect gift – for yourself or your favorite someone.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer






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