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Tenet: Inversion & Reverse Time Travel Explained | Screen Rant

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet includes a new twist on time travel stories, instead utilizing inversion and time moving in reverse. Here’s how it works.

Christopher Nolan's Tenet centers around the idea of time inversion, or more plainly, time reversal, which is the director's most ambitious take on the sci-fi movie trope of time travel to date. Tenet, which Nolan wrote as well as directed, is set in the world of espionage, although much of its story pre-release has been shrouded in secrecy. Aside from its impressive cast, led by John David Washington, whose character is so far known only as Protagonist, little is known about the movie, and the two trailers haven't given much away.

The main thrust of the narrative is the struggle to save the entire world, with a potential World War 3 on the horizon - and Washington's Protagonist the one charged with preventing it, although all he's given to go on is the word "tenet". With Robert Pattinson's character assisting him, he has to uncover both the secrets of what's going on - somehow mysteriously connected to a Russian individual - and how to use Tenet's time travel mechanics to guarantee humanity's survival.

Related: Tenet & Dune Can Save Smart Sci-Fi Movies

As has become typical of Christopher Nolan movies, the way time factors into the story in such an intrinsic way is one of Tenet's biggest hooks and ensures it stands apart from any other spy film before it. Here's what the inversion and time reversal in Tenet is, how it works, and how it'll factor into the movie's twisty narrative.

Rather than the relatively more straightforward idea of time travel seen in similar movies, where the characters actually move backwards or forwards through time and the audience follows them on that journey, Tenet is using time reversal, or time inversion. This is a rather different approach and an important distinction, because time travel still adheres to the general rules of physics, at least in so far as there remains a cause and effect to every action. Time inversion, however, as the name of the film makes clear, inverts or reverses this, with events, motions, and time itself moving backwards rather than forwards. This means rather than cause and effect, what's instead going to be shown is more like effect and then cause.

The palindromic name Tenet also tells audiences that what's also being used here is the idea of a time reversal invariance, which is where events can play out the same way forwards or backwards, and it's difficult to tell which one you're watching. The scene where Washington and Pattinson scale a building, for instance, is one possible example: it starts off with them on the ground, and then they move upwards, but it's possible to look at it as though they're descending too. The question of how time is progressing and which order events are happening in is set to be another central element of Tenet's storytelling approach.

Within Tenet's second trailer, there are some clear examples of time inversion and reversal at play: the car turning over, the bullet holes, Washington's protagonist "firing" the gun, with the bullet going back into the chamber. Aside from lending a whole new meaning to the term "bullet time", the sequences also offer some clues as to how the technique will be used in Tenet. The biggest takeaway in that sense if the presence of a green glove worn by Washington when he's interacting with objects that reverse in time. The exact mechanics of the glove are unclear, but its use in the trailer reveals it's a necessary part of being able to control the time reversal, as it's used to interact with the objects on the trays, and Washington also has it when firing the gun. It's likely that when the glove, an inverted time travel object, is used with another inverted object, that's how time, or the item in question - like a bullet - moves in reverse.

Related: Tenet Is The Most Exciting Movie Of 2020

The glove doesn't fully account for everything in Tenet, however - as there are still other moments, such as the car or the bullet holes, where there's no clear sign of it, and certain moments that appear to play out of sync. This suggests that while it's possible to control the time inversion, it's also affecting reality on a larger scale, as time flows differently to the events that are happening: for example, the bullet holes are discovered today, but the shots won't be fired until tomorrow, so the future (the effect) impacts the past (the cause). Given the idea of World War 3, then the power of time is something that could be weaponized, and Washington's Protagonist is the one who can stop that from happening.

This all ties into how Washington and his team, including Pattinson, are using the reverse time travel. While time itself does seem to be malleable in some way, the inversion is a technology to be used. That means when it happens it is localized - so although time may be reversing where Washington is, such as when inspecting the bullet holes, outside of that things are moving as "normal". Going further, then it's plausible that Washington & Co. are working their way backwards to solve the mystery, yet time outside of them progresses forward.

The core of Tenet's story is the fight to prevent World War 3, although all that's said about the cataclysmic event is that it's worse than armageddon. Again, there's the idea that time is going to be weaponized, and that Washington's character is the one with the power to prevent it. Kenneth Branagh's character seemingly possesses the same time inverting technology, which posits him as Tenet's potential villain - making it a battle not against time, but of time. That further pushes the time inversion into being the key to Tenet: this isn't just a gimmick to serve the story, but rather the time reversal is the story itself, in terms of both how the plot works but also how the story moves forward (or backward).

While Tenet's marketing keeps things mysterious, it's possible to speculate based upon this. If World War 3 is going to be caused by the time inversion technology, then Washington's Protagonist is the person who has to learn to control it in order to prevent that from happening (to go back to the idea of "bullet time", making him this movie's Chosen One like Neo in The Matrix - someone with greater power or control over the device in question than anyone else). Of course, since time isn't moving in linear fashion, it's even possible that World War 3 has already happened (or not happened) - the effect. Washington's actions in the movie are the cause, and so he has to fulfil something already determined but that he doesn't yet know, creating a cause-effect-cause type of time loop.

Related: 2020 Is The Best Year For Sci-Fi Movies In Ages

As mentioned, Christopher Nolan is no stranger to using time travel devices in his movies, although Tenet does stand apart from the rest. In Memento, the events played out both chronologically (the black and white footage) and non-chronologically (the color footage). In Inception, the worlds being affected are largely within dreams, where the laws of physics don't apply. Interstellar allows characters to travel at the speed of light via a wormhole. Finally, Dunkirk, similar to Memento, plays around with chronology, with each storyline taking place on a different timeline - one hour (air), one day (sea), and one week (land) - but edited together to make the viewer believe that they're happening at the same time.

What's most interesting about Tenet's approach, and the biggest difference to Nolan's previous time travel-related films, is that it is more directly altering the flow of time itself. Nolan's films play around with time, but what they're mostly doing is changing the audience's perception of time, but presenting events in different, non-linear ways. Tenet is going much further than that, by seemingly having time play out in reverse in some scenarios, and giving characters a level of control over that too - it's similar to the approach of Inception, but if those dream events were possible in the real world. That makes Tenet Nolan's most time-bending film yet.

Next: 2012 Music Video May Reveal Nolan’s Big Tenet Trick

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