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Untangling the Mysteries of 'Tenet'

The new trailer for Christopher Nolan's tentpole offers clues to its time-bending plot.
Warner Bros. Pictures
The new trailer for Christopher Nolan's tentpole offers clues to its time-bending plot.

Christopher Nolan has offered audiences a new look at Tenet, his mysterious blockbuster that debuted a new trailer Thursday.  While the film is set for July 17, the coronavirus pandemic raises questions over if the film will open on that date or down the road. And the trailer itself raises a lot of questions about the film's relationship with time, and how Tenet could serve as a conversation piece among Nolan's other works.

It's time to take a closer look at the new trailer.

“There’s actually no time traveling.”

For many, the main attraction to Tenet comes in the form of the central sci-fi concept. And the second trailer offers greater insight into what that concept is: “inversion.” And the second trailer offers greater insight into what that concept is: “inversion.” 

As the trailer suggests, “inversion” allows one to communicate with the future. In a case of classic Nolan exposition to expand on his concept, Clémence Poésy’s character tells Washington’s that “you’re not shooting the bullet; you’re catching it.” 

The phrase “time travel” had been thrown around quite frequently in regard to that notion of reversal. But now, that description has been rejected. Robert Pattinson, in a profile with GQ, said: “There’s actually no time traveling. That’s, like, the one thing I’m approved to say.” And amusingly enough, in the second trailer, Pattinson’s character is the one to ask about “time travel,” before Washington’s character shuts the idea down.

And that tracks for Nolan, who is widely regarded as a materialist— grounding otherwise fantastical ideas in physical reality. 

His Dark Knight films notably portray the transformation of Bruce Wayne into Batman through him adopting military technology and vehicles. One can also see materialism deeply embedded in his 2006 film The Prestige.The film features real magic, in the cloning of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). But that comes through historical figure Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and is framed as science.  And it continues in Inception and, most prominently, Interstellar. The former strips down the conventional idea of dreaming — full of mythical beasts, and where humans can fly — and instead envisions dreams as echoes of reality, with the fantastical side of them mostly within the manipulation of architecture.

And the latter is inspired by scientific theory informed by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who initially came up with the concept for Interstellar along with producer Lynda Obst (Contact). He was also a guide for Nolan as he rewrote his brother Jonathan Nolan’s script. Nolan once entertained the possibility for his characters to travel faster than the speed of light, but Thorne advised him that that’s not theoretically possible, so Nolan abandoned the idea. And since wormholes aren’t believed to be naturally occurring phenomena, Interstellar introduces a notion of “them” as the creators of the wormhole near Saturn — “them” not being aliens or gods, but advanced versions of humans.

The film even uses time travel — in the scientific sense. The laws of physics allow for travel to the future through time dilation, which real-life astronauts experience on a small scale. The film simply amplifies that by bringing humans closer to greater gravitational forces: a black hole. And when Cooper enters the fifth dimensional tesseract, where he can access the past, the film still rejects the idea of time travel to the past, as it’s presenting the notion that time is a physical dimension, already all laid out. It shows that Cooper’s efforts to change the past directly played a part in shaping it as it was happening.

With Tenet, the same general idea seems to be in play. The main characters are moving backwards through time, but they seem to be directly impacting those who are moving forwards — a tightly knit interplay bound by simultaneous linear cause and effect. 

As spotted by my colleague Brian Davids, at the end of the first trailer when Washington is surprised by a man flying out of what seems to be an elevator, it almost looks as though Washington’s movement is what shoves the man inside when played in reverse. And the second trailer reveals that the bullet holes in the glass were caused by that mysterious man through a fight that the two already had on the opposite flow of time.

As Poésy’s line implies, Washington's character is catching the bullet — because it’s already been fired. And this potential notion tracks with how Nolan has portrayed the aspect of time in his films: you can’t change the past. In that case, Tenet’s characters may be working backwards through time to discover something they missed, rather than to change things.

It’s unclear exactly what will allow these characters to “reverse the flow of time,” but there will certainly be complex mechanisms that ground the phenomenon in physical reality, and the use of the word “quantum” in the upcoming behind-the-scenes book title, The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War, points where Nolan's interests lie.

“The world of international espionage”

Nolan is known for investing deeply in world building beyond what is seen on the screen. There are various prequel comics to his films that audiences can study for a better idea of how this might apply to Tenet, which will deal with geopolitics involving a “Russian national" (Branagh), who’s the target of John David Washington’s attempts to prevent World War III.

For Inception, there are two comics, both written by co-producer Jordan Goldberg, who also worked on The PrestigeThe Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar.

Inception: The Cobol Job details a failed dream heist of the chief engineer of Proclus Global, the energy company of Saito (Ken Watanabe). And some of the most tantalizing aspects of the story explain the world of Inception — particularly when a Cobol executive mentions “bidding on a job to build an oil pipeline up the entire eastern coast of Africa,” implied to be the heart of the corporate conflict that Saito references in the film. Inception: The Big Under continues the fallout of that failed heist and the planning that leads directly into the film’s opening mission. The comic also introduces the likes of “underground dreamcades,” which essentially involve betting on competitions within dreams. 

Nolan himself wrote an Interstellar prequel comic, Absolute Zero, that portrays the mental decline of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) on the film’s infamous Lazarus missions. On top of more robot humor, the story lays the groundwork for Mann’s character amid the massive operations to find humanity a new home — specifically the isolation felt by the 12 people who were first sent through the wormhole near Saturn to test potential new worlds.

So what does this mean for Tenet? There were already a number of potential clues in last year’s marketing material, and this second trailer only offers more to dissect.

The Tenet Imax prologue, released in December Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, depicts a terrorist group’s siege of an opera house, and fans have theorized that the sequence was inspired by the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis. The Russian influence is supported not only by Branagh’s Russian antagonist, but also by the title of the film’s behind-the-scenes book, Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War

Nolan invoked 9/11 and the surveillance state in The Dark Knight, and Tenet seems to follow in its footsteps, coming soon after major real world tensions between the U.S. and Russia. 

December's first trailer featured an offshore supply vessel (OSV) called the Magne Viking — a real ship. OSVs provide essential support, such as transporting equipment and manpower, to offshore construction and maintenance operations. In the trailer, the ship moves past an expansive offshore wind farm, likely the operation that the Magne Viking is supporting.

While the wind farm could be integral to the group of spies that Washington’s character belongs to — as Martin Donovan’s character seems to be escorting Washington’s character on that ship — the farm could also be part of the context of Tenet’s world. In other words, could another energy company be at the heart of a Nolan film? 

Nolan has used similar iconography before in Inception, which prominently features a handmade pinwheel as a key emotional device — Nolan’s own “rosebud,” one might say — for Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Expanding on speculation that Tenet and Inception are connected, could Fischer have, after breaking up his father’s company, started his own energy company based on that iconography? One that focuses on offshore wind power, a sustainable form of energy? Nolan has dealt with sustainable energy before, as The Dark Knight Rises featured a fusion reactor meant to supply Gotham with clean energy — before Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) axed the project after learning that it could be turned into a neutron bomb.

More will be revealed when Tenet hits theaters July 17 (or later)?

  • Kyle Kizu
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