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TENET – Everything we know so far

Fans of Christopher Nolan’s films wait with bated breath for the director’s eleventh movie to arrive in cinemas. With coronavirus effectively shutting down the world’s movie industry, TENET’s release date has become a subject of much speculation. Initially intended for launch on 17th July 2020, the rumour is that Warner Bros were happy to push the film’s release to later in the year, but Nolan insisted that it be released as soon as possible, which could be as early as the end of July. While we wait, here’s everything we currently know about this highly secretive movie. Please be aware when continuing to read: There is a lot of speculation below which could turn out to be spoilers, although nothing is certain!

Socially-distanced Spy

What is TENET?
This has been the primary question in the lead up to the film’s release. The trailers indicates that it is a code word, but little else has been revealed. TENET (the movie) follows characters who use something called inversion, to manipulate time. Interestingly, Nolan has made adamant statements that TENET isn’t a time travel movie. Inversion seems to be the ability to move backwards through time in order to erase events or rectify a past wrong. And it requires the inhalation of some kind of gas (perhaps Carbon Dioxide instead of Oxygen?). Too much gas can’t be good for us, and one of the film’s recurring motifs is the phrase “Welcome to the afterlife,” which suggests that TENET could be about ways to cheat death.

The Science Lesson
Like Nolan’s Interstellar, TENET will get a bit sciencey. Rumours on Reddit circulate of background images in the most recent trailer indicating that inversion relates to entropy. For the uninitiated (i.e. me before a long reddit/wikipedia trawl and er, still me) entropy is a thermodynamic quantity representing the degree of randomness/chaos in a system. A good example of entropy is ice melting. Over time the molecules of energy become more chaotic and move more freely as they turn from a solid to liquid and then gas – increasing entropy. The second law of thermodynamics (stay with me here) states that the total entropy of an isolated system (let’s pick something relatable, like the entire universe) can only increase – it’s not reversible – or in plainer language, we’ve all only been moving forwards in time since The Big Bang. Okay, how about something smaller? Imagine mixing red and blue paint to make purple paint, then trying to un-mix the colours…. seems impossible.

But can Q do this?!

BUT modern science (and some movies) think that the colours could be unmixed at the quantum level (think Antman’s exploits in the MCU). The TENET trailer also includes a sighting of a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon, which suggests how to violate the second law of thermodynamics: by using a teeny, tiny devil who sorts matter at the quantum level – that devil could un-mix the purple paint by separating the red and blue molecules, and turn the liquid water back to ice. In terms of the universe, a devil with enough time and effort could reverse the molecules of events that have happened and thus effectively move back in time (sounds exhausting). The film suggests only the traveller inverts, the world still moves forwards – which makes for some super cool and highly confusing visuals. There’s also a lot of stuff about positrons and antimatter and now I’ve lost you, but COME BACK because Nolan films do not need to be understood to be enjoyed (a dream – within a dream – within a dream, anyone?) TENET is also part of the SATOR square, one of the earliest palindromes. TENET is a Latin word meaning holds, keeps, comprehends, possesses, masters, preserves, sustains. No biggie?!

Palindromic head scratching

Retreating to less shaky ground, Producer Emma Thomas has called TENET a ‘spy movie‘ intended to elevate the espionage genre. British spy movie history has long been the dominion of James Bond and John Le Carre (although Killing Eve has brought a new kind of spy to 21st Century TV), so it’s always nice to welcome a new player.

Talking of players, who stars in TENET?
In a typical Nolanesque move, the protagonist of TENET is literally called the Protagonist (dream a little bigger, darling!) played by John David Washington, erstwhile of BlackKklansman.

Blink and you’ll miss him

The Protagonist is assisted by a number of characters with boring names so we’re going to nickname them: the Necessary Nolan Avatar (Robert Pattinson), the Scientist (Clemence Poesy), the Mark (Elizabeth Debicki), the Mystery (Dimple Kapadia), the Comic Relief (Himesh Patel), the Too Famous to be a Miscellaneous Goon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Racist Caricature of an Evil Russian Oligarch (Kenneth Branagh).

That last one sounds interesting…
From the trailers, Branagh plays some sort of…antagonist, who appears to be a shady Russian businessman/arms dealer/yacht owner who may have been the first to use inversion. However, that might be one of a hundred misdirections Nolan employs in order to confound us. In a recent interview with Total Film, Branagh said he wasn’t even sure if he is the film’s bad guy, and he has read the script. Curiouser and Curiouser.

Any other hints?
Back at the beginning of the year, Nolan sneakily released The Prologue during IMAX showings of The Rise of Skywalker (Spoilers ahead)

The Prologue is a six-minute self-contained scene showcasing (I think) the Protagonist and friends pretending to be Ukrainian cops (I think) who converge on a beautiful opera house filled with patrons. As they move inside, it becomes apparent that the patrons are all at the mercy of sleeping gas, seemingly so that a group of cops who might be bad guys (no idea) can kidnap a random white man in a suit (yup) who has a connection to TENET.

Wow this production is so boring I could fall asleeeZZZZZZ

The Protagonist is there (by inverting through time?) to rescue the man before he gets kidnapped. Finally, someone (the actual cops, the Protagonist, a SWAT team, god knows because everyone is wearing balaclavas and waving guns) retrieves a bullet from a bullet hole in a seat so that the bullet moves backwards and retracts into their gun – passing through and killing someone – who happened to be in the bullet’s way – on its journey. I’ve watched the Prologue upwards of 20 times and it’s still extremely unclear what it means and how it fits into the wider TENT story, but for those 6 minutes I am riveted. Kudos to the epic score; this time Nolan worked with Ludwig Gorannson (he usually works with Hans Zimmer, who we have to thank for the themes to Inception and Interstellar) who makes absolute bangers, including the earworm that is The Mandalorian theme, and the Grammy-winning Black Panther soundtrack.

What was that about retracting bullets?
In recent weeks TV spots have appeared worldwide that slowly give context to the earlier released trailers. In the TENET world objects can also move backwards, perhaps if characters who are inverted first interact with them. In one such TV spot, the Scientist and the Protagonist are ‘training‘ in some kind of lab (which may or may not be at a boat dock). Poesy’s character has been referred to as the Q of TENET (in reference to the R&D boffin of the Bond franchise) as her voiceover states that when the Protagonist wears bright green washing up gloves, some silver bracelets and fires a special gun (you really need you see it) “you’re not firing bullets, you’re catching them” followed by the even more mind-boggling  “someone is manufacturing them in the future,” as we watch the bullet spin backwards into the gun. Eek!

Oh good, I love cool special effects

Just a big wave or something weirder?

Nolan is famous for trying to recreate his own stunts rather than use visual manipulation (happy to manipulate our poor addled minds though, aren’t you Chris?). Be rest assured that the film’s $225million+ budget has been spent on spectacle, from characters scaling buildings (presumably to teach themselves to do this backwards) to some mind-bending car chases with cars flipping, driving backwards, with characters maybe at different stages of time.

The latest trailer sees a plane crash into a hangar and there’s a flicker of what looks to be a flying catamaran. There are also some hard-hitting fight scenes to show just how serious the movie is.

What happened with the TENET logo?
Eagle-eyed trailer watchers (not me) quickly picked up on the fact that the rotated N was now reading forward. This followed a claim made by bike company Tenet Components that the logo was too similar to its own (with help from Pinkbike). Decide for yourself below:

The bike company logo

The original film logo

Lastly, is TENET a sequel to Inception?
The most fun aspect of waiting for the most eagerly awaited mystery-box film of the modern age is to wildly speculate. It has been ten long years since Nolan made Inception, the possible closest relation to TENET. Many fans are speculating that the movie is a sequel to Inception, although there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two except the ability to bend reality. Even now, viewers still speculate about Inception’s ambiguous ending. Will TENET create the same havoc? Probably. Nolan’s focus on messing with time could play out any number of ways. TENET’s timeline could split in the middle, with the same events playing out backwards or from another character’s perspective. It’s exciting and frustrating, and the only safe bet in the speculation game is that when TENET is finally released, we still won’t get any concrete answers.

See if you can spot all the hidden references in the latest TENET trailer below:

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