What is Tenet about? Here’s everything we know


As the first prospective blockbuster lined up for the reopening of cinemas, all eyes will be on Christopher Nolan’s mysterious new movie. Here’s everything we know.

Tenet is the first big screen release in a long time that audiences will be able to catch in cinemas for many countries around the world, including Australia. So it’s pretty impressive that we know basically nothing about its mysterious plot. Only a filmmaker with the fanbase and proven box office pull that Christopher Nolan commands could get something like this put out into an increasingly franchise-crazy film landscape.

As that July 16 release date edges closer and closer, the pieces of the puzzle are slowly coming together, and we’ve compiled every tantalising shred of information about the film that we can muster. We can’t promise that all of your questions will be answered, but at the very least your excitement for Tenet should be fully maxed out by the end of the article.

What’s the deal with the title?

The word ‘tenet’ is notably a palindrome: a word, that is, spelled the same forwards and backwards, which would seem to be a clever nod to the trailer’s depiction of time flowing forwards and backwards. That temporal trickery is something Nolan has obviously played with before, in the reverse-linear structure of Memento, and the simultaneously occurring timelines of Inception and Interstellar.

The word ‘tenet’ also refers to a central idea or concept that is foundational to a system of belief, so you can bet that some tenets of our human experience, such as linear time and physics, might get messed with in this film.

Who’s involved?

BlacKkKlansman lead (and son of Denzel!) John David Washington gets top billing, right above Robert Pattinson, who’s going through something of a career renaissance right now. They’re joined by Nolan regulars Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh, as well as Aussie Elizabeth Debicki and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Behind the scenes, Dunkirk and Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is returning. But frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer won’t be on board this time, as he’s too busy scoring Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Instead, Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson is taking charge for Tenet; you might remember his bombastic, Oscar-winning work on Black Panther a few years ago.

What’s it about?

Whew. Okay. Looking at the below, most recent trailer for Tenet, it would seem that everything is pointing to John David Washington’s character having some kind of ability to see events unfolding backwards. Whether he has any control over the effect or merely the ability to perceive it, the theme has fascinating mechanics, and kind of only leads to further questions. Does Kenneth Branagh’s gloriously hammy Russian accent point to some sinister international scheme, messing with the space-time continuum?

In his GQ profile, Robert Pattinson briefly remarked that his own character is not a time traveller. And that furthermore, “there’s actually no time traveling. That’s, like, the one thing I’m approved to say.” Which is an exciting idea, right? That Tenet could be messing with an entirely new type of time manipulation?

That statement also shuts down one of the most kooky and controversial fan theories gaining traction on Twitter: that Tenet is about time travelling spies using their abilities to stop 9/11. I’m serious.

Whatever the movie’s specific plot is, the sleek and action-packed trailers all support the film’s original, vague synopsis from Warner Bros. In 2019 the studio merely called the film “a massive, innovative action blockbuster…set in the world of international espionage.” Tenet‘s production has definitely given off some James Bond vibes, with production taking place in seven countries, including spending $18.5 million dollars of the exorbitant $225 million budget in Estonia.

That globetrotting sensibility adds an authentic feel to the trailer’s mention of “World War Three,” suggesting the stakes in this movie are going to be astronomical. One sneaky clue to the plot lies in the title of the book ‘he Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War, which is so far only available for pre-order on Amazon. That dramatic title implies that, unlike the more shadowy, criminal plot of Inception, Tenet is taking place on an international, government-sanctioned scale, perhaps involving a nuclear holocaust of sorts.

Could it be connected to any other Nolan movies?

An interesting idea, but one that the cast and promo material doesn’t seem to really take seriously. In a funny video for Esquire, John David Washington humoured the fan theory that Tenet will be a secret sequel to Inception, saying that the films could be in-laws of a sort, and that they might “spend Thanksgiving together.”

Maybe the backwards action of the Tenet trailer is a bit eerily similar to the main plot of Memento, which also involved a protagonist trying to piece together a mystery in reverse order? Either way, one frustrating element of Christopher Nolan’s Hitchcockian auteurism is that we probably won’t learn anything more until we actually see the movie.

Let your anticipation be bolstered by Robert Pattinson himself, who says that Nolan “seems like the only director now who can do what is essentially a very personal, independent movie that has huge scale. I read the script and it’s unreal.”