Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s rendition of his most beloved film franchise: James Bond. But it’s not a direct homage as one would expect. As Nolan perfectly puts it in an interview, Tenet is crafted from a feeling of having a distant memory of the iconic espionage action thrillers. So the over-the-top villains, campy set pieces and gorgeous women solely for eye-candy are tossed out of the window. Instead, a few core aspects are retained. One of them is the globetrotting phenomenon, wherein, in accordance with his mission, Bond gets to travel to some of the most famous and unique places in the world. Similarly, Tenet doesn’t shy away from showing the protagonist hop from country to country.
Some of the major locations that the film boasts of are:
1) Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where the opening scene of the opera siege takes place.
2) Coast of Denmark, where we see those huge windmills stationed in the sea.
3) Mumbai, where the protagonist meets Priya, the arms dealer, for the first time.
4) Amalfi in Italy where the protagonist meets Sator for the first time.
5) Oslo, Norway, where the plane crash scene takes place.
6) Talinn, Estonia where the highway heist sequence takes place.
7) Vietnam, where the yacht scene takes place in the final act
8) And finally Stalsk-12, located in Siberia, where the majority of the final act is set.
Notice something striking about these bunch of locations – several of them are situated way into the north of Europe. But what’s so striking about that place? For starters, these places experience biting cold for most of the year and the countries situated there have some of the lowest population densities in the world. So when most of the locations featured in a film are characterised by a cold, at times dull and largely desolate environments, it subconsciously sets up a certain mood in the minds of the viewer. Take the opening scene of the film for example. As the secret service agents get ready to ambush the opera, we see the opera from the outside so that we can easily spot the mildly overcast and greyish sky. The dull-coloured clouds dominate, removing any trace of sunlight. One can almost feel the cold breeze in the air as one spots tiny droplets of rain rolling down the windscreen of the car.
What complements this scene as well as several other scenes in the film, is the colour palette that mostly consists of shades of grey, dark blue, black and dark brown, which are noticeable in everyday objects such as clothes, buildings and cars. You might think that it’s obvious that every location will have its own unique environment. And it’s definitely true. However, the said visual style, characterised by the cold environment of northern Europe isn’t just restricted to northern Europe. It spills over to other places too. Recollect the introductory shot of the city of Mumbai. Now Mumbai is situated near the coast and has all the flavours of a tropical climate. But the image doesn’t really match the said description. As the camera glides through the skyline, we see a dull grey, overcast sky, similar to the opening scene in Kiev. No bright sunlight. No warm tones. Standing as exceptions, the scenes in Amalfi and Vietnam do not share the same aesthetic but they only account for a miniscule portion of the 150-minute duration. Additionally, we barely get to see any of the locations since a majority of those scenes are shot in the sea or in interiors such as a cruise or a yacht.
Now that we have an idea of the commonality in most of the locations’ ambience, the next question to ask is – what’s the purpose? There is something otherworldly about Tenet. With every passing scene, the world becomes more and more unrecognisable. If I had to describe it, the cold and desolate ambience is highly reminiscent of a quiet and empty post-apocalyptic wasteland, such as those seen in Oblivion and Wall-E. The way it differs from such a wasteland is that the world we are seeing is still functioning and certainly doesn’t have any signs of major destruction. It’s just that there is a feeling of unfamiliarity that itches the back of our minds. This, in combination with the fact that the film deals with a mission to stop the world from annihilation, clearly brings a sense of impending doom at the forefront, which is very much reflected in the locations it uses.
Perhaps the best example of this would be Stalsk-12 where the final act of the film takes place. Stalsk-12 is the epitome of the kind of environment that I’ve described before. As the film suggests, it’s an abandoned city in northern Russia. Looking at the city’s empty, dilapidated residential buildings and eroded structures, one gets reminded of the wasteland that our world could potentially turn into if our protagonist(s) fail(s) to accomplish their mission.
The other aspect that is immediately reminiscent of destruction is the nuclear angle. Time and again, the film draws parallels between the algorithm and a nuclear bomb. Be it in a subtle way when the plutonium to be stolen during the heist sequence actually turns out to be one of the parts of the algorithm or when Priya directly compares the creator of the algorithm to Oppenheimer, the brains behind the atomic bomb. To put it simply, the algorithm is as destructive as a nuclear bomb, if not worse. The aftermath of a nuclear detonation would be nuclear winter, a seemingly permanent phase during which the area of explosion is rendered uninhabitable due to radiation. Such an area is characterised by stretches of abandoned and destroyed buildings and structures amidst a cold and dreary environment. This sounds like something one would say while describing Stalsk-12. In this way, the film goes to great lengths to develop a certain mood in the viewer’s mind: even though one is seeing a familiar world, the lens through which one sees it subconsciously plants the cold and dull imagery of the aftermath of destruction into one’s mind.
The aspect of the film, apart from visuals, that further accentuates this feeling is Ludwig Goransson’s unique score. But that perhaps deserves a separate post of its own. Maybe everything that I’ve said till now was never Nolan’s intention to incorporate in the film. Maybe the locations were chosen without extensively thinking through their subtle implications. But that doesn’t matter. For me, the cinematography, set design, score, story and locations combined together in mysterious ways to create this inexplicable yet unique mood. Irrespective of its flaws, it’s this creation of visual ambience that has still got me thinking about the film even months after seeing it.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.