We take you through the Tenet plot synopsis and explanation.
Christopher Nolan loves to make movies that create a greater discussion around them. We've talked about whether the spinning top falls at the ending of Inception, and I think I've dived into his Dark Knight trilogy so many times that I'm an honorary Gotham citizen. With his latest movie, Nolan has managed to create a world that flows through time.
We see things happen backward, forward, and somewhere in between.
At the center of Tenet, we are forced to ask a lot of questions. What does Tenet mean? What is Tenet about? What really happened at the end of Tenet?
Today, I wanted to use this post to tackle these and more questions. So much happens in this story and so much needs to be taken piece by piece. We'll get to the bottom of it all and make sure you leave here with enough information to form an opinion.
What Is Tenet About? Plot Synopsis and Explanation
Tenet is a movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Let's get into the macro and then whittle it all down.
Earlier in the year, Nolan told Entertainment Weekly, “We’re jumping off from the point of view of an espionage film, but we’re going to a number of different places.”
At the time, that was vague but exciting news.
He continued, “We’re crossing a few different genres in a hopefully exciting and fresh way. [Producer] Emma [Thomas] and I have put together a lot of large-scale productions, but this is certainly the biggest in terms of international reach. We shot in seven countries, all over the place, with a massive cast and huge set pieces. There’s no question, it’s the most ambitious film we’ve made.”
Let's dive into that ambitious endeavor.
What Does Tenet Mean?
The dictionary definition of the word "tenet" is "a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true."
For the movie, it's a word that's the same backward and forward, or a palindrome.
"Tenet" is the name of the organization that the Protagonist created to keep the world’s timeline flowing in the right direction. It also refers to the interlocking hand gesture that indicates the flowing of time backward and forward.
What Is Tenet About?
The logline for the movie is "Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time."
That's a little vague, so let's try to be more specific.
The Tenet Premise
This is a science fiction-action-thriller film starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh, among others. It's the story of a secret agent who learns to manipulate the flow of time to prevent an attack from the future that threatens to annihilate the present.
It's been said that Nolan took more than five years to write the screenplay. He was supposedly ruminating on Tenet's central ideas for over a decade.
The Tenet Movie Plot Synopsis
What is the plot of Tenet? The opening of the film takes place during an orchestra concert in Kyiv. The concert hall is attacked, and we follow an unnamed CIA agent as he goes undercover to retrieve a colleague and a strange artifact.
The only name we have for this character is the Protagonist. He fails his mission and is captured and tortured. To protect himself and his allies, he takes a cyanide pill. As it turns out, the pill is fake, and this is an invitation to join a new intelligence agency. He passed, and now is part of a top-secret assignment known as Tenet.
The Protagonist's mission is to find out more.
This brings him to a secret facility where he has to learn inversion.
What's Inversion in Tenet?
When you are inverted, you move backward in time, though from your perception, you are moving as normal. To explain this, we can use cause and effect.
In our reality, the cause is followed by effect. but in an inverted reality, it’s reversed. We see the effect, but the cause hasn’t happened yet. The movie shows this with bullets in a wall being caught by the gun that is going to fire them.
But catching a reverse bullet only happens because you willed it.
Okay, back to the story.
The Protagonist uses this information to track down an arms dealer, Priya Singh, in Mumbai. He discovers she is a member of Tenet, and she reveals that the guy who has been purchasing her future tech is a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh).
We learn Sator 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. He's making an inverted nuke to destroy all of existence.
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 Sator and uses Sator's wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to initiate a meeting 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 an 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 change—yeah, I missed that in theaters too.
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 our characters cross over timelines, and Neil never mentions it to Protagonist.
Through all this, they run into some "Temporal Pincer" moments they have to adjust to.
What Are "Temporal Pincer" Moments in the Tenet Story?
This is where Tenet really starts to get confusing. A temporal pincer movement is a military engagement where you attack an enemy from two sides at once. Since it's temporal, you are attacking from two periods of time at once.
The temporal pincer movements in the movie all happen as the Protagonist tries to find the final piece of the Algorithm. We have a car chase, a turnstile, the attack at the concert from the opening scene.
This all comes to a head in a firefight at the end of the movie.
The Tenet Ending 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 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 five-minute mark, while the blue team does the same at 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 the Protagonist use 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 future—it turns out the 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 the 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, the Protagonist, and Ives (a military leader played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) all take three cubes of the algorithm and agree to disappear and bury them. The 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.
The Protagonist kills Priya, finally realizing he will go back in time and found the secret organizationTenet. Which is how this movie started.
The Tenet Story
Okay, not that you have had the Tenet plot explained, I'll try to explain the Tenet movie and themes overall. At the heart of this story, we see the Protagonist trying to find his place in this world. He's unsure of his purpose and where he's going. We also see a woman stuck in a terrible marriage, united only by her love of her son.
I think the story of Tenet is a condemnation of us trying to control the finer points of our lives. It's about making close allies and also probably an homage to Nolan's love of James Bond movies.
Understanding Tenet is something we'll try to do for a long time. We haven't heard much definitely from Nolan about the movie, but I am hoping we do soon. There's lots of room for ideas and theories.
If you have opinions, I want to hear them in the comments. Lots to talk about in this one!