Between the massive box office totals, definitive comic book franchise and steady stream of original blockbuster concepts, Christopher Nolan is arguably the most popular filmmaker working in Hollywood. Yet despite Nolan’s prominence and the moviegoing public’s infatuation with him, he’s also perhaps the most secretive. That is why, even after two full-length trailers, we still don’t know much about his upcoming feature Tenet.
As of this writing, Warner Bros. still has Tenet on schedule for its original July 17 release, which will mark the unofficial re-opening of cinemas amid the coronavirus pandemic and the long-delayed launch of the summer movie season. Given the film’s importance to the movie industry at a particularly precarious time, we’ve gathered all the information about what is sure to be summer’s defining blockbuster.
Tenet‘s release date
As mentioned above, Warner Bros. is still sticking to the film’s original July 17 release date, though that could change between now and then. America’s major theater chains—AMC, Regal, and Cinemark—remain largely closed throughout the country due to COVID-19. China is hoping to reopen its 70,000 theaters in early June. Health and public safety will largely dictate how feasible these efforts are and whether or not we’ll receive Tenet on schedule.
Warner Bros. has positioned the flick as an “event film” and it will reportedly debut in IMAX format. WB has been Nolan’s home since 2002’s Insomnia.
Nolan has recruited a deep cast of established all stars and up-and-comers for his latest cinematic venture. John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) leads the film alongside Robert Pattinson (The Batman), Elizabeth Debicki (Widows), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Avengers: Age of Ultron), Michael Caine (practically all of Nolan’s movies), Kenneth Branagh (Dunkirk), Himesh Patel (Yesterday), Clémence Poesy and Dimple Kapadia.
Given the level of complexity Nolan likes to infuse into his stories, Washington peppered the director with questions throughout production to stay afloat on the mind-bending narrative.
“Every day I had questions for him,” the actor recently said. “But he was very gracious, and he answered them very calmly and patiently. It was important that the actors could track the story correctly so we could tell it the best way we could, and he was very patient with us.”
Speaking of story…
Here is the official synopsis from Warner Bros.: “John David Washington is the new protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s original sci-fi action spectacle Tenet. Armed with only one word – Tenet – and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. Not time travel. Inversion.”
In typical Nolan fashion, that sounds heavy on conceptual funkiness and light on any actual specific details. Based on the two trailers that have been released, we can safely piece together that Washington’s protagonist is some sort of agent racing to prevent World War III, which would apparently be worse than armageddon, with the use of time, uhh, “inversion.” Per the trailer, Branagh plays Washington’s target, a Russian national with the ability to communicate with the future.
Washington was surprised Nolan divulged as much information as he did in the vague but undoubtedly cool trailers.
“Really, it’s interested, because there are just little nuggets of information and just breadcrumbs of information about the movie that I was surprised [Nolan] was going to reveal,” he said. “And I love that he did.”
The word “Tenet” is a palindrome—spelled the same backwards and forwards—and the central world in the Sator Square, a famous Latin word square with five palindromes made up of 25 words. As we’ve previously explored, time is a key pillar of Nolan’s filmography (as are historical references), both as a thematic component and as a narrative storytelling device. We expect Tenet to explore this symmetry and dualism under the guise of a James Bond-esque sci-fi spy thriller.
“It’s a film of great ambition and great scale that takes a genre, namely the spy film, and tries to take it into some new territory, and tries to take the audience on a ride they might not have had before, and might not be expecting,” Nolan told Total Film. “We’re looking at first and foremost giving the audience an incredible ride in the spy movie genre, but using the audience’s facility with following the conventions of that genre to push it into some interesting and unexpected territory.”
Pattinson has described the movie as “insane” while admitting that he struggles to explain the plot. Speaking about his character, The Batman star recently revealed: “He’s not a time traveller. There’s actually no time travelling [in the film]. That’s, like, the one thing I’m approved to say.”
We’re really going to need an explanation on that whole “inversion” trip. Our best guess based on the phrasing and footage is that Washington’s protagonist can reverse the the normally linear flow of time. It isn’t so much time traveling—the action of traveling into the past or the future—as it is time manipulation.
Despite resurrecting Batman from the depths of Hollywood jail, telling an entire film in reverse chronological order, and delivering epic original science-fiction blockbusters, Nolan says Tenet is the biggest and most explosive production he’s ever tackled.
“[Producer] Emma [Thomas] and I have put together a lot of large-scale productions, but this is certainly the biggest in terms of international reach,” Nolan told Entertainment Weekly. “We shot in seven countries, all over the place, with a massive cast and huge set pieces. There’s no question, it’s the most ambitious film we’ve made.”
That brings us to our next point…
A summer 2019 report claimed that Warner Bros. spent $225 million on Tenet, which was filmed utilizing a mixture of IMAX and 70mm film, while more recent reports peg the budget closer to $205 million. Regardless, it’s clear that the film is one of Nolan’s most expensive features to date. Then again, The Dark Knight Rises ($230 million), Inception ($160 million), Interstellar ($165 million), and Dunkirk ($100 million) are all pretty pricey. But still—if you’re wondering where all that money goes, take a look at the production locations.
As Nolan mentioned above, Tenet was shot in seven different countries. These included the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, India, Norway, Denmark and Estonia.
Given the enormous investment from WB and ongoing concerns regarding COVID-19, box office analysts are split on whether or not Tenet can earn enough money to turn a profit for the studio. But Nolan, long a vocal proponent of the theatrical system, is plowing ahead anyway even though these box office obstacles may limit his own paycheck.
Tenet ‘s creative team
Nolan wrote and directed Tenet himself. Hans Zimmer, the filmmaker’s longtime collaborator, was busy with Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, so Tenet‘s music was composed by the Oscar-winning Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther). Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who worked with Nolan on Interstellar and Dunkirk, is back behind the camera. Film editor Jennifer Lame (Marriage Story, Midsommar) will be working with the director in the editing bay. Emma Thomas, Nolan, and Thomas Hayslip serve as producers.