Tenet Plot Explained
Warning: This article contains massive spoilers.
One big loop
The whole film is a big loop, starting on ‘the 14th’ at the Kiev Opera House and ending on that same day at the Soviet closed-city of Stalask-12 and coast of Vietnam. The story tracks four characters — Protagonist, Neil, Kat and Sator — traversing a month forward in time, then a month inverted.
During the forward journey, Sator and Tenet (Protagonist, Neil, Ives and team) compete to get their hands on an elusive case of plutonium-241. Protagonist thinks Sator wants it to start World War III. Sator actually wants it in order to fully assemble the Algorithm, a doomsday device with the power to reverse entropy on a global scale. Its activation would instantly destroy the world. The forward journey culminates in an Estonian highway heist, where Sator dupes the Protagonist into giving him the plutonium.
The second half of the film sees Tenet chase Sator through the inverted journey all the way back to the 14th, culminating in a final battle to stop him from activating the Algorithm.
Forward month: Sator’s forces assaults the Kiev Opera House on a day referred to as the 14th. The Protagonist foils his plans to acquire the case of plutonium, but he’s captured and injured during the operation — spending a couple of weeks recovering on a ship. On the same day as the Opera assault, a massive explosion occurs at the Soviet closed-city of Stalask-12. This is shown at the end of the film.
The Protagonist gets busy on around Week 3. He learns about inversion from Laura (a scientist), meets Neil (secretly a Tenet operative from the future), gains information from Priya (a Tenet operative masquerading as an arms-dealer), meets Kat (Sator’s wife), crashes a plane at Oslo Freeport (in order to gain Kat’s trust), and finally, secures a meeting with Sator.
Along the way, Protagonist learns that Sator has been hiding secret time-inversion machines called turnstiles at freeports around the world. At the Oslo turnstile, he fights a future version of himself. More on that later.
Highway heist: After gaining access to Sator, the Protagonist convinces him that he’s the man to retrieve the plutonium-241. Sator tells him to get it done while it’s in transit on a highway in Tallinn. The Protagonist tries to dupe Sator by stealing the plutonium for himself, but gets duped himself. Employing a clever temporal pincer attack on the highway, Sator secures the plutonium and immediately begins his journey back to the 14th, where, according to Kat, he plans to activate the now-fully-assembled Algorithm and end the world.
After this clever deceit by Sator on the highway, Neil reveals himself to be a Tenet operative all along, calling in ‘the cavalry’ — a formidable squad of Tenet foot soldiers well-versed in the art of inversion, headed by a field commander called Ives.
Inverted month: Sator travels back to the 14th and prepares to end his life on his yacht on the Vietnamese coast, which is the final point in time he and Kat were happy. Through the use of a deadman’s switch, his death will activate the assembled Algorithm at Stalask-12.
While Kat stalls for time, Tenet assaults the closed Soviet city in an epic 10-minute temporal pincer attack and retrieves the device.
Again, the film is one big loop, starting and ending on the 14th. Sator’s preference would have been to acquire the plutonium at the Opera that day, thereby completing the Algorithm. But that would make for a boring movie! Instead, Sator fails and is forced to take a two month-detour with Tenet trailing his ass, with events ultimately ending back on the 14th at Stalask-12, where this time around, he does have the Algorithm ready and is preparing to activate it.
Time inversion and turnstiles
Turnstiles are machines that allow one to invert their entropy and reverse the flow of time. You can’t have them teleport you instantly to a point in time, like time machines in most other sci-fi movies. Turnstiles can only reverse the flow of time. For example, if you want to go a month in time, you’ll have to re-live that month inverted. An hour is an hour — forward or inverted.
There are always two exits for a turnstile. The red side is associated with forward time; blue side with inverted. As part of the science of the film, both forward and inverted self should enter the machine simultaneously.
Within the film, we see many instances of inverted people along with inverted objects. For example, Laura and Priya informs the Protagonist early in the film that someone has been inverting bullets from the future. This was simply Sator who sent ammunition through his various turnstiles (mostly hidden at freeports around the world) for his inverted henchmen to use on temporal pincer missions.
There are four turnstiles seen in the film:
- Oslo Freeport. Protagonist and Neil discover this turnstile while stealing Arepo’s forged drawing for Kat. To complicate matters, they run into another version of the Protagonist decked in SWAT gear, who was making a pitstop back at Oslo after inverting himself in the future at Tallinn.
- Tallinn Freeport. Sator uses this turnstile to employ his temporal pincer on the highway in order to rob Protagonist of the final piece of the Algorithm. Ives and the Tenet team later capture the turnstile.
- Tenet freight ship. Tenet uses this turnstile to prepare for the temporal pincer assault on Stalask-12 close to the 14th.
- Stalask-12 hypocentre. Sator uses this turnstile to execute his own temporal pincer at the battle of Stalask-12. Neil makes uses this turnstile during the assault too.
Temporal pincers and posterity
Turnstiles and inversion are crucial for temporal pincer movements. These are operations where part of the team experiences an event inverted, allowing them to pass on their valuable experiences onto the forward team. It’s kind of like getting a future version of yourself to tell you when the stock market is going to crash, so you can avoid it.
Both Sator and Tenet employ temporal pincers. In fact, much of the film and its lore can be regarded as perennial battles between competing temporal pincers: those employed by a Sator desperate to assemble the Algorithm, versus those employed by a determined Tenet destined to stop him.
There are many temporal pincers shown and also implied in the film:
- Sator’s temporal pincer on the Tallinn highway to retrieve the plutonium.
- Tenet’s temporal pincer at Stalask-12 to retrieve the Algorithm.
- The entire two month loop as a temporal pincer by Tenet.
- The entire two months plus decades into the future as one huge pincer by future-Protagonist, founder and mastermind of the Tenet organisation. Think of this as the mother of all temporal pincers — the grand plan devised by Tenet’s head honcho.
Note how we have shorter temporal pincers inside longer ones. Sounds a bit like Inception!
Finally, the word posterity is mentioned by key characters several times throughout the film. This simply refers to the advantage or experience gained by someone through previous use of inversion. Neil (who is secretly from the future) uses the word on Protagonist, and the Protagonist himself uses it on Kat when she asks how he could possibly save her from yet-to-happen threats.
Future Protagonist’s grand plan
As we find out at the end of the film, future-Protagonist is the real mastermind behind Tenet and a master manipulator.
He sent his long-term friend and lieutenant Neil back to the present day to ensure the up-and-coming young-Protagonist gets recruited into the organisation and fulfil Tenet’s prophecy to stop Sator ending the world. That’s one long-ass temporal pincer. Neil plays a crucial role in all of this by saving the Protagonist’s life at three points in the film:
- at the Opera,
- at Oslo Freeport,
- and at Stalask-12.
In fact, he sacrifices himself in the hypocentre at the end — taking a bullet in the head for the Protagonist.
Future-Protagonist also cleverly manipulates Priya, who manipulates the young-Protagonist to help Sator acquire the final piece of the Algorithm on the highway. The (risky) strategy is that Tenet would let Sator find all the parts, before snatching it off him. Did I mention how risky this was?
Priya thought she was running the whole show, but — as we discover at the end of the film — both she and young-Protagonist were but just pawns in future-Protagonist’s chess board. The film ended with her termination at the hands of young-Protagonist… again, all part of future-Protagonist’s grand plan.
Origin of the Algorithm
Priya explained to Protagonist how a female scientist in the future — an ‘Oppenheimer of her time’ — built the Algorithm. Realising its destructive power, much like the American scientist did with the Manhattan Project, she stripped the device into 9 pieces and hid them in the past. She then killed herself.
However, the future was heading towards catastrophe due to irreversible climate change. Out of desperation, renegades in the future sought to re-assemble the Algorithm, reset the world and start again. To achieve this, they commandeered Sator to collect all 9 parts in the present, starting with being given the first part as a child in Stalask-12. Each part would come with funding in the form of gold bars which provided the incentive and means to seek out the next part, with the final part piece being the plutonium-241 we see in the Kiev Opera House. In this context, the film can be thought of as telling the story of the struggle for the final part of the Algorithm.
The future renegades believed that the only chance to undo their doomed future was by activating the Algorithm and wiping out their ancestors. Except — as Neil alludes in the freight back to Oslo — this act would cause an infinite chicken-and-egg dilemma known as the grandfather paradox. If our ancestors are killed by future assassins who travelled back in time, then who would be the ones that sent them back in the first place? It’s a paradox with no answer, as Neil explains. But this didn’t deter the renegades, who felt they had no choice but to fight catastrophe with an even bigger catastrophe. Their world was doomed anyway, so they may as well risk destroying it in order to save it.
At the end of the film, Ives gives Neil and Protagonist each three pieces of the Algorithm, tells them to hide it and then kill themselves. That way, the parts can be lost for good and never again be assembled by another Sator figure.
‘Can we change the future?’
The grandfather paradox ensures that all time loops created by inversion are set in stone. Therefore Sator will always assemble the Algorithm; Tenet will always retrieve it, and Neil will always die. Damn! This concept forms the philosophical basis behind all the times in the film when someone quips about free will, ‘what’s happened has happened’ or whether we ‘can we do things differently next time’.
Ultimately, the bad things that happened throughout the film were destined to happen, and they must continue to happen in order to stop Sator.
- What about free will? It’s an illusion.
- What’s happened has happened… so don’t bother trying to change it.
- Can we change the future? Not really. It’s been set. But it worked out!
- Can we do things differently next time? Not really. Whatever you tried, it was part of the plan to begin with.
Ives understood these concepts well. At Stalask-12, he’s informed by Blue Team that he and Protagonist will be the ‘splinter unit’ on Red Team who will infiltrate the tunnel into the hypocentre. He isn’t told what’s going to happen inside, and isn’t fazed by it either. What’s gonna happen will happen, and was destined to happen. As we later discover, what happens is Mr. Blue Team Neil takes a bullet while Mr. Red Team Neil ropes them out of there in the last moment. Epic!
Origin of the name Tenet
The more obvious interpretations have been:
- Tenet’s temporal pincer at Stalask-12, where Red and Blue Teams do a 10 minute countdown from opposing temporal sides.
- The film inverting the flow of time at the halfway mark after the highway heist. Here, the first and last T would represent the Opera, Stalask-12 and Vietnam, which all occur on the 14th, and N is the highway.
But the rabbit hole goes deeper than that. Check out the Sator square — an old Latin word square containing a five-word Latin palindrome. Reading across either rows or columns, we see:
- Arepo (the Goya forger)
- Rotas (who provides security at Oslo Freeport)
Nolan’s sound mixing
Nolan’s muffled sound mixing has received lots of criticism. This is a problem given that many would still find the film hard to understand had the dialogue been crystal clear.
Nevertheless, the film makes a lot more sense on a second viewing. You’ll notice many small bits of dialogue that will trigger your ‘holy cow’ senses. This is a film where almost every piece of dialogue matters — both muffled and not so muffled.
For instance, 98% of the audience missed Sir Michael Crosby’s smothered comment that the Opera siege occurred on the same day as the explosion at Stalask-12. Without comprehension and retention of this small piece of dialogue, you won’t know the film’s a loop.
On the mixing itself, please note that Nolan’s sound mixing is a creative choice. He’s done this for four films now. On Interstellar, Nolan remarked
“There are particular moments in [“Interstellar”] where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.”
Richard King — who has worked with Nolan for 7 films, including Tenet — said
“He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience.”
Nolan wants to make the audience work harder to understand the dialogue, believing that it will make the film feel more immersive.
Finally, the theatre you watch the film in also matters. Nolan remarked in a 2017 interview that his team decided
“a couple of films ago that [they] weren’t going to mix films for substandard theatres.”
Nolan has high expectations for both his audience and the theatre in which his films are seen by his audience. There is an element of pretentiousness, but those who cave in to his expectations are rewarded with an experience unlike other directors.