not time travel

What Is Tenet About, Anyway?

A few theories. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

The Tenet reviews are finally in, should you want a relatively spoiler-free rundown of what to expect. We stand by these theories either way.

One day, soonish, perhaps, or just generally in the near future, Tenet will be released. All its mysteries will be unveiled to a curious, eager public. People will sit in the theater and gasp; other people will sit in the theater and get a little teary eyed, but don’t worry about it, there’s just something in their eye. At least one person will embarrassingly jump in their seat nervously, spilling their popcorn all over the floor, but we will be happy to be together again in a darkened movie theater and enjoying ourselves, so everyone will ignore it. Within the first ten minutes, my dad will lean over to ask, “What’s that guy’s name, again?” and I will say, “John David Washington.” He will then ask me, “Is that the vampire from that vampire movie?” And I will say yes. After we leave the theater, we will all race to the internet to talk about this movie, its secrets, and the way it made us feel.

But that day is not today, much to director Christopher Nolan’s continued chagrin. Tenet has ruled over the summer in curious, comical ways — the will-they-or-won’t-they-release-a-guaranteed-blockbuster-in-the-middle-of-[gestures blithely]-all-this back-and-forth, the daylong news cycle when we all wondered if Nolan really doesn’t let actors sit on set at his movies (prompted by an anecdote from Anne Hathaway). Tenet is no longer just a movie; it’s a COVID-era Hollywood white whale: What does its release mean for the future of moviegoing as we’ve known it? Does our hitless summer beget a hitless fall? Those are questions for other people. Today, I have but a simple query. We’ve spent all this time fussing over a film without even knowing what it’s about. So what do we think happens in this movie?

It’s about preventing 9/11, World War III, or some kind of quantum cold war.

Around the end of May, a theory began to gain traction on the internet claiming that Tenet is about stopping 9/11; this was a half-serious bit based on the fact that George Tenet was director of the CIA at the time of the terrorist attacks. “Obviously, it is a biopic about George Tenet, director of the CIA from 1996 through 2004, and the set of catastrophic intelligence failures he oversaw that led to the Iraq war,” Chris Bonanos, the city editor of New York, told me. “It’s the feel-good movie of the pandemic.”

I do not think this is true. I do think, however, that we should continue thinking wildly and brazenly about whatever happens in this movie (which is probably just Inception, swapping in time travel for dream travel, with Washington in for Leo DiCaprio and Robert Pattinson in for Tom Hardy).

What we know for sure, based on the trailer: Tenet has something to do with scientists and weapons and “a certain Russian national” and communicating with the future and avoiding World War III — something worse than Armageddon. Time moves backward. There is a gun capable of unshooting bullets when it’s pointed at bullet holes. Elizabeth Debicki is tall. What we know for sure, based on this making-of book for sale on Amazon: Tenet is “Christopher Nolan’s quantum cold war.” But what if the war these people are fighting to avoid isn’t between nation-states but between nascent celebrity lifestyle brands, perhaps Blake Lively’s Preserve (RIP) vs. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop? What if Tenet is one of those “gang gets back together” movies but the gang doesn’t recall it because their memories have been wiped — like a feisty, heist-y Eternal Sunshine? What if Debicki’s character exists in the past? What if the guns and bullets are just window dressing and Tenet is about unbreaking a heart?

It most likely involves detectives and/or spies and/or thieves.

I consulted other New York Magazine colleagues (and assorted friends) about this. “What,” I asked, “do you think Tenet is about?” “Two guys who work together. Maybe they’re detectives?” replied Vulture’s news editor, Tara Abell, no less than six minutes after I pressed “send” on my inquiry. While that seems too quick for her to have an opportunity to really sit with what she’s heard, I do think she is correct on both points.

“A detective in the future. Or a spy in the future. It’s definitely about a detective or a spy. And it’s definitely the future,” suggested Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, who ends all his tweets with “Love, Jesse” at my request. “But what is, like, happening? Washington plays someone new to some sort of world, and over the course of the movie, he dives deeper and deeper into it. Pattinson is at first his guide, but then he dies or is the bad guy. There’s also a love interest who is maybe the bad guy but at minimum is coded as “crazy.” What is this world? Hmm. It’s not like a cult or religion, since that doesn’t feel very Christopher Nolan–y. What could be a metaphor for moviemaking? Let’s say something time-travel adjacent.”

There’s no time travel, but there is superstring theory.

Pattinson has already made it clear that Tenet is not about time travel, so what is it about? “GREAT question,” replied staff writer Lila Shapiro. (I appreciate the compliment.) “Based on the trailer, pretty sure it is a deep exploration of superstring theory.” Interesting, but also I frankly do not understand superstring theory. “If we take Pattinson at his word and the movie is definitely not about time travel, I can see this being a mission to prevent something from happening in the future,” my colleague Kevin Wu suggested, perhaps referring to superstring theory, but I would not know. “We won’t see it, and therefore it won’t technically be a time-travel movie but I think the two male leads will be tasked with getting classified intel and that said intel is the remaining piece of the puzzle to solve something that prevents all-out chaos. Debicki’s character would likely be a necessary conduit to finding this intel, if not the source of intel herself.”

I am not inclined to trust any words out of the lips of a man, which is why I do think Tenet — a palindrome, we know — is about time travel despite what Pattinson has said. Maybe it’s not about time travel, but it’s probably about time inversion, or time manipulation, or reversing the flow of time, or multiple timelines that flow the same backward as they do forward, or connecting two timelines by means of some portal. So, time travel.

There will be gaming and/or puzzles and/or accessories.

What if Tenet — whose trailer premiered in Fortnite — is about gaming? Or if not gaming, puzzles? “Ever since I saw that Kenneth Branagh referred to Tenet’s script as ‘like a crossword puzzle,’ I’ve decided that it is actually about solving crossword puzzles,” Vulture staff writer Jackson McHenry told me. “Pattinson is the grizzled champion solver who recruits Washington into his intense schemes. Branagh has figured out a way for them to go back in time, all in the name of scoring better in competitions. Debicki at one point says the word olla while talking about clay.” Hmm.

My colleague Wolfgang Ruth offered the following: “In the first few seconds of the Tenet trailer, we learn that it’s a word that, for Washington’s character, will ‘open the right doors, some of the wrong ones, too.’ We also see characters scaling a building, a boat seemingly looking for something on water, and Pattinson with a comb-over and a briefcase — and then, at the end of the trailer, wearing a scarf. A definite mystery aesthetic! Basically, what if … the doors … are movie-theater doors? Tenet is about Tenet trying to find a way into a movie theater in the future. Do any of these things correlate? Probably not. But that’s for whatever Pattinson has in his briefcase to figure out.”

I do like the idea that Tenet is about accessories.

A wife will die. Maybe John David Washington too.

My colleague and staff writer Rachel Handler drew upon her extensive knowledge of Nolan’s oeuvre to say the following:

Tenet is about a man who loses his beloved wife in a [tragic accident/violent murder/onstage drowning/suicide] and, propelled by his anger and grief, attempts to accomplish [extraordinary/unprecedented/morally murky/scientifically impossible/illegal] things in the field of [science/police work/magic/vigilante justice]. At first, he is misunderstood and accused of being a [lunatic/selfish/workaholic/murderer] as well as an absentee father who puts his own dreams before his children’s well-being. But he stays the course thanks to his [wise, wry older mentor/hot younger girlfriend/preternaturally talented mentee], who at one point slaps him across the face for doing something reckless in the name of [science/police work/magic/vigilante justice]. Eventually, he succeeds in doing something [cool/insane/not physiologically possible/twisted], albeit at the cost of [all of his relationships/job/faking his own death/killing himself nightly]. He is lauded by the world for being a [selfless visionary/dead hero]. At the end of the movie, it is revealed that he is actually [not who he pretended to be/a twin or clone/not dead].

This all checks out to me. But I will take this opportunity, buried in the middle of all this text, to say that I really do think many people overrate The Prestige. Anyway, a lot of people are focused on the scene in the trailer in which Washington is taped to a chair in a train yard, convinced that he will die before being recruited by some secret, supranational organization to help it reverse important events to avoid. And that he’ll need the help of Pattinson to do so.

Okay, it’s Inception all over again.

“I’ve watched the trailers a few times now, and I’m feeling pretty confident about this,” says my colleague film critic Alison Willmore. “It’s about a professional thief who, with his team, steals valuable, carefully guarded information by — hear me out — using new technology to infiltrate a target’s dreams.”

Bits aside, Reddit agrees. If Tenet isn’t an outright Inception sequel, some fans are guessing it takes place in the same universe. This is all based on a teaser that played before Hobbs & Shaw in Imax theaters, which reportedly opened with a shot of Washington’s character walking past a gunshot-riddled window, preceded by the following text: “Time has come for a new protagonist” and “Time has come for a new kind of mission.”

“These lines give me the implication that there has been a previous protagonist and mission in this story. This, for me, screams Inception,” GreenArcherr writes. “Also the font used for the letters is the same as the one used for both the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception.”

In conclusion, my roommate Morgan Baila, who had maybe been sent an illegal clip of Tenet by a friend months ago, offered me this: “I truly have no idea what Tenet is about, except that there is no gravity at times and the name makes me think of a steel box shape.” Now, I have no idea who Morgan knows who would have sent her an illegal clip of Tenet, and I happen to know most of Morgan’s friends. If Warner Bros. would like to contact me about this matter and potential leaks in their operation, they should not do so, because I am not a snitch. But I think we can all agree that Tenet is, if nothing else, a movie that will one day be released. It is also probably not about 9/11.

*A version of this article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

“Well, was Inception set in the future or just like a futuristic present?,” Jesse asked. Because “if Inception was supposedly present day, then I think Tenet is also about present day.” “Once I’m done with the movie, I see myself texting all of my friends to say, ‘You know she’s six-three, right?!,’” Kevin added. My friend Ian has a theory about Pattinson: “Tenet is an adaptation of Giovanni’s Room set in the near future and centered on a love triangle between an asthmatic Denzel Washington impersonator, Robert Pattinson in beautiful scarves, and a seven-foot blonde who can cut diamonds with her cheekbones. There are also absolutely no plot holes or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (sadly).” I will amend Ian’s statement to say that, happily, this movie lacks the Joseph Gordon-Levitt–industrial complex, and we are all better for it! My friend Michael said he also thinks Tenet is about “John David Washington’s attempts to teach Robert Pattinson how to traverse dimensions so they can travel the world together on an endless honeymoon of wedded bliss.” Pattinson: a true ’rona bride if ever I saw one. My friend and co-worker the comedian Chris Murphy, a.k.a. Christress, told me, “Swear to God, whenever anybody brings up the movie Tenet, I imagine it to be a live-action, gritty reimagining of The Brave Little Toaster (1987) with time travel and catching bullets. Like the brave little toaster is played by Denzel Washington’s son, and because he’s made of metal, he can control other metal objects (read: catch bullets), and that tall woman from Widows (name is escaping me right now) teaches him how to go back in time and he ends up going on an adventure with Robert Pattinson and Michael Caine. This is all because Tenet sort of sounds like antenna to me, and I associate antennae with TVs and other metal objects like the brave little toaster and his friends.” I do appreciate The Brave Little Toaster representation and also “(name is escaping me right now).” Maybe Debicki’s is the name my dad will lean over and ask me to remind him of ten minutes into the movie. Another theory suggests this line means Washington’s character is a claims adjuster.
What Is Tenet About, Anyway?