12 Design Principles in Tenet

While the amount of time between today and Tenet’s release feels enormous, in truth it’s only been a little over a year since its US release.  While the film may not have gained cult status yet—which is nigh impossible in so short a timeframe—it remains a tentpole of pandemic filmmaking and an impressive effort, which both succeeded and failed in different aspects across its lengthy runtime. 

So let’s invert time a bit and revisit Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, through the design principles of Scribology—the time-tested, scientifically-validated roadmap to TruScribe’s content creation, and to increased engagement and retention. 

  1. Story: This principle should be foregrounded in any film, as it’s the human coding language that every other element should serve to advance.  Tenet’s story is so complicated, there’s no real use to recounting it here, other than to say that it’s about fighting villains from the future… and a lot of discussion of time’s ability to go forwards and back (abiding, of course, by many rules).  When The Protagonist (literally the name of John David Washington’s character) learns about ‘inversion’, he’s told to “feel it” rather than understand it.  For maximal enjoyment, the audience ought to take this advice as well.
  2. Message: In whiteboard video, sending a clear, retainable message is the ultimate goal.  The same is usually true of cinema, although Tenet stumbles here a good deal as well.  That’s because for all the trappings of plot and crazy visuals, the message here is really just “Bad guys should be stopped.”  It’s a film whose priorities lie elsewhere, to be sure—but it’s a loss, as there likely could’ve been some truly interesting or philosophical stances to take.  Instead, it’s James Bonds backwards, and that’s… okay, but not ideal.
  3. Geometry: The brain stores visuals as simply-understood geometric shapes for easy recall, and strong use of this principle makes your content much more retainable.  Tenet uses the cylinder over and over again—from time-shifting ‘turnstiles’ to pills, bullets, vehicles, windmills, ropes, and more.  Tie your audience’s memory to an uncomplicated geometric shape, and retention rates soar.
  4. Surprise: When we’re surprised, our brains release dopamine, which makes us become and remain curious.  This a near-constant state in Tenet.  Even once you think you’re used to the central conceit of objects and people moving backwards through time, Nolan pulls the rug out from under you: birds flying backwards!  That puddle is splashed before he steps on it, now it’s not!  It’s a constant re-upping of the concept that maintains viewer engagement throughout the picture—no small feat for a two-and-a-half hour film.  You might get the ‘inverted’ idea (in whole or in part, depending on how hard you’re trying) but Nolan won’t cease to surprise with how he uses it.
  5. Voice: The principle of voice—using the correct, best voice to articulate your message—and sound design in general are a major problem for Tenet.  Most of the cast does a great job, but the best voice in the world can’t survive this mess of a soundtrack.  As you may recall, no small amount of jokes were made of the inaudible dialogue in Tenet—a problem that runs throughout the film.  The principle of voice doesn’t work if you can’t hear the voices in question.
  6. Sync: Tenet’s major strength comes from playing with its synchronization of sound and visuals, keeping viewers on their toes with reversed speech and sounds rewinding backwards as their visual counterparts do the same.  As long as the sounds match the visuals, it doesn’t matter if they’re backward or forward; we just need the concrete relationship that Nolan (impressively) maintains.
  7. Motion: Motion keeps the eye and head shifting across the frame and heightens engagement, and Nolan absolutely nails this principle in Tenet.  Simply by taking ‘normal’ spy thriller tropes and moments and reversing them, the director keeps things moving in a way that glues viewers to the action.  Watch this masterclass in motion and just try to look away at one of the moments when parts of the frame are moving forward and others backward in time. Bet you can’t.
  8. Framing: Wide, huge framing shows us a ton of information, and conveys the kind of scale Nolan needs to show the international, massive set pieces and sequences that prove Tenet’s conflict is truly world-shaking.  And when we do get closeup framing to create intimacy with the characters, we see the internal tension and indecision we need to see to ground the narrative in some semblance of reality: everybody’s on shaky ground here, just like us.
  9. Accent Color: Accent Colors take on thematic significance and focal power, drawing the eye to the crucial elements of the frame.  Tenet’s employment of an accent color happens sporadically, with some rooms or soldiers marked with a color to signify their place in time.  If only it were used more frequently and carefully, accent colors could have been an even better tool to maintain audience understanding.
  10. Image Density: Having just the right amount of images in frame is vital to curating attention and engagement, and Tenet’s crowded, overwhelming action scenes successfully show that high image density can truly communicate frenetic moments and heighten emotion.  The climactic scenes in particular are made out of sprinting combatants, explosions, rubble, and helicopters—the viewer never quite knows what’s most important, and surprise abounds as the battlefield changes.
  11. Human Forms: We know that the eye is naturally drawn to human forms, which makes Tenet’s bizarrely moving, inverted characters magnetic.  You can’t look away as Washington’s Protagonist fights an inverted assailant—how do you block a punch that’s thrown in reverse?
  12. Visuals: Human forms, motion, and sync in Tenet are all principled roads that lead to Visuals.  If movies exist to showcase just one design principle, Tenet exists to be seen.  Cars crashing backwards, bullets firing backwards out of walls, bungee-jumping up skyscrapers—I guarantee you haven’t seen a movie like this.  In fact, the visuals are profound enough that they overpower the weak messaging and characterization, resulting in a fantastic movie that doesn’t even seem to need the principles it underserves.  This is an incredibly difficult feat.  A movie without a good story or message is usually like a rain shelter without a roof, but Tenet confidently bends the walls up and over the opening and dares you not to be impressed.