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 has shifted a few times, we know a little bit about Nolan’s Dunkirk follow-up. Here’s the scoop on Tenet. [Updated on 7/27/20.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
While the pandemic prompted most movie theaters to close their doors to avoid spreading the virus, and most studios delayed their blockbusters’ release dates or punted them to 2021, Tenet held fast for as long as it could. About a month before its originally scheduled July 17 theatrical release, Warner Bros. finally caved and shifted it to August 12. Then, on July 20, it was pulled from theaters entirely, with no indication when it would premiere. Finally, on July 27, it was announced that Tenet would first open in two dozen markets worldwide — including the UK, South Korea, and France — on Wednesday, August 26, before expanding into more markets over the next few days, and it would ultimately open in the US on Thursday, September 3, ahead of the Labor Day weekend.
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.
It’s unclear what the state of the COVID-19 pandemic will look like at the end of August, and it’s unclear if audiences will feel safe going to the movies, regardless of Nolan’s allure. For now, Tenet is no longer the first big release that plans to open in theaters this summer season, but it is by far the biggest, and it may still serve as a barometer for major studio releases in the near future.
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 currently scheduled for release in the US on September 3, 2020.