Warner Bros.

The 'Tenet' plot is a mystery, even for those who've seen it

Whether Tenet is the best action thriller of all time or a massive disappointment, its legacy is pretty safely established as “that movie they tried to force out during a generational pandemic.” The marketing has revealed little beyond its stars, and the gist that it involves time manipulation, bounding really high up the side of buildings, and inverted highway chases. The plot of Tenet has been shrouded in typical Christopher Nolan mystery, and even critics who’ve seen the film are tying themselves in knots to make sense of it.

“We’re never meant to know exactly what is going on at any one moment, but we will be — we must be — entertained by the overwhelming nonsense of it all,” writes Barry Hertz for the Globe and Mail. “If a headache can ever be pleasurable, it’s when watching Tenet,” adds the site Flickering Myth.

The most amusing theory, by many orders of magnitude, is that Tenet is about John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s characters going back in time to prevent 9/11 from happening. This is grounded in a few plausible threads — the movie shares its name with then-CIA director George Tenet, Nolan’s purported interest in the surveillance state, and marketing that features an airplane crashing into an airport hangar, if not the World Trade Center. A review from The Guardian suggests that it may not literally be 9/11, but a global catastrophe nonetheless:

“Prevent world war three? Bigger. Avoid armageddon? Worse. To spell it out would be a spoiler, but think 9/11 times a hundred, to quote Team America: World Police, a film Tenet faintly resembles.”

You can sense almost every review juggling the obligation to not spoil anything and their own numbing confusion. Despite an increasingly spoilerphobic online community, it’s clear that Tenet’s staggered international release will almost certainly result in widespread piracy and plot developments leaking to territories where it hasn’t come out yet. This is already happening, with footage from its prologue attached to Inception’s 10-year anniversary re-release surfacing online last week. Warner’s already pulled all stops to implement anti-piracy practices in some territories, but the overwhelming demand and shotgun start will prove too difficult to tame.

Although it seems like wishful thinking or outright sociopathy, Tenet’s limited U.S. release is still scheduled for September 3. That almost definitely could be moved again, even if many indoor theaters stateside are back in business, but the secrecy won't be safe for much longer.