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TENET – Ludwig Göransson

September 8, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton


The dual concepts of time and reality have been at the forefront of Christopher Nolan’s films almost since the very beginning of his career, when his sophomore effort Memento in 2000 explored the life of a man with no short-term memory by essentially running the movie backwards. Most of his subsequent films – including The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar – have tackled variations on similar themes, from dreams within dreams, to the circular temporal nature of interplanetary travel via black holes. Even his last film, Dunkirk, messed around with time by presenting the evacuation of the beaches of Normandy in 1940 from three different perspectives, all of whom experience the event from a different chronological point of view. With Tenet, however, Nolan has delved into these concepts more deeply than ever before, creating a film that examines the notion of time from a physiological point of view, introducing theories as complex as statistical mechanics and thermodynamic entropy into a large-scale action spy thriller.

The film stars John David Washington as an unnamed Protagonist, who is recruited to a top-secret espionage organization called Tenet in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on an opera house, which he helps foil. The protagonist learns that Tenet is charged with, essentially, stopping World War III from occurring; Tenet’s leaders have uncovered the existence of a technology called ‘inversion’ which allows physical objects – bullets, vehicles, even people – to move backwards in time, and to affect the reality of those in the present. This technology has fallen into the hands of a Russian arms dealer and oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and Tenet believes that Sator has a secret plan for it that threatens life as we know it. As such, the Protagonist teams up with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a Tenet fixer, and sets about trying to infiltrate Sator’s inner circle – and he sees a way in via Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), Sator’s unhappy and abused wife.

All this sounds quite fascinating and potentially exciting but – and here’s a hot take – in my opinion Nolan makes a complete mess of it. First let me say that, from a technical point of view, Tenet is a masterpiece. It looks amazing. The production design, cinematography, and editing, are all absolutely top notch. The stunt work, fight sequences, action sequences, and driving stunts, are all magnificent, some of the best I have ever seen. The special effects are astonishing, especially in the final sequence where entire platoons of people, helicopters, vehicles, explosions, and bullets, are running both backwards and forwards in time simultaneously – it’s just stunning. The problem is that all this brilliance is in service of a screenplay that is almost utterly incomprehensible.

Now, I’m a pretty intelligent guy; 99% of the time I can follow the most complicated plots, and the most devious character motivations, without much difficulty. With Tenet, I was completely lost. I had no idea what was going on, or why, for almost the entire running time of the film, and I think that’s entirely down to Nolan’s failure in writing. As he did with Dunkirk, Nolan seems to be developing a method of writing where backstory, character depth, and context seems to be entirely unimportant to him, preferring instead to simply bombard the listener with as much visual and aural overload as possible, in the hope that the visceral experience of actually watching the film will make us forget that we are supposed to care about what’s happening, and why. You learn virtually nothing about The Protagonist over the course of the film – who he is, why he is where he is, why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s just an avatar; he could be anyone. We have no idea. Given that, why would I care whether he saves the world or not?

The same can be said about Kenneth Branagh’s Sator; beyond some muddy exposition about him having an incurable disease, being in an unhappy marriage, and getting some information from the future about the effects of climate change, we have no real idea why he’s doing what he’s doing, why he has this technology, or what his motivations are for wanting to destroy the world. He’s just a random bad guy typical of this sort of film – Russian accent, big yacht, endless faceless minions at his disposal, anger management problems. We are told to just accept it, because without him there would be no reason for the film to exist.

And then there is the density of the plot itself, which is full of unfathomable technical jargon, confusingly impenetrable exposition sequences, and endless abrupt scene changes filled with characters who are never introduced, spout off some new bit of information, and then are never seen again. Clémence Poésy sits in a sad lab wearing a white coat. Martin Donovan stands on a boat in what looks like a force 10 gale. At least Michael Caine gets to eat a nice plate of steak and chips. Once the impressively staged action scenes get going, it’s still never entirely clear who is doing what to whom and why, why some people are moving backwards in time while others are moving forwards in time, or even who the Protagonist is fighting against.

This is especially true of the climactic battle on the ruins of a Soviet ‘closed city’ where entire squadrons of inverted and non-inverted Tenet soldiers are shooting at things, driving at things, and making things explode, without it ever really being clear who (if anyone) is shooting back at them. To me, this is another clear failure on the part of the screenwriters, who have become so wrapped up in their own cleverness, so obsessed with the technology and the science, and so pleased with themselves at how dense and complicated their plot is, that they have moved into pretentiousness, and forgotten what the basic tenet of filmmaking is: to tell a good story. This is the same issue that has befallen the director’s brother Jonathan Nolan, and why the most recent season of his HBO show Westworld was an equally baffling disaster.

The final element of all this confusion – which will, thankfully, eventually lead me to the score – is the film’s sound mix. Nolan has been criticized before for having a sound mix that is too overwhelming, but Tenet increases the problems tenfold. As Ralph Jones’s excellent article in the Guardian says, “There is a wonderful exchange in Tenet between Pattinson and Washington. ‘Hngmmhmmh,’ says Pattinson. ‘Mmghh nmmhhmmmm nghhh,’ replies Washington”. That sounds like a joke, but it’s completely true. Every lead character mumbles incessantly, they have their dialogue muffled by masks and respirators, and when they don’t have them on the sound mix favors effects and music to such a degree that you either can’t hear the dialogue anyway, or you are distracted by the fact that the cinema speakers are making the occipital lobe of your brain vibrate like a washing machine on its most violent spin cycle. Ludwig Göransson’s original score is the final cog in this wheel of auditory despair, booming and pounding away with a relentlessness that is compounded by the sheer number of decibels.

Göransson was hired for Tenet because Nolan’s regular composer, Hans Zimmer, had committed to scoring Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, and simply couldn’t find time in his schedule. Having won an Oscar for scoring Black Panther, and having firmly established himself as a major player in both the film and popular music worlds through his collaborations with artists like Childish Gambino, Göransson is arguably the most zeitgeisty film composer in the world right now outside of Zimmer, so it seems appropriate that he should be the one to take the reins from him on Nolan’s film. Nolan is a filmmaker with highly specific musical requirements so, even though it was not written by Zimmer, Tenet fits neatly within the same group of scores as Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and parts of the Dark Knight trilogy. From the wider film music world, you can probably also compare Tenet to scores like Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pair Arrival and Sicario, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Joker, and others of that ilk. It’s light on melody, heavy on mood and atmosphere, concentrates on rhythm rather than themes and variations, and in terms of volume and bass is turned waaay up to 11. It’s a hybrid score for orchestra (mostly strings, brass, percussion) and electronic keyboards, with a massive amount of sonic manipulation done in post-production. And, depending on your point of view, it will either fascinate you or drive you utterly insane.

The thing that makes Tenet interesting, for me, is how Göransson has bought into the film’s overall concept of time, and the manipulation thereof. In many of the score’s more intense cues Göransson plays around with the physical nature of the score by reversing the music so that it plays backwards, and he appears to have done this in a number of fascinating ways. Sometimes it sounds as though the music was performed in a conventional way and then reversed, so that it clearly sounds as if the music is the wrong way round. At other times it sounds as though Göransson had his musicians play the notes backwards to begin with, so that when he then reverses them afterwards they play in the correct order, but have a bizarre, surreal quality; the dynamics of the notes just don’t sound right, like they have been warped. Then, just to heighten the confusion even more, Göransson sometimes plays these two types of manipulated notes against each other contrapuntally, forwards against backwards and backwards against forwards. This is noticeable especially in cues like “Rainy Night in Tallinn,” “Trucks in Place,” “The Algorithm,” and “Inversion” – listen especially to the latter pair, when two different inverted versions of the Protagonist fight against himself in both the past and the future. Yeah, I know.

The other thing that Göransson does is to do with musical palindromes. Jóhann Jóhannsson did something similar to this with his score for Arrival to convey the concept of the alien language in that film, but on Tenet Göransson’s inspiration is the so-called ‘sator square,’ in which five Latin words (sator, arepo, tenet, opera, and rotas), are arranged as a two-dimensional palindrome within a quadro-symmetrical shape. These five words play a major part in the film (Sator is Branagh’s character, Arepo is the name of a mysterious art dealer, Tenet is of course the organization at the heart of the film, the opera is where the opening scene takes place, and Rotas is the name of the Norwegian company which runs the storage unit where two of the film’s main action sequences happen) – and as an acknowledgement of this Göransson appears, on many occasions, to have written small cells of music that are circular and symmetrical in nature. They start and end at the same point, rise and fall in the same way using the same notes at either side of an apex crescendo, and then repeat, creating a hypnotic rhythmic pulse. It’s a fascinating, excellent, intelligent application of thought process to his score, but the problem is that in film context none of this comes across, again due to the sound mix.

You can hear some of the more obvious electronic manipulation, and you can hear some moments where Göransson is doing weird things to the instruments, but all the detail and complexity gets totally lost in the wall of sound that Nolan creates with everything else going on – explosions, bullets, jets crashing into buildings, helicopter blades, truck engines, and god knows what else. Every clever thing that Göransson does with the music gets completely overwhelmed by the crushing volume of Nolan’s foley, and the ambient background noise, so that all you’re left with is pounding drums and whining electronic pulses, a relentless auditory hammering that doesn’t so much draw you in as it does split your skull open with a pneumatic drill. Quite why Nolan thinks that this is the way people want to experience films is beyond me; I spent a lot of its running time grimacing in actual, physical pain as the inside of my head shook in time with the bass notes emanating from the theater speakers.

So, the best way to experience all this is on the soundtrack, but as I said before your appreciation for it will depend entirely on your tolerance for musical abstraction, vivid electronic manipulation, relentless percussive rhythms at the expense of melody, and occasionally overwhelming volume. Much of the score is dominated by action, right from the first cue “Rainy Night in Tallinn,” which like the film itself begins with the sound of an orchestra tuning up, before the whole thing gets twisted and inverted and collapses in on itself, and the attack on the opera house begins. Göransson’s action style is heavy and aggressive throughout, relying on huge bursts of sound, powerful rhythmic content, bubbling electronic textures, and layer upon layer of sound design which combines strings, brass, electric guitars, and keyboards of impenetrable density. The comparisons with scores like The Dark Knight and Dunkirk are inevitable – in fact, they are very likely to have been part of the temp track – but there is an exciting, breathless energy to it all which is at times quite compelling.

Several subsequent cues continue this idea. Both “Freeport” and “Inversion” – which underscore scenes that take place in the same location, at different times – have a peculiar buzzing motif running through them that gives the whole thing a sense of tension and anticipation, although the electronic rhythms do occasionally sound distractingly like Stu Phillips’s score from the 1980s TV series Knight Rider. The majority of the first half of “747” is clearly modelled on the “Dream is Collapsing” cue from Inception, especially when the ‘horn of doom’ makes its guest appearance at the 1:29 mark, but it’s second half is very experimental indeed – often chittering, fluttering, and containing a disturbing gasping/breathing effect that I’ll return to later. “Foils”, which underscores a quite exhilarating water scene on a double-hulled catamaran, removes much of the percussion, relying mainly on guitars and synths with manipulated strings, giving it an open, almost refreshing sound, as well as giving a rare outing to what could be classed as the score’s simple main theme.

“Trucks in Place,” which underscores the epic vehicle chase through the streets of Estonia, is all about brutal, masculine rhythm, and grating and rasping synth ideas. The sequence beginning at 1:22 reminds me very much of a harsher, more aggressive version of the electronic manipulation composer Olivier Derivière worked into his score for the video game Remember Me in 2013, where the orchestra and electronics appear to be on two different planes of existence, with one bleeding through to affect the sonic quality of the other. The hypnotic processed vocal texture that appears at 3:14 is intriguing, and the inverted writing and palindromes are very apparent here too. It’s all quite fascinating, if not in any way conventionally enjoyable.

All this carnage is counterbalanced by some moments of quieter introspection via cues such as “Windmills,” the oddly engineered “Meeting Neil,” “Priya,” and “Betrayal,” which use slow, wandering chords and more subtle rhythmic tones to create an atmosphere of quiet uncertainty. The piano is prominent in these cues more than others, and the main theme which I alluded to earlier is given a more prominent role. It’s all very simple music from a compositional standpoint – just shifting tones and little pulses – but it at least allows some moments of downtime amid all the relentlessness elsewhere. Perhaps the best of these cues is “From Mumbai to Amalfi,” which allows a touch of melancholy to comment on the Kat character, her unhappiness in her relationship to Sator, her isolation from her son, and the potential for peace and freedom that the Protagonist offers. There is a calm, new age sound to Göransson’s writing here that is quite appealing.

Perhaps the most unsettling idea in the score is the one associated with Kenneth Branagh’s Sator character. In cues such as “Sator” and “Red Room Blue Room,” as well as the aforementioned “747,” Göransson takes a sample of Christopher Nolan himself breathing into a microphone and manipulates it to become a guttural, rasping wheeze. This is similar, conceptually, to the idea that Nolan and Hans Zimmer had to sample the ticking of Nolan’s grandfather’s pocket watch and incorporate it into the score for Dunkirk. The breathing sound appear almost every time Branagh’s character appears on screen in some form or another, and is related to the in-movie concept that inverted people cannot absorb normal air into their lungs, and as such must breathe through a mask and ventilator. It’s use in relation to Branagh’s character makes him seem scarier and more intimidating, which was probably the point, and as a gimmick it works very well. The rest of those cues are mostly made up of low-key suspense and tension, interspersed with throaty, screaming electronic sounds.

The finale of the film – and the score – as I mentioned earlier, takes place on a disused former Soviet ‘closed city ‘ above an old radioactive mine, where Sator has placed the main device that makes inversion possible, and which could destroy the world if it explodes. The Protagonist, Neil, and hundreds of inverted and non-inverted troops, plus an army of choppers and trucks, invade the compound in a ground assault to thwart Sator’s plans. The four cues that comprise the finale are “Retrieving the Case, the more classically-minded “The Algorithm,” “Posterity,” and “The Protagonist,” and are mostly a high-octane amalgam of everything that has come before it. Much of the music clearly wants to have the epic quality of the “Time” track, again from Hans Zimmer’s Inception, but it never quite reaches those heights. The 13-minute “Posterity” uses more clear orchestral textures – harp and piano – underneath the bubbling electronic devices and thrumming manipulated guitars, and becomes quite mesmerizing and entrancing as it develops, like a piece of ambient dance music.

The final track on the soundtrack is an original song, “The Plan,” written by Göransson with Jacques Webster and Ebony Oshunrinde, and performed by Webster’s on-stage persona Travis Scott. I usually detest any type of hip-hop, but there is something fascinating about this song. It uses samples from Göransson’s score, including the intense thunderous bassline from the “Rainy Night in Tallinn” cue, and the processed vocal idea from “Trucks in Place,” both to excellent effect, making it feel like an integral part of the music rather than an incidental afterthought. Furthermore, the intense vibe of Scott’s vocals sits well against Göransson’s dreamy textures, giving it an enticing quality I can’t quite describe. I really like it – and anyone who knows my musical taste will know what a surprise this is.

I have a feeling that many people will criticize Tenet for being little more than a loud, drone-heavy, electronic hybrid score, similar to those in previous films by Nolan, Denis Villeneuve, and others. And it’s true – Tenet does have a lot in common with the likes of Inception, Dunkirk and Arrival, in that it emphasizes texture, rhythm, and volume over themes and melodies. And, had I only experienced Tenet in the context of the film, that would likely be my reaction too. However, the more I listen to this score independently, the more I think that this is quite different, and that there is something quite interesting and special going on. The electronic manipulation, the melodic inversion, and the palindromic writing has a clear purpose that relates directly to the concepts the film is exploring, and for me that alone makes the score worth experiencing.

However, as I said, parts of Tenet make for a tough, harsh listen, which sometimes verges on the annoyingly overwhelming, and anyone whose musical taste doesn’t extend to this sort of thing will likely not be able to withstand Göransson’s auditory onslaught, irrespective of the intellectual decision-making and specificity behind the scenes. Sometimes, all you can hear is an hour of grating noise. And, really, perhaps this final judgement of the music is representative of Tenet as a whole – the film, like the music, comes across in context as a confusing and annoying mess, lacking meaning and depth, leaving you confused as to what’s going on. At least, with Göransson’s score, you can take a peek behind the musical curtain and try to gain a clearer understanding of the nuance behind it all. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with the actual film, which remains a frustrating and hollow enigma that makes no sense, whether you watch it backwards or forwards.

Buy the Tenet soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Rainy Night in Tallinn (8:01)
  • Windmills (5:16)
  • Meeting Neil (2:16)
  • Priya (3:24)
  • Betrayal (3:56)
  • Freeport (3:39)
  • 747 (7:05)
  • From Mumbai to Amalfi (4:26)
  • Foils (3:11)
  • Sator (2:51)
  • Trucks in Place (5:32)
  • Red Room Blue Room (3:29)
  • Inversion (3:32)
  • Retrieving the Case (3:20)
  • The Algorithm (5:58)
  • Posterity (12:42)
  • The Protagonist (4:48)
  • The Plan (written by Jacques Webster, Ebony Naomi Oshunrinde, and Ludwig Göransson, performed by Travis Scott feat. WondaGurl) (3:05)

Running Time: 86 minutes 35 seconds

Watertower Music (2020)

Music composed by Ludwig Göransson. Conducted by Anthony Parnther. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony and Jon Kull. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Nicholas Fitzgerald. Album produced by Ludwig Göransson.

  1. Edward Trapp
    September 25, 2020 at 1:29 pm

    Love the review, thanks! Tbh love the movie and most of all the score. Goranssons music tells the story probably even better than the picture, leaving Your heart heavily beating in every possible direction.

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