What’s new, readers? Let’s dive straight into the breakdown of Tenet, the 2020 espionage thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan. I’m going to dissect the inverted intricacies to the best of my abilities, with any discrepancies and omissions being my fault. The first topic to cover before anything else is the “science” of time inversion. This is a non-chronological narrative that subverts our conventional expectations of time travel, a procedure we often imagine as one that allows us to send ourselves directly from one point in time to another in the past or the future. In Tenet, it can be achieved in a way, but only for the past, and the characters still need to deal with the flow of time moving no faster or slower than usual as the world reverses around them. That’s why they sit back inside the shipping containers—which are lined with plastic to keep in the inverted air—during the weeks they have to spend waiting to be inverted back to the freeport heist at Oslo Airport and then Kat and Sator’s vacation in Vietnam. This new riff on time travel reminds me of a sci-fi novel I reviewed on my blog, All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai. The third act sees the main character undergoing a similar process of progressing backwards through time, though the story frames it in a far more harrowing light. If you’re in the mood for more time travel, All Our Wrong Todays is a superb side recommend.
An inspiration for the movie is the Sator square, a stone tablet excavated from the ruins of Pompeii. Engraved on it are five words that Nolan incorporated into the movie: “Sator,” which he turned into the villain’s name, “Arepo,” the art forger’s name, “Tenet,” the spy organization’s name, “Opera,” the Kyiv opera siege, and “Rotas,” the name of Rotas Security at the Oslo freeport. They’re all palindromes that make up the same words in this square if you read them from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or bottom to top. It’s a neat detail that connects a lost civilization from ancient history to the present world facing its own looming destruction in Tenet.
I find the inversion mechanics to be ingenious, with the “turnstiles” they use to invert objects and people, the proving windows they look at before entering one turnstile to confirm they’ll exit the other turnstile safe and sound, breathing inverted air (if you’re confused about whether someone is moving forwards or backwards in time, check if they’re wearing a mask. If they are, then they’re inverted, except in the scene where Sator interrogates the Protagonist in his warehouse and then shoots Kat in the stomach; Kat wears an oxygen mask in her side of the room because the air is inverted, while Sator removes his own mask because a he’s already inverted), fire causing ice and hypothermia due to the laws of heat transfer being reversed, communication with the future, and inverted speech (the actors had to record that by actually reading the dialogue backwards, which must have been particularly challenging for Branagh to carry out while putting on a Russian accent). I’ve seen some people rail at the science for being unrealistic, to which I say, take a chill pill. This isn’t Interstellar. While Nolan did do a bit of consulting with physicist Kip Thorne, I don’t think it’s his intention to double down on the hard science. He’s allowed to have some fun here.
All right, but I do have a quibble with the inverted air. Guns fire because of combustion, a chemical process that only works with oxygen; how does this occur if the air is inverted? We know the rounds are inverted, but are the guns inverted as well? What about shooting inverted guns when the world around you is moving forward? Are those weapons specially designed to draw inverted air for the combustion? This is one of the few questions I haven’t satisfyingly answered yet.
You may be wondering how the ships can be inverted if they can’t fit into the turnstiles. The logic I’m choosing to use is that their pieces were inverted pre-assembly. This probably means turnstiles would have to be installed at ship-building factories, which I’m willing to wrap my brain around. On the other hand, Sator’s car, while it does drive backwards in the chase sequence, isn’t inverted. Sator and his bodyguard Volkov (Yuri Kolokolnikov) are inverted (look for their masks), which is why they appear to us as if they’re driving in reverse and chasing after the Protagonist and Neil’s car; to them, however, they’re driving forwards, and the Protagonist and Neil are reversing after them.
Nolan has a habit of opening his films with certain scenes, then circling back to those same scenes at the end. So when Tenet kicked off with Sator’s goons executing the opera house siege in Kyiv, I was positive it would come back in the climax. However, there was a bit that returned later—the red string and the washer that marks the masked operative who saved the Protagonist by catching an inverted bullet through an enemy agent. Shown as a Tenet prologue ahead of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, the siege is a wonderfully chaotic sequence that hurls you straight into the action, being evocative of the Joker’s bank robbery in The Dark Knight or Bane’s plane hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Protagonist obtains a squarish and mysterious object but subsequently gets abducted by mercenaries who torture him by pulling out his teeth. Rather than yield any information, he takes a cyanide pill from a fellow agent, then awakens some time later from a medically-induced coma. Fay, his CIA boss played by Donovan, informs him the object was lost, his team was killed, and the cyanide was actually fake and meant to verify the Protagonist’s loyalty. With a single word and a gesture of interlaced fingers, Fay enlists him in a secret organization known as Tenet, then drops him off at a windmill farm where he spends much of the time doing pull-ups. How much do you want to bet Nolan included the “pull-up,” a palindrome, to run along with the inversion motif? And the windmill farm is real, as are the rest of the international locations. By the way, Tenet has less than three hundred VFX shots and no green screen at all. In a time where many movies bombard us with CGI, it’s nice to see something that envelops you in tangible settings under the oversight of a director who is well-known for applying practical effects as much as possible.
The Protagonist goes to meet Poesy’s Barbara, a scientist who identifies him as a Tenet agent when he covertly drops the word and the gesture. Tenet’s version of Q shows him bullets that supposedly came from the future and were irradiated through nuclear fission to the point of inverting their entropy, letting them move backwards through time. According to Oxford Dictionary, the definition of “entropy” is “a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.” Basically, entropy describes the chaos that continually and increasingly muddles up our universe, whether it’s a spilled glass of water, a stained shirt, or a cracked phone. In a universe without entropy, the water would leap back into the glass, the stain would vanish from the shirt, and the cracks would disappear from the phone. We all saw the Protagonist catching bullets in the trailers, but what I found to be an even more effective demonstration of inversion was Barbara playing around with the bullet. While it’s astonishing to watch time flow in reverse for the bullet as it spins and rolls in advance of her hand movements, it wouldn’t look nearly as strange if all objects and people in the lab were inverted. This is exemplified when Barbara films the Protagonist “picking up” the inverted round, then rewinds the recording to make it appear as if he dropped the bullet. Flipping our linear view of time is only bizarre because we’re so accustomed to it running forward. Of course, we could also just follow Barbara’s words of wisdom: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
After Barbara alerts the Protagonist to a weapon from the future that can destroy the past, e.g. our present, he gets partnered with Neil, who has a master’s degree in physics and might strike audiences as a bit suspicious when he predicts the Protagonist’s preference for Diet Coke. They track the bullets back to an arms trafficker in India, where we get to see them bungee-jump up into the target’s building. We assume the gunrunner is a man, but the movie subverts our expectations nicely by revealing his wife, Priya Singh, is responsible for the dealings. She identifies herself as part of Tenet and tells the Protagonist her ammunition was bought and inverted by Sator. When the Protagonist jumps down from the building, that’s Washington himself executing the stunt.
The Protagonist gets together with Caine’s Sir Michael Crosby, a British Intelligence officer, to gather intel on Sator. Crosby references an explosion that happened two weeks ago, on the same day as the Kyiv opera house attack, at a Soviet secret city called Stalsk-12—one of the easiest details to miss on the first viewing. This scene also boasts the jab at Brooks Brothers; Jeremy Theobald, the lead in Nolan’s debut film Following, in a cameo as a steward; and quite possibly my favorite joke in the whole movie, with the Protagonist asserting that Britain has “a monopoly on snobbery,” to which Crosby ripostes, “Not a monopoly, more of a controlling interest.”
Then we meet Kat, who towers over the other men, even without heels. During her dinner with the Protagonist, we learn she had an affair with someone named Arepo who gave her a forged Goya drawing that she sold off to Sator for $9 million. Once Sator realized this, he started blackmailing her with the drawing, and when she threatened to leave him, he told her she could, but she would never see her son again. She ended up staying with Sator, leaving them at a distant and toxic point in their marriage. We get a shot that the movie will circle back to later of Kat seeing an unidentified woman diving off the yacht, and she admits to feeling jealous of her freedom. I’ll be honest, this whole Goya subplot did not mesh with me on the first viewing. It’s a clunky section of the screenplay that Nolan rushes through, and it took me a while to figure out what the big deal was about this damn forgery. It says a lot when a plot thread about fake Goya art trips you up more than the inversion stuff.
The following kitchen brawl between the Protagonist and Sator’s thugs is excellent, shot from claustrophobic angles that trap you within the rough fight as the Protagonist smacks around the thugs and even clobbers one of them with a cheese grater. Plus, this is where he throws out the hot sauce quip with cool magnetism; close your eyes when he says it and he sounds exactly like his dad.
The Protagonist makes an arrangement with Kat: he’ll nab the drawing from a freeport in Oslo Airport (it’s funny how freeports, facilities that the wealthy use to store valuable art tax-free, are now being popularized by Tenet), and in return she’ll introduce him to Sator so he can recover the plutonium. This leads to Neil posing as an art collector and getting a tour of the freeport to case it. I loved the Ocean’s Trilogy when I was little, so I’m always down for a good heist. The Protagonist and Neil perform it with the assistance of Patel’s Mahir, who is in charge of taking over a 747 (palindrome!), disposing of all the gold from the cargo to distract everyone, and crashing the plane into the freeport. The stuntman who drove the tow vehicle that hauled the 747 across the parking lot, Jim Wilkey, was the same guy who was at the wheel of the truck when the Joker flipped it over in The Dark Knight. I still find it incredible that Nolan did this sequence for real; somehow, doing it with CGI or miniatures would have actually been more expensive than simply ramming a used 747 into a building. Realistically, was it essential to the heist? Probably not, but I’ll accept Bayhem when Nolan is the one handling it.
This sets off the fire alarm, which uses halide gas, not sprinklers, to displace the oxygen and smother fires. It’s as fun as it is stressful to watch the Protagonist and Neil pick the door locks and hold their breath while moving between spaces with and without the halide. They end up entering a pair of doors, one red and the other blue; in this movie, red indicates the regular old forward channel of time, and blue indicates the backwards channel. This is where they come across a turnstile that, as soon as the Protagonist tries to pick up the gun from the floor, opens to release a pair of masked attackers. Neil quickly takes care of his opponent for reasons we learns later, while the Protagonist engages in a struggle full of backwards punches and jumps with his foe. Nolan had the actors train for inverted fighting, so they would throw punches that look like their momentum is reversed, for example, or make unnatural-looking backward jumps when they should be jumping forwards. I can’t imagine how arduous this scene—and the entire film—must have been to choreograph, shoot, and edit.
The Protagonist meets up with Priya, who tells him the the attackers were the same person and the turnstile inverts people and objects. Then he heads to the Amalfi Coast, where Kat introduces him to Sator as someone with whom she’s having an affair; Sator doesn’t suspect the Protagonist is closing in on his arms dealings at the moment. Branagh gets to be downright chilling here as he hypothetically talks to the Protagonist about cutting a man’s throat, down the middle, not across, and then slicing off his balls and stuffing them into his throat. I never thought I’d hear someone talk about such a grisly topic in a Nolan picture, but now I have. The next day, Sator reveals to Kat that he had the forged drawing all this time. When they and the Protagonist go boating, the Protagonist has to rescue Sator when Kat tries to drown him, since they need him alive so they can figure out the role he’s playing in all this inversion business.
When the Protagonist offers to help Sator acquire a case of, allegedly, plutonium-241, we learn about the oligarch growing up in Stalsk-12, a secret Soviet city in Northern Siberia, where he started building his arms empire. This is followed by a deeply uncomfortable scene where Sator threatens to use his belt on Kat, giving us the first sign of his physically abusive tendencies. I very much wish it wasn’t a part of the story, because men beating up women is something I just don’t need to see. In the next scene, Sator doubles down on his unnerving brutality. He receives a shipment of inverted gold in a time capsule sent from the future, and as punishment for the henchman who attempted to pocket a bullion, he bashes in the guy’s head, then calmly takes his own pulse on his fitness monitor.
“The Plan” by Travis Scott sets the mood for Tallinn, throbbing in the background as the Protagonist and Neil box in an armored convoy with trucks and snatch the case, which is storing not plutonium but rather the object that went missing in the Kyiv opera attack; it might be an issue of plot convenience for the Protagonist to open the case despite believing it contained plutonium.
While the convoy ambush is being executed, Sator brings Kat to his warehouse, delivers the “anger scars over into despair” line that Kat throws back at him in the climax, and beats her. Again, I’m not here at all for physical abuse against women. This is also the sequence where Tenet drops its one and only f-bomb and still qualifies as PG-13; a movie can pull this rating with a sole f-bomb as long as it’s used in a nonsexual manner.
Then the Protagonist and Neil get ambushed by an inverted Sator as he threatens Kat at gunpoint, and the Protagonist hides the object and tricks Sator into taking an empty case. I just want to pause and say I’ve already seen the car-flip shot multiple times in the trailers, but I never get tired of it.
After Sator retreats, the Protagonist rescues Kat, but almost immediately they’re abducted and brought to Sator’s warehouse. Now, bear with me here, because this does get a little baffling. The Protagonist gets interrogated in the non-inverted side of the room while the inverted Sator is on the inverted side of the room with the forward-moving Kat (remember what I said earlier—she’s wearing an oxygen mask because she can’t breath the inverted air) and also threatening to shoot her with an inverted round, which inflicts worse wounds than a regular round. The inverted Sator shoots Kat in the stomach, then the forward Sator goes to the Protagonist’s side and demands the object’s whereabouts. The Protagonist lies and says it’s in the case right before a Tenet unit led by Taylor-Johnson’s Ives storm the place. After Sator escapes, they take Kat through his turnstile to invert her and reverse the injury’s effects. The Protagonist goes through the turnstile next, with Dourif’s Wheeler warning him about fire causing cold and the Timecop-esque annihilation that will occur if he touches his forward self while moving backwards through time. As soon as he got in the car to return to the ambush site, I knew his car was the one that tumbled over. Sator, who secures the object after realizing it was secretly handed off between the two Protagonists, sets his vehicle on fire, causing ice to appear and the Protagonist to faint from the cold.
Then he wakes up, and I love Neil’s wry observation that The Protagonist was almost the first person to die from hypothermia in a gas explosion. As it turns out, the two of them and Kat are inside an inverted shipping container that’s moving backwards in time to the Oslo freeport during the art heist. Reusing the turnstile in the warehouse could lead to running into Sator again, which is why they’re heading for the nearest turnstile in Oslo. Giving Kat’s wound a week to heal, they plan to break into the freeport again during the tumult of the heist.
On the way to Oslo, the Protagonist and Neil, the latter having revealed that he’s a member of Tenet, discuss physics. They primarily cover the grandfather paradox, which is the question of whether or not you can travel back in time and murder your grandfather before he has any children, therefore wiping one of your parents and then you out of existence. But if you’re not around to kill your grandfather, shouldn’t he be alive? Changing the past in such a drastic manner is widely believed to be impossible, although it hasn’t stopped time travel from being a sine qua non in stories like The Terminator, Back to the Future, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m curious to know if it’s possible to test the grandfather paradox through inversion. For example, what if Sator didn’t shoot Kat when he was on her side, even though he already saw himself shoot her from the Protagonist’s side? If he didn’t do it, he would have taken away the cause of the Protagonist yielding to his interrogation. Would the laws of physics prevent this paradox by simply forcing him to pull the trigger, thereby eliminating his free will? Or does the fabric of reality take his intentions into account on a metaphysical level and know he won’t do anything but shoot Kat to achieve his goal, thereby allowing him free will? Neil’s right, my head hurts a bit thinking about this.
Upon the mind-blowing realization that the inverted Protagonist is wrestling with his past self, this is when everything about the plot truly starts to dovetail together for me. The first time we saw this was from the past self’s perspective, and now we’re looking at the exact same fight, only from the present and suited-up self’s perspective. Aside from only one shot that the movie reuses, the rest of the sequence is new footage. Think about that for a second; they had to line up the fight choreography, reshoot the brawl, reverse certain movements that once appeared backwards and peculiar the first time around go but now appear forwards and normal on the second run. Mental, just mental. When the inverted Protagonist shoots at the glass behind his past self, he’s only doing that to empty the gun and stop it from being used against himself. Neil discovering the masked man is actually the now-reverted Protagonist is a twist I didn’t predict, surprisingly, despite the cues being so blatant earlier. This doesn’t detract from the sequence, but there might be a continuity error in the form of the gun that appears from nowhere and keeps getting kicked around. The only way to explain it would be the gun being on the inverted Protagonist’s person, but I don’t think we ever see it fall off him when he slides into the freeport.
After Kat and Neil go through the turnstile to revert themselves, the Protagonist learns from Priya that the object obtained by Sator is one of nine pieces making up an “algorithm.” Sator aims to complete the algorithm to invert entropy on an apocalyptic scope that will destroy our present world. This algorithm exists in the first place because a scientist generations down the future invented it, then split it into nine pieces, hid them, and killed herself so she couldn’t give up knowledge of their hiding spots or rebuild the weapon (I personally don’t believe in this fan theory, but some think the scientist is actually future Barbara).
Throughout the plot, characters constantly mention the plutonium and the nine pieces of the algorithm. In case you’re puzzled as to whether plutonium actually plays a part in this, let me confirm that it doesn’t. The members of Tenet use “plutonium” as a codename of sorts for the pieces, which are typically locked away in desolate locations where nuclear disasters or testing took place, therefore being locations that the general public won’t poke in their nose. To contain knowledge about the pieces, Tenet discloses intel about them to as few of its agents as possible, while the rest believe they’re in charge of plutonium. Too many people learning about the pieces equates to a higher chance of them landing on the historical record and falling into the future’s hands. This is why the characters use the phrases “tying up loose ends” and “ignorance is our ammunition”—shorthand for giving info to Tenet operatives on a need-to-know basis and disposing of them when necessary to limit the number of people who are aware of the pieces.
Thing is, nobody even knows for sure what would happen if the algorithm were to be assembled and it flipped back the passage of time all over the world. The future believes inverting entropy is essential to eradicating the past and fixing the planet, while Tenet is here in the present trying to stem the future’s efforts on the assumption that everyone will die if the world is inverted. As to why the future is communicating with Sator specifically and helping him build the algorithm, it seems to be because they have a historical record of people who are most willing to wipe out the earth in the past, and he’s on the top of that list.
We learn from Kat that Sator has inoperable pancreatic cancer (from the radiation in his hometown, I assume), and he turned his Fitbit into a dead man’s switch and hooked it up to the algorithm. If he can’t have the world, he believes, then nobody else can—an extremely selfish goal that proves he’s a real dickweasel. Kat deduces he’ll go back to their Vietnam vacation, the last time they were happy together, to off himself. So she, the Protagonist, Neil, and a Tenet unit led by Ives and Wheeler invert back to the vacation. There, Kat will distract her husband and give Tenet enough time to pinpoint the algorithm in Stalsk-12, where Sator intends for the algorithm to remain concealed until the future digs it up.
Complicating the operation is that Tenet needs to grab the algorithm while tricking the past Sator into believing his scheme succeeded; otherwise he’ll catch on to Tenet and deviate from the path he already took. The Protagonist, Neil, and Ives are basically heading into a suicide mission, since it’s made clear that whoever knows about the pieces needs to stash them and then kill themselves, or risk getting hunted down and interrogated for info on the pieces by people in the present who are working with inversion-wielding adversaries in the future. What follows is an extensive scene in Stalsk-12 called a “temporal pincer movement,” where the red team, with the Protagonist and Ives, moves forward in time, and the blue team, with Neil and Wheeler, moves backward. Because of how inversion works, the blue team has gone through with this task already to see how it plays out, and they briefed the red team on the details—where the enemy forces are located, which buildings to destroy, et cetera. This is such an adrenaline-fueled sequence that inverts detonations, dust clouds, and flying debris as the red team and the blue team simultaneously advance through the abandoned city and ward off Sator’s minions, whom I initially struggled to pick out in all the chaos. But they’re in the area, dressed in white outfits that make them resemble the baddies in the snowy-mountain level of Inception.
My favorite shot in this scene is the partially-destructed tower inverting itself to repair its top half just before a Tenet agent launches a bazooka to blow up the tower. Something I love about Nolan’s movies are the iconic visuals that linger in my mind long after seeing them—the folding city and the zero-gravity hallway fight in Inception, the scattered top hats in The Prestige, the gigantic waves and the cosmic bookcases in Interstellar, and now the inverted car flip, the mirror fight, and the inverted-then-destructed building in Tenet. Another exhilarating detail is the red team having a timer that counts down from ten minutes and the blue team having a timer counting up from ten. When the two timers meet in the middle, they become “ten-ten,” or “ten-net”—precisely the sort of thing I want from Nolan.
In Vietnam, Kat (who is not inverted anymore, having reverted herself through the turnstile in Oslo) gets on Sator’s yacht and fools him into thinking she’s the past Kat, not the present-day Kat he believes died from an inverted round. For some reason he doesn’t become wary of Kat spraying down the deck and, unbeknownst to him, making it more slippery for his body. When he takes a phone call with the Protagonist, he gives his villain monologue about how the world will eventually die from climate change—a calamity that the future blames us for not circumventing. That’s why they want to use the algorithm to reverse time, bringing themselves out of their ravaged era and eradicating their past/our present. As for Sator, he believes our world, since it’s going to die from climate change, might as well end now. He also accuses Tenet operatives of being fanatics—an observation with which I don’t totally disagree, what with the agents obeying the sparsely detailed orders of an organization shrouded in mystery and dogma.
As for Kat, she’s supposed to wait for Mahir, who brought her to the yacht, to shoot a flare and give her the go-ahead to kill Sator. Doing it without waiting for the flare risks killing him before Tenet has recovered the algorithm over in Stalsk-12, which would lead to the obliteration of our world. But Kat doesn’t want to let Sator die believing he’s won, so she gets the badass beat of revealing her scar and eliciting panic from Sator before shooting him dead. While I wish Nolan wrote Kat to be more proactive in the story, I appreciate her being able to serve justice and wrap up an arc that I find more emotionally relatable than those of Nolan’s other female characters. I’m also glad she’s the one who rubs him out rather than the Protagonist, Neil, or a fatal accident. Then she slides Sator across the deck (I wonder if she put the lotion on his back to increase the slickness on top of the water she sprayed down) and shoves him off the edge. It hurts to hear his neck break on the railing. God, what a perfect way for that monster to go down. Then Kat dives off the yacht, becoming the mysterious woman witnessed by her past self, and the woman whose freedom she envied.
Meanwhile, over in Stalsk-12, the Protagonist and Ives follow Sator’s bodyguard Volkov underground to the algorithm, being chased by a honking jeep, and they get trapped down there when they disturb a tripwire and set off an explosion that blocks the entrance behind them. When the inverted Neil sees the bodyguard arranging the tripwire, he runs off to the turnstile in the center of the city to revert himself and drive the jeep after the Protagonist and Ives in the hopes of stopping them from entering the tunnel in time, but to no avail. Who knows how many times Neil ends up inverting and reverting himself in order to help them, meaning there are also numerous Neils crossing through the city in both directions of time.
Underground, the Protagonist and Ives arrive in time to find Volkov setting up the algorithm and have the aforementioned phone call with Sator. Lying on the floor is a masked body of a blue-team member with a washer attached to the backpack on a red string; it stirs moments before leaping to its feet at the moment when Volkov fires at the Protagonist, taking the shot and dying in reverse. The blue-team trooper opens the gate for the Protagonist and Ives, then heads backwards out of the room, leaving the others to work together to push Volkov down the pipe, take the algorithm, and return aboveground with Neil’s help just before Kat kills Sator and triggers the explosion—the same explosion that Crosby told the Protagonist about over their future lunch.
The Protagonist, Neil, and Ives divide the algorithm into thirds before splitting up. For a second it looks like Ives is going to kill the others because of the knowledge they possess about the algorithm, but he decides to let them go, promising he’ll kill them if he finds them again. It’s amusing when Neil hopefully says he won’t try very hard, to which Ives counters, “Yes, I will.” Then the Protagonist glances at the red tag on Neil’s backpack, and he points out that Neil never said who recruited him. Neil reveals it was the Protagonist who did that, going on to say it was “years ago for me and years from now for you,” and that this whole operation was a temporal pincer movement devised by the future Protagonist. I love Pattinson’s easygoing, almost mischievous delivery of the “we get up to some things” line. He also calls this “the end of a beautiful friendship,” a clever little Casablanca reference, and then says, “I’ll see you at the beginning, friend.” This really is a touching bond that’s made all the more poignant when we (a) think back on the moments when Neil seemed a bit too abreast of the situation, including knowing about his partner’s beverage preferences and the opera siege, and (b) know he’s departing for Kyiv to save the Protagonist at said siege, then returning to Stalsk-12 one last time to go underground and sacrifice himself for the Protagonist. You can tell how crushed the Protagonist is during the farewell, now that he knows Neil has been his guardian angel all this time. #protagoneil
In the final scene, Kat is with her son when she notices Priya’s car nearby; Priya is about to have her associate shoot Kat in order to tie up loose ends and close off one more source of Tenet-related knowledge. Knowing something is off, Kat dials a phone given to her by the Protagonist earlier in cases she needed help from “posterity” and gives the street she’s at. The call goes to the Protagonist, who inverts back to this time from the future, shows up in the back of the car, and shoots Priya’s partner. He reveals he’s the future founder of Tenet before killing Priya herself, leaving Kat oblivious to the death she cheated.
And that’s Tenet. I was certain the Protagonist’s real name was going to be unveiled somewhere along the way, but I think it’s meant to signify the agency he possesses in this narrative and the way he drives it from beginning to end (or end to beginning). Admittedly, it does get slightly bothersome when characters overuse the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist” in situations where people would never say them in real life. Naming his main character “the Protagonist” certainly isn’t appealing him to critics who rip him for being a turgid filmmaker.
One of the most popular fan theories is Neil being Kat’s son. What’s spurring this on is the kid’s name being Max; the European spelling of the full name is Maximilien, so if you take the last four letters and flip them around… It could explain why Nolan picked a name as ordinary and modest as “Neil” for a charming guy who deserves a sophisticated-sounding name like “Eames”, why Pattinson dyed his hair blond as if to match Max’s hair, why Nolan said “Neil” isn’t his real name in an interview, and why Neil seems so invested in Kat’s safety, though maybe it’s merely in his nature to be a diligent protector. While I’m fairly intrigued by the theory, it means Neil would have had to invert years back from the time when the Protagonist recruited him, which I guess isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Nolan’s movies tend to center around a simple and profound theme, such as love being the most powerful force in the universe in Interstellar, or the damage that obsession can wreak on your soul in The Prestige. While it’s easy to assume Tenet is a prima facie 007-inspired spectacle, it does impart its own weighty theme if you look a little closer—the conflict between faith and despair. Faith is represented by Tenet, a nebulous organization that adopts a doctrinaire code and refuses to let its members know any more than they need to in its supposed crusade to save from the world from distant and intangible disasters—from the bomb that never goes off, as the denouement voiceover observes, because that’s the threat with all the real power. Granted, it’s unsettling that Tenet functions similarly to a cult when we’re living in the time of Keith Raniere and James Arthur Ray. But it is important to keep faith in the cloaked workings of our world and appreciate the steps they take to ward off catastrophes while leaving the public none the wiser. The word “tenet” is defined as “any opinion, principle, doctrine, dogma, et cetera, especially one held as true by members of a profession, group, or movement,” which further plays into the strict creed on which the espionage syndicate is built. Characters in the movie frequently talk about ignorance being ammunition and withholding knowledge that can affect your future decisions, which Neil often does throughout the plot to avoid changing the Protagonist’s journey. For example, if Neil warned him he was going to fight his inverted self, this might have altered the Protagonist’s actions to the point of interfering with the timeline. Then there’s a wise quote from Neil: “What’s happened, happened—it’s an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, it’s not an excuse for doing nothing.” This means that even if you’re convinced you’ll be able to cause a certain event down the road, the knowledge doesn’t allow you to stand back and passively watch everything take place; you still need to hold the reins and put effort into engendering the event.
Fighting against faith is despair, which is embodied by Sator and his vehemently nihilistic belief that the world shouldn’t be allowed to survive without him. Realizing his place as a tiny cog in the vast machinery of society, he tried to compensate for the meager free will he thought he had at the end of his life by masterminding a scheme that would help him seize control of the world and then extinguish it. This is made clear in his third-act monologue, where he criticizes Tenet for zealously pursuing a hopeless goal. When the Protagonist calls him a madman, he replies, “Or a god,” signifying the power he craves as he’s about to destroy everything, including his wife and son.
The movie appears to frame faith and despair as two sides of the same coin. Faith means realizing you’re a pawn living within a grander system whose agency and mode of operation you’re somewhat or mostly unaware of, and still being willing to take constructive and positive action to improve the system, whereas despair means also realizing you’re a pawn but then endeavoring to either gain command of the system or demolish it entirely. To put it another way, faith helps you accept the minor role you’re playing and be as productive as possible for the good of everybody, and despair drives you to defy that role to the detriment of yourself and everyone around you. I appreciate the movie approaching this matter from a secular perspective rather than instilling it with religious undertones, especially when it feels like a growing number of people are becoming nihilistic and forsaking faith because of its strong associations with religion.
As to whether Tenet will have a sequel, I don’t think that’s likely. Sure, there might be potential in fleshing out the exploits of the Protagonist and Neil after they “meet” in the future, but this is the sort of movie that benefits from telling a self-contained story without having to be concerned about the added bulk of a subsequent narrative. Besides, Nolan typically doesn’t do sequels, aside from The Dark Knight trilogy. Personally, I don’t need Tenet 2, but if Nolan were to go down that route, I’d trust him to do it because he genuinely feels there’s more worth exploring in the world of time inversion.
Overall, Tenet is yet another win on Nolan’s resume. Only someone with his dexterous grasp of intricate narratives could have pulled off such a colossally ambitious project. A decade years from now, we’ll probably look back on it as fondly as we do for Inception. All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.