How do you measure a movie’s importance in the modern pop culture zeitgeist? Is it how much money the film makes at the box office? Does it need to be part of a cinematic franchise? Is it whatever movie trends on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok the most?
Or…is it the film that builds and commands a rabid cult audience that will relentlessly discuss and investigate its bewildering plot to help its legacy stand the test of time?
If we’re going by that last bit of criteria, then Tenet might unequivocally might be the most important and vital movie to release in the 21st century—according to Google
Don’t mistake me: Tenet might not be the most popular movie of the new century. Google Trends confirmed that. Giant blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame and the Fast and Furious franchise are adored on a worldwide scale; arthouse films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have remained relevant since their shared release in 2007; and heck, Tenet’s director has enjoyed his own resounding success with The Dark Knight and Inception. All of those movies have enjoyed great prosperity on Google over the years.
But let’s dig a little further below the surface. Because for my research, it’s not about which movie is the most popular—it’s about which movie is the most confusing. The one that stirs up the most questions. The one that has its own constantly updated Reddit page. The one that inspires a 17,000-word dissection that tried to answer every outstanding question. The one that sends people down a seemingly never-ending internet rabbit hole as they try to figure out the time travel logic and disjointed plot of Christopher Nolan’s temporal puzzle.
When searched individually, Tenet wasn’t the most viral movie keyword on Google. But when I searched “Tenet explained”? And I compared that keyword search with other well-known confounding movies? There was simply no contest. Wildly confusing movies from the 21st century like Shutter Island, Midsommar, Donnie Darko, American Psycho, and Black Swan didn’t hold a candle to Tenet. Nolan’s 2020 thriller also blazingly outshined classic movies like The Shining, Psycho, Jacob’s Ladder, Brazil, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. No movie from any time period from any director (including Nolan himself) could keep up.
I want to make it clear: this wasn’t just an afternoon of searching around on Google Trends. I spent two weeks researching hundreds of different movies—from deeply layered thrillers (Us, Looper, Fight Club, Se7en) to complicated sci-fi ventures (Sunshine, Arrival, Interstellar, Under the Skin) to socially relevant dramas (Her, mother!, Mulholland Drive, Prisoners) to cult-backed horror flicks (Hereditary, Get Out, Signs, The Lighthouse) to the ever-growing list of foreign films that have found wider audiences over the years (Perfect Blue, The Wailing, Your Name, Oldboy). My search parameters stretched from the past 365 days to the past five years to the past 18 years. And none—and I mean absolutely none–of those films came close to matching Tenet’s gargantuan search frequency in just the past two years alone.
And that should be no surprise once you’ve seen the movie. Terms like entropy and posterity are thrown around willy-nilly. You’re forced to understand complicated entities like turnstiles, temporal pincer maneuvers, and the “Algorithm.” And once you think you have the mind-bending logic of Tenet figured out, the characters (and everything around them, from cars to explosions to bullets) are suddenly “inverted” and moving backwards through time and space.
From the very beginning, Tenet had quite a bit going for its impending lore. Nolan spent over a decade contemplating the story of Tenet and more than five years crafting the screenplay. And then after being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet became one of the first big movies to release in theaters in the summer of 2020. But the kicker was the film’s release on HBO Max on May 1, 2021 (much to Nolan’s dismay). Suddenly, this wild time travel experience was available to the masses—which catapulted the manic discussions about Tenet’s serpentine plot to epic proportions. Anybody and everybody who was confused about this movie had the entire internet at their disposal to figure it out…and it could very well be true that nobody’s cracked it quite yet.
How could the mayhem become more infectious? How could the labyrinthine logic of Tenet twist and bend even further? With a sequel—or an entire franchise—of course. John David Washington has already signaled that he’d love to be part of a sequel, and the film more than laid the seeds for that possibility with its closing scene revelation. And it just so happens that several other of the top-ranking movies in my Google Trends research were part of franchises: The Matrix, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, etc.
In the two years since Tenet’s release, the momentum hasn’t really slowed down. In fact, in the age of the internet, it’s only gotten more intense. With the movie available on HBO Max for anyone with a subscription to watch anytime, we’re in a new age for movies that are able to so fluently command a cult army of diehard fans.