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New trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet tries to explain the movie’s wild concept

Forget time travel — it’s time for ‘inversion’

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Will Christopher Nolan’s reality-bending new thriller Tenet be the first film to welcome audiences back to movie theaters in the wake of coronavirus concerns? After widespread shelter-in-place orders forced Hollywood to rethink the summer movie calendar, only a handful of tentpole releases remained — including Nolan’s mysterious espionage film. It’s unclear whether states’ individual reopening plans would provide the safety and comfort necessary for a multiplex-fueled wide release, or if there are other staggered plans in store for Tenet. But a new trailer makes one thing clear: The new epic from Christopher Nolan is coming to theaters, societal changes be damned.

Currently, the film is scheduled for a July 17 debut. The mid-July release has been a sweet spot for Nolan. The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Dunkirk each opened between July 16 and July 21 in their respective summers, earning the director and Warner Bros. over $2.5 billion in combined grosses. Tenet, which stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh, remains on track to continue the trend.

Besides a cryptic, Bond-like teaser trailer, we know little about Tenet. This trailer changes that. Nolan draws a line in the sand between time travel and what he calls “inversion.” The whole thing is like Inception’s mind-bending times 100 — minus making much sense. The trailer holds back on spilling too many spoilers at the sacrifice of any full understanding of what Washington’s character is really dealing with.

Nolan wrote and directed the movie, again utilizing a mix of IMAX and 70mm film to shoot the film across seven countries. Warner Bros. describes the film as “an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage.” True to Nolan’s character, the film appears to play with time in some capacity. In a quarantine interview with GQ, Pattinson struggled to describe what moviegoers should expect. “Even if I had seen it, I genuinely don’t know if I’d be able to … I was just thinking, I just called up my assistant 20 minutes ago: ‘What the f*** do I say? I have no idea,’” the actor said.

On May 27, WarnerMedia will launch HBO Max, a new streaming platform for Warner Bros. Pictures back-catalog and future releases. Already, a few films planned for theatrical debuts, including Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle, have been bumped to the service. A high-profile re-release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League will arrive there in 2021. Streaming is an option for giant movies — but not Tenet. Nolan is a purist when it comes to the theatrical experience, and according to multiple reports, he’s working overtime to figure out a safe way for his film to play in theaters this summer.

“Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theaters,” IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said during an earnings call earlier this month. “ I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theaters reopened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.