Tenet is the “Full Nolan”, a spoiler-ish analysis of Christopher Nolan tropes

Every auteur has their particular style and Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, Tenet, is filled with his favorite tropes that have been used time and time again in his filmography.

#1. Non-Linear Plot. Some of the earliest film theorists argue that the revolution of cinema is its ability to manipulate time relative to the viewer. Arguably, no director has made time a central theme of his work than Chris Nolan, who, almost, as a rule, refuses to stick to a linear narrative. Tenet is the latest, and perhaps most significant since Memento, an example of this obsession with manipulating time being a central theme.

#2. Obsessive. Aside from time, Christopher Nolan also seems obsessed with the idea of obsession, usually motivated by tragedy. Think Batman Begins’ Bruce Wayne dawning a rubber suit to fight crime or The Prestige’s Borden and Angier going to great lengths to deliver something audiences haven’t seen before (cough, meta, cough). Tenet’s obsessive takes the form of Kenneth Branagh’s Sator: a man motivated to start the apocalypse because of…reasons.

#3. Suited-up Protagonist. Does the very dapper Nolan insert himself into his movies? You tell me. From a character perspective, Nolan’s suited protagonist demonstrates an air of professionalism with their suits, which seem otherwise impractical for all the running around they have to do. Tenet seems to have fun with this concept, with one character outright denigrating another’s sartorial choices.

#4. Manic Pixie Dream Bro. Film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term ‘manic pixie dream girl’ as a stock character that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” In the Nolan-verse, there’s a pattern of ‘manic pixie dream bros’ who exist solely as a sounding board or collaborator with the main protagonist with Robert Pattison playing the latest iteration in Tenet.

#5. Damsel. In some respects, Christopher Nolan movies are almost like $200 million dollar cartoons where heroes embark on high wire acts to save a damsel in distress. Tenet, somewhat hilariously, plays this trope in earnest with Elizabeth Debicki at the mercy of an almost mustache-twirling Kenneth Branagh.

#6. Dead Spouse. Somewhat related, a hallmark of a Christopher Nolan script is a dead spouse who acts as a cinematic shorthand that explains another character’s, usually the protagonists, motivations. In Tenet’s case, Mr. Nolan has heard this oft-cited criticism and made the dead spouse a result rather than the origin of a character’s development.

#7. Character silhouette Shot. There was a trend in the 2010s where movie postered featured the backside of a character. In his films, Nolan has often reused this shot, particularly with a handy-cam over-the-shoulder style, as if to make the audience complicit with whatever is going on.

#8. Masks. As if predicting 2020, Nolan movies usually feature a face mask on one or more characters. In Tenet, it’s cleverly used as a visual signifier to differentiate which characters are going through inversion.

#9. Resurrection. Here’s another one I discovered while making a list about Nolan-isms. In most of his films, the resurrection concept is frequently brought up, usually as a testament to a particular character’s commitment. In Tenet’s case, the movie starts with this premise in the first few minutes, with the aptly named Protagonist waking up from apparent death.

#10. Explosions. Taking a page from the Michael Bay school of filmmaking, Christopher Nolan isn’t shy about leaving the budget on screen with many loud non- CGI explosions. Tenet is no stranger to this with the extended final battle sequence rampant with explosions left and right (and backward and forwards in time).

#11. Rich People Activities. Big ideas need big money. Whether it’s fancy dinner parties or going on a catamaran in Tenet, Nolan is used to showing the finer things in life on screen.

#12. Shadowy Antagonists. At the heart of each Chris Nolan movie is a protagonist confronting some flaw in themselves, usually personified by shadowy antagonists acting as foils. Tenet extends this idea by pulling an Avengers: Endgame, where the main character is literally battling themselves to maintain the time continuum.

#13. Airship shots. How do you make something immediately more epic? Air travel, a sorely missed pastime in 2020. Aeronautical fan Chris Nolan knows this and has featured some epic shot of some kind of airship since Insomnia. Tenet takes this idea one step further by pulling a Bane and crashing a jumbo-jet in one of the film’s set-pieces.

#14. Michael Caine. Every hero needs an Obi-Wan, and for Chris Nolan, that’s Mai-Koh-Cane, the usually wizened and wry old-hand that has been present in one form or another since Batman Begins.

Tenet is now in theaters. Watch safely.

Film Lover. Squash Player. Economist. Currently in Hong Kong.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store