How is Tenet connected to Inception?

Fans have long wondered if there’s a link between Christopher Nolan’s twistiest films.

Inception Tenet

“Wake up the Americans.” With the very first line of Tenet, Christopher Nolan could almost be dropping a wink to fans of his earlier, dream-heisting movie Inception.

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But is Tenet a secret sequel to Inception? Or is there otherwise some connection between the two Nolan films? For a long time fans have been pondering the possibilities, fuelled by a comment from Tenet star John David Washington that seemed to suggest the films were linked.

“I’d say [Tenet] is an in-law to Inception,” he told Esquire in May. “They’re related by marriage. They get together for Thanksgivings, family barbecues, like that kind of thing. Other than that, one lives in Europe, the other one lives in Compton.”

Fans subsequently theorised that the characters in Tenet could be using similar technology to the dream-travellers of Inception, wondered whether Michael Caine (the only actor in both movies) could be playing a crossover character, and even suggested that the film’s release had been carefully timed to tie in with Inception’s 10th anniversary – but were any of them right?

Well, no – not exactly. Any fans watching Tenet for clever Inception Easter Eggs or a crossover character will leave disappointed, as there aren’t any. The story of Tenet is completely distinct from that of Inception, with characters using entirely different technology to achieve their goals with a completely different, time-inverting effect. (What is time inversion? Our explainer’s got you covered.)

However, there is something of a connection between the two films that may explain Washington’s earlier comments, with Christopher Nolan revealing one crucial way that the films are related in his eyes.

Noting that Tenet was inspired by his love of spy movies, he said: “I didn’t want to do this type of film unless I felt I could bring something fresh to it.

“The story takes on ideas of time and how we experience it – interacting a science fiction component with the classic elements of the spy genre.

“The simplest way to explain our approach is to say what we did with Inception for the heist genre is what Tenet attempts to bring to the spy movie genre.”

In other words, Inception and Tenet are similar because of the sort of film they are – using a grand, Nolan-esque scale and a killer sci-fi idea to jazz up familiar tropes – rather than because of any particular story or character beats. Related, but not in a relationship with each other. Maybe more second cousins than in-laws.

In short, no, Tenet doesn’t reveal itself to have a secret connection to Inception. Though who knows? With nothing beyond Caine’s double appearance ruling it out, who’s to say both films can’t exist inside the same universe?

In our minds, we like to imagine Washington’s Protagonist inverting time and saving the world just around the corner from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, about to jump into the dreams of another A-List actor, both unaware of the parallel secret societies of sci-fi technology around them. The Nolan Cinematic Universe (NCU) starts here…

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Tenet is in UK cinemas now. Want something to watch on the smaller screen? Check out our full TV Guide