Tenet: A Breakdown of What Time Inversion Could Mean

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet
(Image credit: (Warner Bros))

Grab your thumb tacks, red markers and conspiracy theorist “crazy walls” – it’s time to really dive into the new Tenet trailer. The latest look at Christopher Nolan’s upcoming release manages to reveal a lot more clues about the action-thriller and somehow leave us even more confused than we were before. If Nolan was a college professor he’d definitely be the kind that gives you assignments to do before class is in session, so we’ve done some homework.

The biggest takeaway from the trailer might be during a conversation between Robert Pattinson and John David Washington’s unnamed characters when they clarify the concept Tenet is working with. In their words:

Pattinson: Time travel?Washington: No. Inversion.

Time inversion. This looks to be the concept in Tenet we need to sit up and pay attention to when the movie hits theaters. Before the trailer dropped, Robert Pattinson had shut down the time travel rumor too, but that doesn’t mean the concept of time isn’t a major factor in Christopher Nolan’s new movie. The filmmaker has proven to be particularly enamored with exploring themes of time – whether it be through dreams in Inception, memories in Memento or black holes in Interstellar. And like before, Tenet will access this theme with a new twist.

Disclaimer: These are purely educated guesses and meant to get our minds active and excited for Tenet. Chances are, Nolan is ten steps ahead of us. I do not claim to know how Tenet will play out. With that said, let’s breakdown “time inversion” and attempt to theorize how it will factor into the plot line of Tenet.

Tenet poster with John David Washington

(Image credit: (Warner Bros))

What Is Time Inversion According To Physics?

Time inversion or time reversal is an actual concept that has been studied by physicists, namely with the work of Nobel-prize winning Val Logsdon Fitch. Physicists used to believe that nature was characterized by symmetries in a “mirror world” where time moves backwards. It was initially believed that the same physical laws would apply if right and left were reversed and matter was replaced with antimatter. But Fitch and James Cronin’s discoveries in 1964 proved that “symmetry does not apply during time reversal” and “reactions going backward in time are not identical to those going forward,” according to Nobel Prize.

Thinking about these basic concepts of “time inversion” in the real world is interesting in relation to Tenet because the title itself is a symmetrical palindrome that has even been pointed out in the trailers in a visual way. The idea of symmetry seems innate in the definition of “time inversion” as it is also found in the title of the movie. Maybe the cool technology of Tenet will allow its characters to access this previously imagined “mirror world” where time reflects itself and go both forward and backwards. But since the concept of time inversion is not as simple as symmetry, the fabric of time may become damaged and the characters may need to correct what they have altered.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson Tenet car chase

(Image credit: (Warner Bros))

Tenet May Be About Accessing The Past To Change The Future

Let’s move science aside for our next couple theories. We know John David Washington’s character will sign on to some sort of mission to prevent World War III that is somehow “worse” than Armageddon. Time inversion looks to be the main asset among Washington’s disposal during the movie. It’s unclear how time inversion specifically works, but it looks as if objects and people can go in reverse motion in time. Based on a few moments in the trailer, Washington may have the ability to reverse time in small ways but the “Tenet” project wants to implement it in a higher-stakes way.

Think about Inception. Washington did call the two movies “in-laws.” Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb was already in the business of dreams but the project of the film was taking his work to the next level with a dream within a dream… within a dream. Tenet may borrow from this slightly, but by another name and concept. If Washington and Robert Pattinson are able to live on an opposite plane in time and go in reverse, they may be able to stop a specific event in the past from happening in order to prevent a terrible future. It was revealed that Kenneth Branagh’s Russian character can “communicate with the future” and he may know the moment in time that sets off a chain reaction leading to World War III. This could be the bombing in an opera house the trailer shows sequences from Tenet will try to fix.

John David Washington in mask in Tenet

(Image credit: (Warner Bros))

Tenet Could Be About Solving A Crime In Reverse

In the attempt to figure out time inversion, we had to peek at the conspiracy theory hub of the internet: Reddit. There’s a lot of round-the-clock ideas about the trailer being spilled there but this one is particularly interesting because it believes John David Washington’s initial mission will be successful in the first act of the film, but as a result he (and maybe Robert Pattinson) will unexpectedly find themselves continuously moving backwards through time. They will have to solve the mystery “in reverse order”. Now this theory might track because Christopher Nolan’s protagonists usually have their most pivotal moments in the remnants of the past. Oh, and he loves a good mystery.

Memento was about a man with short-term memory loss that uses his tattoos and polaroids to explain his past and Inception touches on a man trapping his past traumas (namely Marion Cotillard’s Mal) inside his dream world to move forward with his life (or was he still in the dream?). Anyway, Interstellar also turned out to be about the past when Cooper finds himself communicating with young Murph through a bookcase in a black hole. Maybe Tenet will be the ultimate exploration that chasing after the past cannot change the future as they get stuck further into the depths of time?

Tenet could go many different ways – that’s why it’s one of the highly-anticipated upcoming movies hitting theaters. The idea of time inversion has a lot going for it and now that we’ve delved into the concept a bit before the movie, we hope we’ll actually understand it. Christopher Nolan’s movie is expected to hit theaters on July 17. Check out what else is on the 2020 release schedule as we approach the summer season.

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

YA genre tribute. Horror May Queen. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.