Skip to main content

Tenet: release date, trailer, cast, theories and what we know about Christopher Nolan's movie

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Tenet, the new movie from Christopher Nolan, the director behind Inception, Dunkirk, and Interstellar, is tipped as the saviour of post-coronavirus cinema, but it's been delayed multiple times as the situation developed. Still, right now, the plan is to release the film in late August internationally, with select cities in the US getting to see Tenet in early September. 

And while Tenet story details remain quite literally under lock and key – Robert Pattinson was only allowed to read the script in a locked room – we know that the story involves the Protagonist, a secret agent fighting to prevent something worse than Armageddon with one word: 'Tenet'.

That's about all we know about the time-bending narrative, but there's plenty of speculation for us to dig into. We also know a lot about the behind-the-scenes of the movie. Tenet will represent Nolan's third collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema after Interstellar and Dunkirk. Nolan's frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, however, won't be scoring the movie, since he was busy providing music for the new Dune film. Ludwig Göransson, behind The Mandalorian's memorable soundtrack, has created Tenet's music. 

Below, we've rounded up everything we know we about Tenet, including its release date, trailers, stills, the film's synopsis and what we learned about the film from its IMAX prologue released late last year.

Tenet release date: it's complicated

The Tenet release date is August 26, which is when the film will open in over 70 countries including the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Spain and Japan, while 'select cities' in the US can see the film starting on September 3. This information has been communicated to press, although Warner Bros' official site currently says the movie is coming out on August 12, which is an old release date.

The Tenet release date has moved multiple times now, with a release date originally set for July 17, then July 31, then August 12. Then it was taken off the schedules altogether, before getting its current date.

Publicity for the film is starting to ramp up – in the UK we've seen ads popping up on Instagram for the movie. 

Expect an unusual, staggered release to play out. In a statement following the second delay, Warner Bros. explained that it's "committed to bringing Tenet to audiences in theaters, on the big screen, when exhibitors are ready and public health officials say it’s time." Instead, Tenet will "play longer, over an extended play period far beyond the norm."

Don't expect a home-streaming release, then – this is a theater-only experience. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Nolan stressed the importance of the return of cinema. "When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever," he wrote. "We don’t just owe it to the 150,000 workers of this great American industry to include them in those we help, we owe it to ourselves. We need what movies can offer us."

Tenet trailers: see them here

The first Tenet trailer doesn't reveal much of the story besides the fact that, after an apparent death, John David Washington's character awakes in the "afterlife" to "prevent World War 3" and "something worse" than a nuclear holocaust. 

And While Robert Pattinson confirmed to GQ that there's no time travel in the film, we do see some time-bending in action as car crashes and boat sailing happen in reverse. When studying a bullet-ridden wall, Washington's Protagonist claims the shooting "hasn't happened yet."

The second trailer clarifies the film's 'time travel' as "inversion", which means to put something upside down or in an opposite order, position or arrangement. Some have theorized that, like the title, the film is a palindrome – the same forwards as it is backwards – which may explain the action we've seen seemingly happening in reverse.

Tenet story and theories: what we know so far

Beyond what we can gather from the two trailers, we don't know much about the Tenet story: Robert Pattinson told USA Today: "I got locked in a room to read the script – I don't have it myself." 

However, the film's synopsis reads: “Armed with only one word – Tenet – and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time."

"Not time travel. Inversion."

As mentioned, he trailer explained that the Protagonist is tasked with preventing World War 3, and something worse than Armageddon. 

Some kind of time-bending element appears to be part of the story, even if it's not strictly time travel – the name Tenet is a palindrome. 'Inversion' suggests an unusual relationship to time. As mentioned, the trailer shows a sequence where fired bullets appear in shattered glass, which the Protagonist notes is an event that hasn't actually happened yet. We then see the bullets fired into the glass, as the Protagonist wrestles with some guards. The Protagonist, then, appears to have knowledge of the strange nature of time in his reality.

"This reversing the flow of time – doesn't us being here now mean it never happened?"

Like Inception, you can expect whatever this idea is to be core to the movie – and hopefully, like Inception, it'll be elegantly explained enough for the audience to follow. Nolan told Total Film that "the film addresses ideas to do with time, although it is not a time-travel movie per se...".

Tenet is to the spy genre what Inception was to heist movies, according to Nolan.

"It's a film of great ambition and great scale that takes a genre, namely the spy film, and tries to take it into some new territory, and tries to take the audience on a ride they might not have had before, and might not be expecting," Nolan told Total Film. "But it uses the conceits of the genre to do that – not unlike the way with Inception we took the conventions of the heist genre, and used the audience's familiarity with that to try to go into some more unusual, surprising areas."

The comparisons to Inception stop there, though, apparently. Expect a very different final product. 

Little is known beyond this, but Nolan has discussed several set pieces in the movie with Total Film, too. A real 747 jet was 'crashed' into the side of a hangar for a set piece, for example, in a scene set in Oslo. This scene is set early in the movie, but no other context was provided for it. 

Tenet prologue and fan theories

A Tenet prologue played before IMAX showings of The Rise of Skywalker in late 2019. We've not seen it, but numerous online accounts (including Birth Movies Death) say it showed an armed raid on a live performance by a symphonic orchestra in Eastern Europe, with Washington's The Protagonist part of a SWAT-style strike team entering the venue to stop the hostage takers. He heads into a private space of the concert hall, takes out a guard, and says to a seemingly important man: "We live in a twilight world."

The man answers: "And there are no friends at dusk." The Protagonist tells the man he's been made, and that the siege is part of a plan to "vanish" him. He tells the man he can either bring him in or kill him – and to make up his mind. 

The Protagonist smashes the glass of the venue's private room, and enters the main hall. The SWAT-style group enters and opens fire on those behind the siege. One of the SWAT guys notices The Protagonist isn't part of their group, and a fight breaks out. After being saved by one of his allies, The Protagonist plants a bomb.

At one point, the ground shakes and time appears to move strangely. The Protagonist liberates his target, just as the venue is destroyed. 

Much like the prologue of The Dark Knight Rises, though, which similarly played on IMAX screens before release, it's hard to figure out much of the story based on this. Think about the first scene of Inception, too: you have no idea why Cobb, the main character, washes up on a shore to talk to an elderly Saito. By the end of the film, you know what that scene means. This will surely be the same deal. 

Fan theories for Tenet point to a lot of wild stuff. An interesting suggestion is that halfway through the movie, the Protagonist will die and the events of the film will play out again in a different fashion, hence discussion of the afterlife in the trailer. 

Another theory suggests a portal exists between two timelines in the film – and that the shots of Washington in breathing apparatus are a reference to the Maxwell's demon thought experiment. 

Our advice? Don't hurt your brain trying to figure it out, and watch the film when you feel comfortable doing so. Nolan is bound to keep the true secrets of the film hidden from publicity materials. 

Tenet cast: most roles are still unknown

tenet trailer

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Beyond the role of Washington as The Protagonist, the remaining characters remain shrouded in mystery. That said, the two Tenet trailers confirm the following cast members:

  • John David Washington
  • Robert Pattinson
  • Kenneth Branagh
  • Elizabeth Debicki
  • Michael Caine
  • Clémence Poésy
  • Himesh Patel
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson
  • Andrew Howard
  • Martin Donovan
  • Dimple Kapadia
  • Wes Chatham
  • Fiona Dourif

The first trailer suggests Branagh's Russian agent "who communes with the future" is an antagonist, but he suggested to Total Film that it might be more nuanced than that. "Chris to some extent reinvents the wheel here," he said. "So you might expect me to be an antagonist, but then [the story] doesn't quite follow what you might expect."

Stills of Tenet don't give much away, but they make the film look pretty. Check them all out below:

Image 1 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 2 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 3 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 4 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 5 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 6 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 7 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )
Image 8 of 8

(Image credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )

Will Tenet save cinema?

tenet cast

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

With theaters slowly opening their doors in some countries amid the threat of the virus, plenty remains uncertain. While the appetite for cinema endures – more than a million tickets were sold in the first nine days in France and UK cinemas planning to open on July 4 sold out some showings – the situation has changed a lot over the past few months.

Warner Bros.' plan to show the film over a longer period makes sense, though. There's no denying that Christopher Nolan's movies get people excited about going to the cinema – and you don't have long to wait to see Tenet. 

Harry Shepherd

Harry Shepherd is a Guides Editor for PC Gamer at Future. He is a writer and editor with more than two years experience specialising in SEO and guides.