Christopher Nolan Has Revealed The Meaning of Cryptic Film Title 'Tenet'

Olivia Ovenden
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

From Esquire

"All I have for you is a word: Tenet" says Martin Donovan's character at the start of the new trailer for Christopher Nolan's latest head-scratcher. "It'll open the right doors and some of the wrong ones too. Use it carefully."

The recently-released trailer for the forthcoming action blockbuster showed the operative John David Washington plays is on an against-the-clock mission to prevent World War III from a threat which is worse than Armageddon, according to the person training him.

Now, in a new special feature in Entertainment Weekly, Nolan has divulged the meaning of the film's title, saying, “Tenet is the name of the organisation into which the Protagonist gets inducted.”

His words were echoed by the film's star Kenneth Branagh who said: “It’s an espionage piece that’s dealing with a global threat to the world.

Adding, “A nuclear holocaust is not the greatest disaster that could befall the human race. Tenet discusses an even worse possibility, and it is wrapped up in this mind-boggling treatment of time that continues Chris Nolan’s preoccupations in films way back to Memento, through Interstellar and Inception.”

Nolan's cerebral blockbusters often play with the passage of time, circle around trickery and illusion and feature characters that blur the line between good and bad. In Inception, five hours of real time accounts for fifty hours in a dream world; in Dunkirk the story is told through three different spans of time: a week on the beach, a day on the sea and an hour in the air; and in Memento the viewer is repeatedly thrown ten minutes back in time to mimic the characters short-term memory loss.

Time is clearly a central part of the story in Tenet, with the trailer revealing that there is a Russian national, played by Robert Pattinson, who "can communicate with the future", though it quickly clarifies this is not time travel but inversion.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Inversion means seeing events play backwards before they happen, as though watching the future on rewind. We can see this in the trailer, from the way that the boats appear to be sailing backwards, a car flipping is done in reverse and, as Washington's trainer explains to him as he's holding up a gun: “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.” There's also a theory that the shot of Washington's character wearing a gas mask is him being put under so that he is able to work while time is reverse (could that be a link to the dream worlds of Inception?).

Inversion doesn't so much bend time as turn it on it's head, as was hinted when the first teaser for the film showed the word 'Tenet' flipping over on itself. There are also hints and theories that suggest that Pattinson's and Washington's characters are both the protagonist, but working in different time frames, which would fit with the tagline of the film: "Time for a new protagonist". There could well be two of each character, as would fit with the film poster, which shows two versions of Washington joined at the centre, and as is hinted in the trailer when we appear to see two versions of Elizabeth Debicki's character.

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Nolan has revealed that Washington is playing "an operative who is known by the term Protagonist" adding when questioned about whether he could be considered a black Bond figure: “He is very much a presence at the heart of the film. But, unlike a Bond, he has a very warm emotional accessibility.”

Whether Pattinson is also a Protagonist was (cleverly?) laughed off by Nolan who said of his character, "We think he may be called Neil. You never really quite know what’s going on with these identities."

Things are rarely straightforward in Nolan's films, with the director enjoying his loops around the audience, so that things often only making sense after several watches. If Tenet does make it to cinemas this July, you might still need 50 index cards and some red string to work out what it all means.

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