How 'Tenet' Prologue Sets Up a Time-Bending Story

More than six minutes of Christopher Nolan's film is playing ahead of select Imax screenings of 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.'

Christopher Nolan stole some of the rebellion’s spark Thursday night when Warner Bros. debuted an Imax-exclusive prologue for the filmmaker's secretive Tenet ahead of screenings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — after releasing the first online trailer for the film earlier that morning.

The Hollywood Reporter was on hand for the prologue — a six-and-a-half minute sequence, potentially the opening of the film — at the Imax theater of Universal Cinema AMC at CityWalk. Even though The Rise of Skywalker was scheduled to play in Imax 3D, the theater — one of the few still with an Imax 70mm projector — played the prologue in Nolan’s preferred format.

And the reactions gave reason for why Nolan’s projects are so often described as “event” films. After the regular trailers played, the screen went dark for about a minute and some in the audience were audibly confused. But one man loudly said, “You know this is the Tenet prologue, right?” just before it began. As the prologue wrapped, the crowd cheered.

Over the past 12 years, Warner Bros. has dropped Imax prologues or special Imax previews for all of Nolan’s films that were partially shot in the format. (Inception is his only film since The Dark Knight that wasn’t.) 

And the Tenet prologue is a proper fit in Nolan’s volume of must-see extended teases, offering an intense and impressive set piece, one that recalls Bane’s siege of a football stadium in The Dark Knight Rises. The scene is set to the tune of composer Ludwig Göransson’s pulsating score. And it throws audiences into the deep end of Nolan’s new espionage world.

Tenet’s prologue falls in line with the rest of Nolan's prologues. Those for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, played in front of I Am Legend and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, respectively, were both the opening sequences of the films: the Joker’s bank heist and Bane’s plane heist. And they gave audiences first looks at what Nolan described as the defining elements of his Batman films: the villains. 

Interstellar was a little different, in that the Imax preview only showed in museum locations, like science centers, and was more so an extended trailer, using archival footage and interviews with astronauts and scientists. But it played the exact same role. Much of Interstellar was grounded by both legitimate science and theory, as well as how Jonathan Nolan — Christopher’s brother, frequent writing partner and co-writer of Interstellarviewed real space travel as having stalled

Nolan described the Dunkirk prologue, which played ahead of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as a “short film version.” Nolan rocketed to prominence with nonlinear films, but Dunkirk would be his first nonlinear Imax film. And thus, its prologue vaguely introduced that notion to audiences, of the different sections of the air, the land and the sea running at the same time. In fact, while most of the prologue is from the first act, it ends on a moment from the third act. Dunkirk wasn’t simply another war film, so a simple sequence wouldn’t suffice.

At first, Tenet’s prologue seemingly returns to the simplicity of those for the Batman films, it being a straightforward sequence. But in dissecting the film’s premise and its brand-new trailer, the prologue is actually a new beast for the director and perhaps the most conceptually tricky sell yet.

Tenet, described as “an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage,” seems to exist in the same complex cinematic conversation as Inception (if not the same universe) — in terms of how it dabbles in both the sci-fi and spy genre, and in regard to its futuristic-yet-grounded world filled with futuristic-yet-grounded technology. 

The sequence centers around a terror crisis, and both the law enforcement members and a group of spies who respond to it, with seemingly different motivations. This plays into the specifics of the film’s spy world, as John David Washington’s character even sounds as though he’s speaking in code at one point. 

It also contains a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that seemingly showcases the film’s time-warping technology in action, which helps to communicate the sci-fi twist. After the sequence wraps up, the prologue dives into a trailer-like montage, which contains the reversed car flip from the online trailer.

Considering that Interstellar is based in real science, and that it had no Imax prologue, Tenet is arguably Nolan’s most mind-bending film to have an Imax prologue. It had to introduce audiences to its sci-fi elements to begin to familiarize them with it. There are already theories that the scene in the prologue is influenced by the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis.

Granted, it’s still hard to know exactly where Tenet is going, and that’s surely Nolan’s intention. It wasn’t clear that the Dunkirk prologue was a piece of subtle manipulation until the film itself screened, so there may be more surprises in store for how this prologue plays out in the film. 

What’s evident, though, is that Tenet warrants further comparison with Inception. In fact, this sequence plays eerily similar to Inception’s comic book prologue, The Cobol Job, which tracks a mission of similar stakes and even a similar setup. 

Tenet opens July 17, 2020.