If you came out of Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender scratching your head and wondering what it all actually meant, don’t feel too ashamed. Reverse car chases, an extremely cliche Russian villain and duplicate characters can leave even the most attentive audiences baffled as to what they’ve just sat through. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have a slightly better understanding of what you’ve witnessed. Hopefully.
At the heart of Tenet is the concept of time inversion, so if we understand the concept, the film’s complex plot will be a lot easier to digest. A person in Tenet’s universe has the ability to invert themselves through a machine, also known as a Turnstile. As it’s explained to the Protagonist (John David Washington), “You are inverted, the world is not.” If someone is inverted, they’ll travel forwards in time whilst everything around them moves backwards. The Turnstile is essentially a gateway through time. If someone is inverted and they wanted to go back to normal, they would simply just have to step through the Turnstile again.
In a scene early in the film, a scientist named Laura (Clémence Poésy) explains to the nameless Protagonist that objects can be inverted too. She places two bullets on a table and explains that one of them is moving forwards in time whilst the other is moving backwards. If you wanted to “catch” the inverted bullet, you would have to hold your hand above it as if you had dropped it, since, from the bullet’s point of view, you’ve already dropped it. It’s the same as when the Protagonist “catches” the bullet with a gun. From his point of view, the bullet is reversing from the wall and into his gun whereas from the bullet’s point of view he’s firing it into the wall. How else could the bullet be in the wall in the first place? The Protagonist has already fired the bullet before he’s even entered the room, it just hasn’t happened yet.
THE ALGORITHM/MHTIROGLA EHT
It’s explained by Priya (Dimple Kapadia) to the Protagonist that far into the future, there is a scientist who has somehow developed a way to invert the world’s environment. In the future, the world has become irreparably damaged by Global Warming and so there are people in the future who want to use it to reverse the world to try and fix it, however by inverting the world, the past will be destroyed. Since the scientist anticipated war, she separated the technology capable of this (the Algorithm) into 9 pieces. She inverted these pieces and sent them back in time in an attempt to hide them before committing suicide due to the horror of what she had created.
Somewhere in the background, there is a Cold War being waged across time that the Protagonist has unknowingly stepped into. Sator (Kenneth Branagh) has been selected and tasked by these people in the future to gather the parts of the Algorithm and send it back to them so they can activate it. If Sator sends the Algorithm to the future, the past will be destroyed.
At the end of the film, Ives (Aaron Taylor Johnson) breaks the Algorithm apart into 3 smaller pieces. He keeps one to himself and chucks the other two pieces to the Protagonist and Neil (Robert Pattinson) and says that they must hide the pieces so that they can never be found. If the Algorithm can’t be found in the past, then it can’t be sent to the future meaning that the world is safe. Mission accomplished.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to go through the most important parts of the film’s plot, explaining how certain events in the future impact the past and vice versa.
OPERA HOUSE/ESUOH AREPO
Armed terrorists are sent by Sator to storm an Opera House and retrieve a piece of the Algorithm. They also don’t particularly respect classical music either. Unfortunately for him, there’s a CIA Operative only known to us as the Protagonist who is sent in under the watch of the Ukrainian special forces to extract an American VIP… oh and to retrieve the piece of the algorithm that Sator is looking for but we’re not supposed to know that yet. The Protagonist and his fellow CIA friends blend in with the police arriving on the scene and they storm the Opera House.
The Protagonist finds the VIP and asks him where the “package” is, which we all know now is a piece of the Algorithm. The Protagonist finds a member of the Ukrainian special forces planting a bomb along with the terrorists. The spec ops soldier discovers that the Protagonist’s badge is fake and interrogates him before being shot dead. The Protagonist tells his CIA friends to get the VIP to the safe zone whilst he goes to look for the package. After dodging some bullets and pulling off a flawless slide across the floor, he finds the VIP’s bag and retrieves a piece of the Algorithm.
The Protagonist joins his CIA buddies in a small room where he tells the VIP to swap clothes with one of his men as he no longer trusts the Ukrainians and their intentions with the VIP. The Protagonist grabs the now fake VIP and tasks himself with the mission of getting rid of the planted bombs. As he goes to remove a bomb, he is held at gunpoint by another member of the Ukrainian forces. The Protagonist notices a bullet hole in the floor that begins to reverse, with a bullet flying out through the soldier and into a mysterious masked figure’s gun.
This is Neil, the Protagonist’s best friend who he doesn’t know at this current point of time. Neil has inverted himself to infiltrate the Opera house and save the Protagonist’s life so the rest of the film’s events can happen, creating a perfect loop in time, but we’ll worry about that part later.
The Protagonist gathers all of the bombs and chucks them into a safe place before escaping with the fake VIP. When they enter the van, the Ukrainians notice that the VIP is not the one they are after and they take them both to a train yard where they are tortured. The Protagonist manages to eat what he believes to be a cyanide pill but as we soon learn, the pill is fake and acts as a test for a top-secret mission known by the code word, Tenet.
This secret mission and code word, as we learn by the end of the film, was organised by a future version of the Protagonist. The Protagonist in the future has set out everything for the current Protagonist to go through in order to keep the world safe. He’s basically working for himself, he just doesn’t know it yet.
MEETING NEIL/LIEN GNITEEM
Neil is one of the most fascinating characters in Tenet. From the moment he’s introduced, there are some major red flags that point to him being much more than who he says he is. Although the Protagonist is meeting Neil for the first time, Neil has known the Protagonist for years and he also knows everything that will happen, so he essentially acts as a guide for the Protagonist to do everything correctly.
When the Protagonist says that he prefers soda water, Neil says, “no you don’t”. Neil knows everything about the Protagonist even though this is technically the first time they’re meeting. When Neil is introduced his theme starts to play, but as you may notice, it sounds reversed at points, again foreshadowing the fact that he’s inverted himself to get where he is currently. Can I quickly mention the fact that Tenet has some incredible music?
At the end of the film, Neil reveals to the Protagonist that the whole operation was set up and planned by a future version of himself. The Protagonist has completed the mission organised by himself and by doing so he keeps the time loop secure. The final battle actually takes place a day before the Opera House Siege and if you want to get really complicated, the stone slab in the laboratory that the Protagonist is told to shoot at by the scientist was actually taken from the battlefield where the final battle took place since again, it happened the day before.
Unfortunately for Neil, at some point, he dies as we see at the end of the film. The fake cyanide pill is a test for people to see if they’re willing to die for the greater good so they can be initiated into the organisation known as Tenet. Because of this, every member is proven to be loyal to the cause including Neil, who decides to die in order to save the world by inverting himself and jumping in front of a bullet fired at the Protagonist. We see him run away after being shot dead but how exactly did he survive that? Well, he didn’t. From Neil’s perspective, this is his final moment but since he’s inverted, the Protagonist sees him from an un-inverted point of view, seeing Neil come back to life and escape. Neil accepts that this is his fate and if it means saving the world, he’s willing to die.
“What’s happened, happened. It’s just an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
It’s an extremely emotional moment for the Protagonist to learn that the person he has only known for 2 weeks has actually been his friend for years. As Neil explains to the Protagonist, “it’s years ago for me, years from now for you”. The potential of a sequel is there but it would be pointless since again, the film is a loop. Knowing what they get up to later doesn’t matter, since Tenet is a contained film that doesn’t need a sequel to add anything to it.
“For me, I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship. We get up to some stuff. You’re gonna love it, you’ll see…”
The Protagonist and Neil set up a heist to retrieve a forged drawing for Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) from a Freeport. They choose the easiest and most discreet option to steal the drawing by crashing a plane into a hanger as a distraction. After making their way through the locked doors and gas, it appears that they’re not alone. They find a room separated by a glass wall, with one side having a red door and the other having a blue door foreshadowing the fact that this room is used for inversion. They find a Turnstile which opens up to reveal a masked figure, who is inverted and who begins to attack the Protagonist.
This masked figure as we learn later on is a future version of the Protagonist who has inverted himself back to the Freeport to save Kat’s life as she was shot by an inverted bullet. It’s important to note that there are 3 versions of the Protagonist in this scene. We have our current Protagonist who doesn’t have a clue what’s happening, an inverted Protagonist who starts to fight himself and an un-inverted Protagonist who is chased by Neil. Neil catches up with him and removes his mask but stays away when he finds out that it’s the Protagonist. Whilst he wasn’t expecting this, he knows that the Protagonist is obviously there for a good reason and so he leaves him alone.
Meanwhile, we get an insanely choreographed fight between two Protagonists. It’s interesting that when we see the scene for the first time, it appears as if the masked figure is desperately trying to kill the Protagonist but when we see the scene again in reverse, it instead appears that the Protagonist is desperately trying to kill the masked figure.
Of course, we know that the inverted Protagonist has returned to the Freeport since he can use the Turnstile to un-invert himself, Neil and Kat, since if you remember the reason why they inverted themselves in the first place was to travel back in time so that they have time to operate on Kat and save her life since she was shot with an inverted bullet.
TRUCKS IN PLACE/ECALP NI SKCURT
The Protagonist and Neil put together a crew to steal another piece of the Algorithm to give to Sator. After successfully stealing the piece, the Protagonist jumps into the car with Neil and things start to get weird. Neil explains to the Protagonist that the voice on his radio is speaking in reverse but before he can finish explaining, an SUV begins to “reverse” towards them. The SUV passes them before violently shifting backwards and begins chasing them on the highway.
Within the SUV is an inverted Sator and his men with an un-inverted Kat. We know that Kat isn’t inverted due to her not wearing a mask since it’s explained that in Tenet’s universe, you must wear an oxygen mask if you invert yourself so that you can still breathe. Remember that everything around an inverted person becomes reversed including oxygen. This is a way for the audience to easily identify who is inverted.
Sator drives alongside the Protagonist and begins to count down, threatening to kill Kat if the Protagonist doesn’t give him the piece of the Algorithm. Neil tries to persuade him not to give it away due to how dangerous it seems. There is a silver car that has crashed but when they get closer, it begins to reverse and starts driving backwards with them. The Protagonist is clearly shocked, not because he’s seen the car reverse but because he has seen himself driving that car. Since he’s seen a duplicate version of himself, he decides to throw the package over to Sator since he knows in the near future he’ll return in the silver car to reverse the event so that Sator doesn’t get the package. Sator and his men ditch the car leaving Kat inside leaving the Protagonist to save her from a fatal crash.
Shortly after saving Kat, the Protagonist is kidnapped and taken to a warehouse that has a Turnstile inside of it. The warehouse is split into two rooms, with one side being blue and the other being red. An inverted Sator appears, who threatens to shoot Kat if the Protagonist doesn’t reveal where he hid the package. Since Sator is inverted, he speaks in reverse and the audio is reversed for the Protagonist to understand him. As it turns out, the Protagonist gave Sator an empty package chucking the piece of the Algorithm into the silver car. Remember that the Protagonist saw his future self driving the silver car, so he knew to give himself the object in order to get it back later on.
Sator shoots Kat with an inverted bullet as the Protagonist lies to him and says that he left it in the BMW. An uninverted Sator appears and attacks the Protagonist. Since this is the current version of Sator, he knows that the Protagonist lied to him about where he left the package. Before he can interrogate him further, the room is breached by a special ops unit that forces Sator to retreat into the Turnstile. This unit is led by Ives, who is revealed to be under the employment of Priya.
The Protagonist asks Neil how he knows so much and as we learn by the end of the film, Neil has already seen these events happen before and so he knows exactly what to do. The Protagonist enters the Turnstile with Neil and an injured Kat in the hopes that they can invert far enough into the past to have enough time to treat Kat’s injury before it becomes inoperable. Remember that the Protagonist has made it his top priority to make sure Kat is reunited with her son which is why he does this.
REVERSE CAR CHASE/ESAHC RAC ESREVER
The Protagonist, now inverted, returns to the scene where the car chase took place. He finds where the package has been dumped and waits for it to reverse back into Sator’s hands. When the car chase begins to reverse, he drives after them and manages to catch up. An inverted Sator is clearly surprised to see an inverted Protagonist driving after them as he throws the package back to the un-inverted Protagonist. The piece of the algorithm that he chucked into the silver car flies back towards him. He has successfully reversed the event where Sator has now lost the package.
Without making it too complicated, remember that an inverted person will see everything around them in reverse. Since both Sator and the Protagonist are inverted, everything around them is moving backwards. This is why Sator is shocked to see the Protagonist again as there are 2 versions of him existing in this scene. He wasn’t expecting to see an inverted Protagonist since now he realises that he’s just lost the package. Both versions of Sator, the one in the past and the one in the near future, cannot find the Algorithm and so he loses no matter if he is inverted or not. Again, this is all part of the plan for Neil and the future Protagonist who organised everything, since they know everything that has happened and they know how to stay ahead of Sator.
SATOR’S PLAN/NALP S’ROTAS
We find the Protagonist later in the film on a boat that is moving in reverse. The Protagonist, along with Neil and Kat, is inverted in order to travel back in time to where this whole thing started in Siberia. It is important to note that an inverted Sator is also somewhere travelling back in time as well. Neil mentions that the watch that Sator wears is a “dead man’s switch” that will detect if his heart rate stops. If this happens, a GPS location of the Algorithm will become visible for future armies to find and of course, if they find it, the world will end.
Kat explains that the inverted version of Sator will travel back 10 days into the past from where they are now to his “loving” vacation in Vietnam with Kat and his son where he plans to kill himself once his plan is complete. Since he has inoperable pancreatic cancer, he doesn’t mind destroying the world since he’s going to inevitably die anyway. What a selfish asshole am I right? It’s also important to note that his vacation in Vietnam is on the same day as the “final” battle and a day before he sends his men to attack the Opera House at the beginning of the film. We have travelled back a day before the film even began. Sator’s plan is to bury the Algorithm in a “hypocenter” in Siberia, and so the final battle is to stop them from detonating a bomb that will bury the Algorithm to be found by armies in the future. Again, if the people in the future find the Algorithm, the past will be destroyed.
TEMPORAL PINCER/RECNIP LAROPMET
Now for the super complicated part. Half of Ives’ army invert themselves using Priya’s inversion machines (Turnstiles) on the ship. The Protagonist says goodbye to Kat, leaving her with a phone telling her to call it with a time and location if she ever feels unsafe. When Kat asks him who answers the call, the Protagonist replies with “Posterity”. Posterity is a fancy word for “future generations” and so the Protagonist reveals that Kat will be able to make a call to a future version of the Protagonist. If you were wondering why at the end of the film the Protagonist randomly shows up to kill Priya, it’s because he was alerted by Kat of the time and place and inverted himself to travel back to where she is.
Ives’s army is split into two groups, Blue team and Red team. As he explains, both teams will carry out a massive “temporal pincer”, where the Red team will attack first which includes himself and the Protagonist. The Blue team, which includes Neil, will begin the attack an hour after the Red team and will be briefed with the knowledge of what the Red team has already done and vice versa. Both teams will always be briefed on what the opposite team has done.
Both teams act simultaneously with the Blue team being inverted and Red team not, both battling against Sator’s men in the abandoned city. They use stopwatches that count down from 10 minutes and as it’s explained if they’re not ready for extraction when the timer ends they will be left behind. At 5 minutes, blue team and red team will use rocket launchers to create the distraction of a dual explosion, giving Ives and the Protagonist a window to slip into the hypocenter unnoticed. When they enter the hypocenter, they find a blue-team soldier laying dead (Neil) behind the gate leading towards the bomb where they find one of Sator’s men is preparing to drop the Algorithm along with the bomb.
SATOR’S DEATH/HTAED S’ROTAS
Whilst the battle is taking place, Kat is being transported by Mahir (Himesh Patel) to Sator’s yacht in Vietnam which holds the version of Sator that has travelled back from the future. Kat pretends to be her past self so that Sator doesn’t know that she is also from the future. Sator talks to the Protagonist (who is now in the hypocenter) via radio, explaining that his only sin was bringing a child into a world that he believes to be hopeless. After his very dramatic monologue, Kat decides to shoot Sator prematurely with a silenced gun. It’s important to note that Kat wasn’t supposed to kill Sator until the Protagonist had secured the bomb but due to her hate towards him and the years of abuse she had sustained, she kills him earlier than planned.
NEIL’S DEATH/HTAED S’LIEN
Luckily, an inverted Blue-team soldier manages to jump in front of a bullet shot by one of Sator’s men. It’s revealed that this soldier is wearing a backpack with a red string attached. As I briefly explained earlier, this is Neil and the red string is shown three times throughout the film. It’s shown at the beginning in the Opera House revealing that Neil was the one to save the Protagonist, on the dead body in the hypocenter and at the end when Neil walks off.
Because Neil is inverted, the Protagonist sees him come back to life to unlock the gate (he’s the best at lockpicking apparently) before running away, giving the Protagonist the chance to stop one of Sator’s men from dropping the Algorithm.
Whilst all this is happening, Neil who is above the hypocenter sees a soldier plant a tripwire in a door that leads to the Algorithm in reverse. He separates himself from Blue team and un-inverts himself by sneaking into a large Turnstile in the city. He drives a Humvee to where Ives and the Protagonist are underground to haul them out with a hook along with the Algorithm. Luckily, Kat’s premature murder of Sator was safe and the bomb explodes safely.
An interesting detail is that when Neil first lands on the battlefield, he is nearly run over by an inverted Humvee moving backwards. This is, of course, an inverted future version of Neil who is driving forwards to save the Protagonist.
As mentioned before, Ives informs the Protagonist and Neil that they should hide the Algorithm. Neil reveals to the Protagonist that they’ve known each other for years and that he has a pretty busy future ahead of him. The Protagonist will enter Neil’s relative past, starting Tenet by himself and recruiting Neil. Again, for Neil, it is the end as we know he will die soon but for the Protagonist, it is just the beginning. Everything that we have witnessed in the film will happen over and over in an endless loop to keep the world safe.
In London, Kat is waiting outside a school to pick up her son. She spots a suspicious vehicle which prompts her to call “Posterity” revealing where she is and the current time. The Protagonist inverts himself off-screen to intercept Priya who has come to assassinate Kat as she knows too much. It is revealed that the Protagonist also hired Priya in the future as part of “Tenet”. Priya accepts her fate and the Protagonist shoots her dead. “Mission accomplished”. We leave the Protagonist knowing exactly what he will do in the future and how it will impact the past, showing Kat and her son walking peacefully down the street, reunited and no longer under the control and abuse of Sator. They are finally free.
“It’s the bomb that didn’t go off, the danger that no one knew was real. That’s the bomb with the real power to change the world…”