The Ending of 'Tenet' Explained

Christopher Nolan likes to ask the big questions. But when it comes to Tenet, he left us with a few as well... 

This article is a massive spoiler for Tenet so proceed at your own risk. But to understand the risk you're taking, you're going to need this article. I saw Tenet last week and while the set-piece and cinematography are fun, the story leaves you in the dark. A lot. 

Like there were a ton of times I was so lost I just had to power through into the next scene and hope I could fill in the blanks later. 

So, let's go through Tenet and try to answer those unexplained questions the best we can. 

Dissecting the plot of Tenet

Tenet is about a war with the future and the past. Basically we are trying to stop the present from being nuked from the futurebut it's not a real nuke. It's a series of 9 cubes that when put together will reverse the entropy of time. This weapon is called the algorithm.

I told you it was hard to follow! 

The person behind this madness is named Sator, he has cancer and is dying. He's so mad about dying while being a billionaire, that he is uniting these cubes that will end existence so the world can't go on without him. 

At the beginning of the movie, a guy we know only a Protagonist is recruited to figure out what Tenet is by the CIA. Protagonist meets Clémence Poésy's scientist, who informs him that at some point in the future, technology is invented that can reverse the entropy of people and objects.

That means it creates chaos in a system that usually flows one direction. 

The big worry is that if you have an inverted nuke, it would create endless chaos and destroy the world. 

But for the Protagonist to figure out who has the cubes, or will have the cubes, he has to follow some inverted bullets all over the globe. The Protagonist tracks these bullets to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and uses Sator's wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to initiate a meeting in order to find out who Sator is working with and why he wants to blow up the world. 

He's able to track down Sator via his wife, and some exploration all over the world. 

So, why would anyone in the future be cool with helping destroy the world? 

Well, in the future, everything is destroyed. There's un unknown agency working with Sator to kill everyone in the past because the people in the future believe that reversing the entropy of the Earth will prevent climate changeyeah I missed that in theaters. So, with no other choice for their survival, they're willing to destroy their ancestors and threaten their own existence with the grandfather paradox, to make sure they can make it out on the other side. 

Along the way, a guy named Neil (Robert Pattinson) joins in the Protagonist's efforts. He always seems to know what's coming next in this story, and we think he could be a double agent. In fact, there are times where out characters cross over timelines and Neil never mentions it to Protagonist. 

This all comes to a head in a firefight at the end of the movie. 

The Ending of Tenet Explained

So at the end of the movie, our Protagonist is going to storm this old place where Sator grew up and where he plans to execute the algorithm, thus bringing to fruition the end of the world. The forces of the present have been split into two teams, blue and red. 

The red soldiers are traveling forward through time. The blue soldiers are the exact same soldiers, who start their attack 10 minutes in the future but are traveling backward through time.

They are fighting a closed city where the Algorithm is stored. These two teams participate in the operation to stop the detonation. The plan is to set a timer, the red team detonates a bomb in the bottom half of the building at the 5-minute mark, while the blue team does the same in the top of the building by counting backward from 10 minutes to the same moment.

Once the bomb goes off it should stop the use of the algorithm. 

As they attack, we see Protagonist uses someone with a red string on their backpack as a human shield. After using that person he is able to steal the algorithm so it cannot be turned on to destroy the world. 

Later, we see that the red string on Neil's backpack, when he reveals that he was recruited by the Protagonist in the futureit turns out Protagonist is actually the head of Tenet. And will be the person who not only recruits Neil but also recruits himself on this mission. 

Neil is simultaneously the guy who dies in the final battle, alive in the present, and a guy who saves Protagonist in the past during the opera raid. 

There's even a theory that Neil is Kat's son, but from the future, time-traveling back to help. 

Either way, at the end of the movie, Neil, Protagonist, and Ives (a military guy played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) all take 3 cubes of the algorithm and agree to disappear and bury them. Protagonist then travels to London to save Kat from arms dealer Priya, who believes she must tie up loose ends since she was dealing with Sator.

Protagonist kills Priya, finally realizing he will go back in time and found the secret organization Tenet. Which is how this movie started. 

Okay...I'm still lost - Explain the Tenet meaning...

I know this was a lot, but it's what happened. I only saw the movie once, but if you read the wikipage, a lot of people agree with this basal summary. Supposedly Nolan took more than 5 years to write the screenplay after deliberating about Tenet's central ideas for over a decade. This is admirable as a storyteller. 

But the movie felt like it had a ton of scenes cut out. I wonder if the originally reported 3+ hour-long film has a lot more explanation. 

I think the Director's Cut of this movie could be really meditative, and I look forward to seeing it. Right now, it took me a few hours to piece together my thoughts. While needing to see it again, Tenet definitely lives up to the hype of being extremely dense and moving so fast that you feel like it can be hard to catch up. 

But maybe that's the point? 

Got your own Tenet theories? 

Let us know in the comments.      

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Your Comment


90% of this I figured out in the cinema or shortly after. But the film is still difficult to understand while watching it. The final battle, the objectives and especially the implementation by the red and blue teams cannot be grasped in real time, and the audience just keeps watching with no comprehension of what exactly is going on. Not sure if this is an editing problem, but you cannot expect people to pay money for watching such an indomprehensible (at times) mess. Maybe the fault of the studio, not the director.

September 22, 2020 at 2:33AM, Edited September 22, 2:36AM

Pavel Tsvetkov

The biggest problem of the story is that the turnstile not only inverts the persons and objects but also duplicates them. Because in the end, the question arises: Which woman picks up the boy at school? When the woman leaves the yacht with the dead body, where does she go to? Will she leave her son to her ego from the present of the past? Very unlikely, because it must have been the second, injured woman coming from the future who had the cell phone. But it can only be the woman from the timeline who came back to the yacht with her son. But if it's the woman from the future, what happened to her ego? The example shows that films with time travel never work.

September 22, 2020 at 3:01AM


I always rush to see a Nolan film but lately his plots have become too convoluted, unnecessarily. Should tell you something when a character is introduced randomly at the beginning of the film just to tell us to not try to understand it but to feel it. Come on now. Time travel brings on too many unanswered questions in every film about it, as in this and Interstellar for if you can time travel then why not keep traveling back to fix everything. Every film dealing with time travel makes up its own rules and hence devalues all credibility. Why not send people back before the villain was born and stop him from being born instead of having to crash a plane into a building to steal a painting to help a girl you are infatuated with to get information out of her husband at the last second but only to fail so that we can watch a unintelligible gun fight go to the last second to save the entire planet! Seems a stretch. And someone needs to tell Nolan that people wearing masks during action scenes with loud music are hard to understand (Bane, Dunkirk, Tenet)

September 22, 2020 at 6:28PM, Edited September 22, 6:28PM

Michal Pfeil

"The red soldiers are traveling forward through time. The blue soldiers are the exact same soldiers, who start their attack 10 minutes in the future but are traveling backward through time."

This is not correct. They were two different teams of people. One group was inverted, the other group not.

Red Team goes through the mission in the forward direction of time while Blue Team goes in the inverted order of time. The Blue Team’s mission starts like one hour later and the idea is that the Red team briefing, before they even leave the base, came from information gathered by the Blue Team's inverted experience.

That's how they knew where everything was, what the layout of Stalsk-12 was, etc.

August 7, 2021 at 11:19AM, Edited August 7, 11:21AM