‘Tenet': What Exactly Is This Time Inversion Thing?

We got a new trailer for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” but it feels like we have even less clarity about its plot now

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That’s what one of the characters from “Tenet” said at the end of the film’s first trailer back in December. For now, that’s probably good advice if you don’t wanna lose your mind trying to figure out what’s going on in the new trailer that we got for the Christopher Nolan film on Thursday. But I do think we can make some educated guesses about what it’s doing. Though said guesses might be very, very wrong. Just something to remember as we try to dive in.

This new trailer does give us some new info, with folks saying things like “time travel” and “reversing the flow of time.” We got the news that Kenneth Branagh’s character can “communicate with the future.” And John David Washington’s character uses the word “inversion” to describe the time shenanigans that we see throughout the trailer.

We also got the same basic plot information that we got in the last trailer. The good guys are trying to prevent World War III, which will allegedly be worse than Armageddon. But that’s pretty much it. This trailer did nothing to really clear up what’s going on in “Tenet.” And really, by talking about time travel stuff but not giving any real details about it, in a way it’s less clear what’s going on.

But we can take a shot at it. But first, a disclaimer. When it comes to time travel stories, it doesn’t matter how you or I would think it works. It just matters that it makes sense and is consistent within the universe of the story. So I’m considering that while I try to learn something from the “Tenet” trailer.

So in a typical time travel story, the time travel will be in full. As in, the characters physically travel to a different time — like in the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” — or mentally travel — like Wolverine’s present mind traveling back to his past self in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Reality is always moving forward but individuals can go back and forth, basically.

But “Tenet” doesn’t appear to be doing either of those things. Instead, the time travel seems to be localized, and reality is not always moving forward in time.

For example, we see John David Washington (we don’t know any of these character names yet) lying on the ground at the foot of a building, and then he basically falls in reverse up to the top. Or, as we saw in the first trailer, a car crashes and then uncrashes while characters in normal time watch. Or Washington pulling the trigger on his gun and the bullet returning to the gun.

Or, in perhaps the biggest mindbender in the trailer, Washington and Robert Pattinson surveying a glass window full of bullet holes and impact marks, even though the fight that caused that damage hasn’t happened yet.

There’s no easy way to come up with an explanation that would explain all three of those things. We could say that the glass with the bullet holes in it is an object that is traveling through time in reverse, but that sort of logic doesn’t help when we try to figure out how Washington fell up the side of the building without also falling down.

So either “Tenet” is doing something that we cannot understand until we actually watch the movie, or it’s doing something that’s outside the realm of causality. In causal time travel, you can map out the sequence of events in linear order. You know what happened and why. Cause and effect still applies.

Unfortunately, if Christopher Nolan is drawing outside the lines of cause-and-effect relationships with “Tenet,” then it becomes really difficult to speculate about how this time travel works based on these snippets. And with the time reversal appearing to be localized to specific objects or people, it becomes almost impossible. The scope of the concept of acausality is too broad.

But I think the big clue isn’t any of the weird time stuff we see or any of the comments about time travel. Rather, the illuminating bit is that idea that whatever Washington and co. are trying to stop is worse than Armageddon.

There’s a video game that came out a few years back called “Quantum Break.” In this story, a guy invents time travel and in the process he kind of “breaks” time. People experience paradoxical time loops akin to the Grandfather Paradox — for example, the guy who invented time travel goes back in time and invests in his own efforts to invent time travel. And all these time shenanigans start to break down reality.

I think, based on what little information we have to go on, “Tenet” is doing something similar. What’s worse than Armageddon? Well, some kind of time apocalypse brought on by bad guys messing with time could fit that description.

But that’s just a guess, and the gaps in our knowledge about the plot of the film certainly allows for many other possible explanations. But for now, that’s my official guess. We’ll all find out together when “Tenet” hits theaters on July 17 or some later date, pending the pandemic.

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