'Tenet' Trailer Breakdown: Christopher Nolan Communicates With the Future

'Tenet' Trailer Breakdown: Christopher Nolan Communicates With the Future

May 22, 2020

The new Tenet trailer is here (after debuting in…*checks notes*…Fornite), and to put it bluntly, it rules. Action-packed, full of stunning visuals, and, since it’s a Christopher Nolan movie, mysterious as hell. While this trailer reveals the most about the film so far – for instance, it’s not about time travel, even though it sure looked like it was – it’s still shrouded in secrecy. In an attempt to figure out what the heck is going on here, I’ve compiled a Tenet trailer breakdown, just for you. So put on your cool suit and oxygen mask, and get ready to communicate with the future.

First, let’s rewatch the trailer, shall we?

And now, here are the opening moments.

One of the many things I dig about this trailer: it finds a creative way to use the usually annoying “quick teaser in front of the trailer” trend that movie trailers have adopted. Rather than showcase footage of the trailer to come, Tenet uses some other moments to set the mood. “All I have for you is a word,” says a character played by Martin Donovan. “It’ll open the right doors, and some of the wrong ones, too.” He’s speaking to the lead character, played by John David Washington.

Washington proceeds to get into a fight with several goons in either a hotel or restaurant kitchen. He also has a moment where he looks on longingly as Elizabeth Debicki walks by (and why can blame him?) before she climbs into a car and drives off. Is there a romance blossoming between these characters? Is Nolan crafting a love story that doesn’t have a dead wife in it for once? In the world of Tenet, anything is possible.

“To do what I do,” we hear Washington say, “I need some idea of the threat we face.” This narration takes place over a moment from the previous trailer: Washington and Robert Pattinson about to fall up a building. Sounds weird, but that’s what happens – they start at the bottom and then propel upward, and it’s clear they’re not climbing, or being pulled. Instead, it looks like the footage is running in reverse. Another hint at the film’s time-bending storyline.

As for that “threat” Washington is talking about, we hear a character played by Clémence Poésy saying: “As I understand it, we’re trying to prevent World War III.” This gives way to Washington in what appears to be some sort of lab (Poésy is even wearing a lab coat), approaching a tray of seemingly random items  – lenses, bolts, gears. And here comes the big reveal; the confirmation that all is not normal. “I’m not seeing armageddon here,” Washington says. “No, something worse,” replies Poésy. Washington has a hand hovering over the items, and one of them – a gear wheel – flies up into his hand, as if his hand is magnetic.

Cut to: Michael Caine! All Christopher Nolan movies are required by law to have Michael Caine in them, and here he is. “I gather you have an interest in a certain Russian national,” Caine says,

That Russian national is the film’s villain, played by Kenneth Branagh. What’s his deal? According to Washington, Branagh can “communicate with the future.”

And just in case you were still thinking this is a time travel movie, we cut to Washington and Pattinson having a convo about Branagh and his ability to “communicate with the future.” “Time travel?” Pattinson asks. “No,” Washington replies. “Inversion.” In other words, the characters aren’t traveling back in time in a traditional sci-fi way. Instead, they’re literally moving backward, as if someone is hitting a rewind button. Sound weird? It is weird. That’s the point. “How is that not time travel?” you might be asking. Well…technically speaking, it kind of is. But Nolan obviously wants to avoid all the trappings and unanswerable questions that come with time travel movies, so he’s attempting something different.

To illustrate inversion, we see Washington firing a gun at a giant rock. This giant rock is the one thing that’s really throwing me in this trailer – why is the target a rock wall? Why not just a regular shooting range target? Is this rock blessed with special powers? Is it a chunk of Stonehenge, a la Halloween III: Season of the Witch? Or is it just a rock? Nolan, you bastard, answer me.

In any case, as Washington aims his gun, a bullet flies backward, into the chamber. “You’re not shooting it,” says Clémence Poésy’s character. “You’re catching it.”

This gives way to what I’m 100% sure is a direct reference to The Matrix, with Washington saying, “Whoa.” Anytime you’re making a big sci-fi epic that plays around with the rules of space, time, and physics, it’s bound to be compared to The Matrix. I’m sure Nolan realizes that, and deliberately threw this in there as a big wink to the audience.

There are several shots of characters wearing oxygen masks in this trailer. Washington wears one at one point, and here, Branagh is donning a mask as well. What could that be about? Just a guess: if people – not just objects like bullets or gear wheels – are also inverting backward, it might affect their bodies as well, and they might need help breathing. Again, this is just a guess. But I also think Nolan is using the masks similar to the way he used the “dream machine” in Inception – it’s a part of a device the characters use to move backward in time.

What follows is a quick series of action beats highlighting all the crazy, dangerous stuff going on here. To underscore how dangerous it all is, we then go to Branagh asking Washington how he would like to die. Washington’s reply: “Old.” “Then you chose the wrong profession,” says Branagh.

Here’s the money shot, which also underscores the danger: a car accident happening in reverse. I know you could argue that this isn’t that mind-blowing – Nolan is merely moving the film in reverse. And yet, this simple editing trick looks fantastic, akin to the tractor-trailer flip in The Dark Knight.

The action continues, and also includes a moment where Elizabeth Debicki is being held hostage in a car by Branagh. I really hope Nolan isn’t going to simply have Debicki in place to be a damsel in distress, as that would be highly disappointing.

Another big action set piece has characters running through a theater during an orchestra performance.  The audience members are asleep (or…dead?) while those running are again wearing masks, which further underscores the use of masks as protection during the inversion. Side-note: it’s surprising that they included this shot in the trailer – a shot of people who appear dead and/or incapacitated in a theater. It’s bound to make people think of the circumstances surrounding Tenet‘s release: an outbreak that threatens the lives and safety of theatergoers. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe that orchestra was just giving a really boring performance, and everyone fell asleep.

Another mask! After a series of more action shots, Washington asks: “Reversing the flow of time…doesn’t us being here now mean it never happened?” I dunno, Tenet. Does it? You tell me!

The trailer concludes with yet another big money-shot moment: a plane crashing into a building (on the ground). And it really looks like Nolan crashed an actual plane into an actual building, because he’s the type of director who can get away with that sort of thing. But the real fun of this moment isn’t the plane crash – it’s the light, comedic banter between Washington and Pattinson. This trailer showcases that the two have great, playful chemistry together while also proving Nolan can go funny. He’s a director who often gets accused of being cold and clinical, but Nolan can do comedy when he wants to – and he’s on record as loving MacGruber – so I like that he’s allowing Washington and Pattinson to have a little fun. “You want to crash a plane?” Washington asks. “Not from the air,” Pattinson replies. “Don’t be so dramatic.” “Well, how big a plane?” asks Washington. “That part…is a little dramatic,” replies Pattinson. Cut to huge plane explosion.

And here’s the stinger: rather than provide a release date, the trailer simply ends with “Coming to Theaters.” As of now, Warner Bros. still plans on releasing the film on July 17. Before the trailer dropped yesterday, the official Tenet Twitter account removed any mention of that date, leading some to believe the release was going to be officially pushed. However, since the trailer dropped, the July 17 date is back on the Twitter page. So what’s going on here? Simple: Warner Bros. and Nolan still want to release the film in July, but by not putting the date in the trailer, they don’t have to worry about any confusion should the film get pushed to, say, August. Or November. Or 2021. All you need to know is that Tenet is definitely coming to theaters. Someday.

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