How 'Tenet' Uses Time Inversion To Touch The Future And Flip The Past

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

From Esquire

This article contains plot details for Tenet

Time is a recurrent theme in Christopher Nolan's films. In Inception, five hours of real time accounts for fifty hours in a dream world; in Dunkirk, the story is told through three different spans of time: a week on the beach, a day on the sea and an hour in the air; and in Memento, the viewer is repeatedly thrown ten minutes back in time to mimic the characters short-term memory loss.

The director says his latest mind-bending blockbuster, Tenet, is about "ideas of time and how we experience it", but again it is more than a metaphorical theme, with the concept of time inversion giving a physical framework for the film.

Time inversion is the temporal war at the heart of the film: a battle between the present and the future which The Protagonist (a brilliant, Bond-like John David Washington) joins a secret organisation, Tenet, to try and take down in order to "prevent World War III" from something worse than nuclear holocaust.

The group are discovering objects whose whose temporal physics have been reversed so they run backwards instead of forwards. These objects are being manufactured in the future and sent into the past; inverted weapons which come armed with the experience of the future and ability to unravel the past.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In Tenet we see time inversion as though we are watching the inverted objects on rewind while the rest of the scene plays in a linear motion. This means that boats appear to be sailing backwards, a car flipping is done in reverse and, as Washington's trainer Laura (Clémence Poésy) explains to him: “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.”

“Every law of physics is symmetrical—it can run forwards or backwards in time and be the same—except for entropy,” Nolan explains. “The theory being that if you could invert the flow of entropy for an object, you could reverse the flow of time for that object, so the story is grounded in credible physics. I did have (physicist) Kip Thorne read the script and he helped me out with some of the concepts, though we’re not going to make any case for this being scientifically accurate. But it is based roughly on actual science.”

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

This scientific basis is likely why Nolan has differentiated what goes on in the film from the idea of time travel, though we do see characters in the film inverted and appearing to jump backwards and forwards in the passage of time.

People become inverted by passing though large metal turnstiles which look like a giant revolving door, and which we see four of around the world all connected to one another. Once inverted, having passed backwards through time, characters must wear a face mask so their bodies can cope with time in reverse. In this palindromic world, as was first hinted by the film's title, everything plays in reverse, including all bodily reactions, meaning that when burning to death in a blazing car the body acts as though it is being frozen instead.

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In order to capture movements like a car driving backwards, Nolan used a variety of techniques were used in order to show time inversion on screen, including "cast and stunt performers being able to perform fight scenes and running and walking in different directions, to vehicles that would drive forwards or backwards in various configurations so that we could, shot to shot, completely change the technique we were using to create the particular visual."

If that sound unbearable mind-melting, fear not, Tenet is still enjoyable without understanding the complicated physics behind the story. As Poésy's character Laura says, "Don't try to understand it. Feel it"

'Tenet' is released 26 August

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