Expect the Unexpected in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet
It’s looking increasingly possible that movie theaters will re-open—with new codes of conduct in place for dealing with the still-present coronavirus—in time for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet to hit its July 17 release date. A Nolan film is always an event, but a Nolan film serving as the first major blockbuster to screen since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered productions across the globe? That’s wild. And as we’ve written here before, the blessedly little we do know about Tenet has reinforced the notion that Nolan is going for something in the spirit of his 2010 sci-fi epic Inception, only even more ambitious. And in pure Nolan fashion, the man who burst onto the scene with his deliciously twisted mind-bender Memento has engineered his new film in such a way that even his own actors aren’t entirely sure how it will play out, and what their own roles will ultimately be.
If you’ve devoured all the trailers as we have, you’ve likely assumed that Kenneth Branagh is the film’s villain. He’s the one with the Russian accent being casually menacing to the film’s protagonist, John David Washington, who plays a member of an elite team that seems capable of literally inverting time in order to try and stop armageddon before it happens. In the latest trailer, Branagh’s character asks Washington’s how he imagined dying, and when Washington says “as an old man,” Branagh tells him he’s picked the wrong line of work. This conversation is intercut with scenes of extreme danger—a highway car chase that appears to be happening in reverse, for example. The implication seems to be that Branagh’s character is the one threatening to annihilate the world, and he’s the man that Washington’s The Protagonist (his name in the film) is trying to stop. But Branagh’s not so sure.
In an interview with Total Film (via SyFy Wire), the veteran actor and director says that Tenet will likely upend your expectations, as it did his. “Given the nature of it, as Chris to some extent sort of reinvents the wheel here, a lot of people start engaging with John David Washington’s character in both expected ways…so you might expect me to be an antagonist…but then [the story] doesn’t quite follow what you might expect as the story plays out.” Because Tenet posits a world in which the characters can potentially manipulate time, the characters themselves aren’t totally stable. Branagh continues: “In the playing of it, and in the scenes, he keeps upturning, or playing forward and backward, our expectations of what the character should be. So my conversations with [Nolan] about my character were constant because the character’s evolution was not set. It was a series of constant surprises.”
Yet Robert Pattinson told GQ that the film is not about time travel. So, yeah, everyone seems confused. Or they’re pretending to be confused to keep us on our toes.
Meanwhile, Branagh goes on to say that he read Nolan’s script for Tenet more than any other script he’s ever worked on—and that’s saying something considering he’s had a long and very busy career. “It was like doing the Times crossword puzzle every day,” he told Total Film, “Except the film and the screenplay didn’t expect you, or need you, to be an expert.”
It’s also worth remembering what John David Washington said in an interview on Twitch TV on the gaming platform Fortnite. He said that Tenet was far ahead of even Nolan’s past features: “We’re familiar with [Nolan’s] films, but this seems like something different,” Washington said. “It seems like this is where he’s about to take us for the next 10, 15 years of filmmaking.”
Nolan’s ambition has been evident from the start, but not even he could have predicted where his career would go, or that one of his time-and-mind bending epics might possibly be the film to welcome us back into the theater after our own epic, destabilizing drama. We can’t wait to see what he’s cooked up here, and then to confirm whether his stars are playing yet another part for him; confused participants dazzled by his narrative trickery.
Featured image: Caption: (L-r) JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON and ROBERT PATTINSON and in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “TENET,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon.