Why Time Inversion In 'Tenet' Is Not Time-Travel, According To Christopher Nolan

Olivia Ovenden

From Esquire

Christopher Nolan's latest mind-bending blockbuster might be faltering on whether it will be released this July, but there are still new details about the complicated tapestry of the film coming to light.

We now know that the film's title relates to "the name of the organisation into which the Protagonist gets inducted”, and the director has also dismissed a popular theory about one of the central ideas of the film.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As the auteur's back catalogue often fractures the passage of time in clever ways – and given the theory that his latest is a stealth sequel to Inception – there has been a lot of speculation that the mission of the operative protagonist in Tenet involves time travel.

Nolan has now categorically denied this, saying in a feature with Entertainment Weekly: "This film is not a time-travel film. It deals with time and the different ways in which time can function. Not to get into a physics lesson, but inversion is this idea of material that has had its entropy inverted, so it's running backwards through time, relative to us."

This idea is also confirmed in the film's trailer which reveals that there is a Russian national, played by Robert Pattinson, who "can communicate with the future", before quickly clarifying this is not time-travel but inversion.

What time inversion actually means is 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. Inversion doesn't so much bend time as turn it on its head, as was hinted when the first teaser for the film showed the word 'Tenet' flipping over on itself.

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Time inversion or time reversal is a real concept which scientists have studied, with Nobel Prize winner Val Logsdon Fitch theorising that the same physical laws would apply in a "mirror world" where "right and left were reversed and matter was replaced by antimatter."

His work in fact proved that "symmetry does not apply during time reversal" and that "reactions going backward in time are not identical to those going forward", but whether Nolan has diverged from this idea or it provides a clue to the story is a mystery.

As Nolan is so at pains to differentiate this form of communicating with the future from time travel, there will likely be a key feature of time inversion which stops people from actually 'travelling' to a different time to change the course of events, perhaps having them instead manipulate the future while seeing it play out backwards. How this will actually work, though? Your guess is as good as ours.

'Tenet' is due to be released on 31 July

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