Everything We Know

Everything We Know About Christopher Nolan's Tenet

What is it about, who's in it, when will it be released, and what can we assume from the trailers? We break it all down.

by | May 21, 2020 | Comments

John David Washington in Tenet
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

Christopher Nolan’s movies are always highly anticipated and mysterious affairs, and Tenet, the director’s 11th film, is no exception. In fact, it might actually be the Nolan movie that audiences know the least about, especially since the future of the entire film industry is currently unclear due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, with two trailers and a release date that hasn’t budged (so far), we know a little bit about Nolan’s Dunkirk follow-up. Here’s the scoop on Tenet.

It’s Another Nolan Original

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar
(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©Paramount Pictures)

Christopher Nolan is one of the only filmmakers whose name alone is enough to make a movie an event without it needing to be a reboot, adaptation, or part of a big cinematic universe. Tenet is a wholly original story, written and directed by Nolan. What’s the story about, though? Harder to say.

The most bare-bones synopsis is that Tenet will involve a secret agent (John David Washington) on a mission to stop a potentially catastrophic World War III. Sounds normal enough, but the two trailers reveal that this isn’t your everyday spy thriller. Instead, Tenet seems as though it will once more explore Nolan’s fascination with time, as seen in Inception, Interstellar, and, to an extent, even Dunkirk. Cars crash in reverse, and there are bullet holes in walls before the gunmen have even opened fire. How this is possible, and what this all means, is still unclear.  

There Are Two Trailers

Hobbs & Shaw audiences were the first to see a glimpse of Tenet back in August of 2019, when Warner Bros. attached a 40-second teaser ahead of the film. The first proper trailer dropped in December, before the pandemic really started. In an online event tied to the video game Fortnite on May 21, Warner Bros. then premiered a second trailer that revealed new scenes from the film and more dialogue than the first one.

Neither trailer goes too deeply into specifics, but it appears that Washington is a new recruit into some sort of agency that’s able to harness a mysterious power to reverse time, an ability known as “inversion.” Together with the help of some allies, he’ll attempt to prevent disaster, presumably one caused by a “Russian national” who can “communicate with the future.” Washington’s character appears to learn how to do some form of this too, as we see him “catch” bullets with his gun and witness a car crash undoing itself. Plus, there are more traditional set pieces as well, like a jumbo jet crashing through a building. Washington confirmed in a brief Q&A following the Fortnite premiere that the latter was not a product of CGI, and knowing Nolan, the rest of the effects in the film are likely as practical — i.e. “real” — as possible.

The Cast Is Impressive — And Unexpected

Robert Pattinson in Tenet
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

In addition to Washington, the son of actor Denzel Washington who received acclaim for his starring role in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Nolan has cast a number of talented actors. Robert Pattinson, the future Batman himself, is one of the more notable members of the cast, as is Michael Caine, one of Nolan’s go-to actors.

Kenneth Branagh, Age of Ultron’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Yesterday’s Himesh Patel, and Widows’ Elizabeth Debicki also appear in the cast. There are also a few actors foreign audiences might recognize. Notable Bollywood stars Dimple Kapadia and Denzil Smith also appear in the film, as does French actress Clémence Poésy, who is probably best known for playing Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter films.

None of the roles have been explicitly specified yet, but we can glean a few clues from the trailers. Pattinson and Patel appear to be associates of Washington’s character, who at least seems to be recruiting Pattinson’s character in the trailer footage. Meanwhile, Clémence Poésy’s character is apparently some sort of trainer for the agency that enlists Washington’s help, and it seems fairly clear that Kenneth Branagh is the villainous “Russion national” — a role similar to the one he played in 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Elizabeth Debicki’s character appears to be central to the conflict, but it’s unclear what her relationship to Washington’s character — or anyone else, for that matter — is.

Hans Zimmer Will Not Be Providing the Score

Nolan frequently works with composer Hans Zimmer for his movies, but that won’t be the case on Tenet. Zimmer, who scored The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Inception, had already committed to scoring Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation of Dune, so he couldn’t work on Tenet. Instead, Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, who did the music for Black Panther, the Creed movies, and The Mandalorian series on Disney+, will score Tenet.

It Looks Great (And It Was Really Expensive)

Plane exploding in Tenet
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

Nolan shot scenes for the film in seven countries: Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It will premiere in theaters (or at least it’s supposed to) in 70mm, 35mm, and IMAX formats, as well as a standard digital presentation.

The production budget for Tenet is reportedly $205 million, making it Nolan’s most expensive original film. Observer spoke to experts who predicted that the movie needs to make around $500 million to break even, which normally would seem like a sure thing. Inception made more than $800 million, while Dunkirk and Interstellar both surpassed the half-a-billion mark. However, the coronavirus may have thrown a wrench in those plans…

It’s Still Hitting Theaters in July (For Now)

While the pandemic has prompted most movie theaters to close their doors to avoid spreading the virus, and most studios have delayed their blockbusters’ release dates or punted them to 2021, Tenet has held fast. It is still slated to premiere in theaters on July 17, its originally scheduled release date.

The second trailer ended with the declaration that Tenet would indeed premiere in theaters, but it lacked the July 17 date, as did the description for the YouTube video and other social media promotions. However, shortly after the trailer went live, the descriptions were updated to once more state that the film would arrive on July 17. Assuming that doesn’t get reversed the way so many things literally were in the trailer, Tenet will open in theaters on July 17.

Christopher Nolan has personally pushed against moving the movie’s release date back, according to reports. Nolan is a major proponent of the traditional theatrical experience, and as one of the few directors whose name alone is big enough to get moviegoers to buy a ticket, he might be able to convince audiences to get back into theaters — assuming theaters are open. Although various states have begun to reopen parts of their economy despite the continued spread of the coronavirus, major movie theater chains haven’t followed suit. AMC, for instance, is still closed in states where it would be allowed to open with reduced capacity.

July 17 is still two months from now, and it’s unclear what the spread of the virus is going to look like then (and it’s unclear if audiences will feel safe going to the movies, regardless of Nolan’s allure). Still, for now, Tenet is the last major movie that hasn’t changed its release date due to the pandemic.

Don’t Expect It to Premiere on Streaming or VOD

As mentioned, Nolan is a huge champion of the theatergoing experience, so it seems highly unlikely that he’d allow for Tenet to premiere in a format that would allow audiences to watch it on their phones for the first time rather than in glorious IMAX. In addition, it’s unlikely that Warner Bros. would make nearly as much money from a VOD release as it would make with a theatrical release in normal circumstances. Further complicating this is the somewhat inside-baseball fact that Nolan’s contract stipulates that he makes 20% of the film’s first dollar gross, so he stands to make much more from a big theatrical release than something smaller.

The big question about Tenet, then — more than any mystery about the plot — is what’s going to happen when it premieres, and what will the circumstances of that premiere look like? We’ll have to wait and see.

Tenet is scheduled for release on July 17, 2020.

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