There is no doubt about it: Tenet is a fairly complex film.
Christopher Nolan’s 11th feature is a head-spinner like no other, following a man who must prevent a Russian oligarch from world destruction.
The stakes are higher than ever in Tenet, a film which throws not only the characters but the viewer on a journey through time.
We suggest you stop reading if you haven’t seen Tenet. The below is just for those who need anything clearing up after watching the film, which has been made available to stream on Netflix.
Here is a comprehensive rundown of all the confusing events in the film – from the highway sequence to who was inverted and when (find an explanation on what time inversion actually is here).
Hopefully, after you’ve read the entirety of our plot explanation, you’ll have considerably fewer unanswered questions.
*Major spoilers for Tenet follow – do not watch if you haven’t seen Tenet*
It’s worth nothing that the volatile Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) has continually travelled back from the future armed with knowledge that will help him gather the weapons he needs to trigger something known as the algorithm. This will reverse the entropy of the world so that the future ceases to exist. He has done this after uncovering a machine known as the turnstiles – move through it one way, you will move backwards; go back through, and you’ll move forward again – but from the point of time you’ve travelled back to.
The Protagonist (John David Washington) is hired to try and stop this Sator from executing his plan. When the film starts, Sator – after having an argument with his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) on his yacht – leaves and goes to the bombing of the Opera House. We don’t know he is involved at this point, but discover it when Sir Michael Crosby (Sir Michael Caine) tells The Protagonist.
From that point, Sator is experiencing time in a linear fashion right up until he drags Kat into the container in Tallinn following the highway sequence. The Sator we see with an oxygen mask on – when he holds a gun to Kat’s head and demands that The Protagonist (John David Washington) hands over the plutonium – is the one who The Protagonist is about to see go through the “turnstile” to invert. There are momentarily two Sators existing at once in order to discover information he does not yet know. This is known as a Temporal Pincer Movement, which you can read up on here.
Present Sator storms into the “red” container and asks The Protagonist where the plutonium is – he is trying to find out so he can reclaim it once he inverts (we saw him successfully do this a few scenes before, so we know it will happen). The Protagonist is confused as he just did this after Sator shot Kat in the stomach. That was future Sator, however – the Sator he is with is in the present and is yet to do this. Once he inverts, the timelines merge and he learns the information, shoots the non-inverted Kat with an inverted bullet, and heads out to the highway to get the plutonium. He experiences the highway sequence we had just seen through the Protagonist’s point of view. Sator is the only one inverted at this stage.
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Kat is in serious danger of dying from the inverted bullet wound. The Protagonist believes he can save her by inverting and taking her back one week to the “turnstile” he found in Oslo – in the freeport where he fought the guard in protective gear during the plane crash decoy. He travels through with Neil (Robert Pattinson), Kat and a team of special operatives led by Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The plan is to lie low in a shipping container until they arrive in Oslo. Once there, they will move through the turnstiles so they can revert back to moving forward in time from the week before (meaning two of each character will exist in the same time period for the following week until they exceed the events of them inverting in Tallinn).
After going through, The Protagonist believes he can chase after Sator on the highway and reclaim the plutonium, but Neil tells him it’s no use: whatever happened happened. He doesn’t listen and takes chase anyway, but soon realises he was behind the wheel of the car that collided with the car that past Neil was driving; he had been a passenger in it. He realises there was nothing he could have done – Sator was always destined to get his hands on the plutonium. After the car explodes, he is thrown back to the shipping dock he’s on with Neil and Kat (there’s a scientific reason for this likened to a “piss in the wind”). It wasn’t a complete loss, though – he managed to bug the plutonium case acquired by future Sator, now moving backwards, and was able to record audio playing out over the car radio detailing Sator’s destructive plans (this is the audio The Protagonist and Neil had heard in reverse when moving forward in time scenes before). He is also spotted by Sator, who now knows he’s on his heels.
They arrive in Oslo a week earlier, right at the time of the plane crash decoy, now playing in reverse. The inverted explosion sends The Protagonist, who is wearing protective gear, directly into a fight with his past self – the same fight we saw him have earlier: he was fighting his future self. The fight ends when he runs through the turnstile and comes out the other side straight into a run-in with Neil from the past. They weren’t fighting two different people – they were both a future version of The Protagonist, one moving back in time and then one moving forward. As we saw before, past Neil takes chases and pulls off the Protagonist’s headgear. Seeing it’s a future version of him, he prevents The Protagonist from shooting himself. Future-Neil then takes future Kat through the same turnstile so that these three characters can move forward again. They are existing in their own past, which is now their present.
The Protagonist and the Neil we first meet in the film now exist in a loop that will see them experience all of the above again.
The Protagonist meets up with arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia) two days before he will inadvertently hand the plutonium over to an inverted Sator. Priya reveals that she has acquired her own turnstile and The Protagonist devises a plan in which he, Neil and Kat travel back to Kat’s Vietnam holiday with Sator – the one they were on before the events of the film – in the belief that Sator is travelling backwards to this point in time. Kat explains that he is terminally ill and is most likely planning to kill himself here. Once he dies, an algorithm he’s concocted will be detonated reversing the entropy of the world; in other words, the future will cease to exist. Once they arrive at this point in the past, they will go through the turnstile so that they are moving forwards again. Kat will arrive at the yacht and, pretending to be the past version of herself, will kill Sator after The Protagonist and Neil have deactivated the algorithm.
To do this, Ives leads a Temporal Pincer Movement in which a ”blue” team – including Neil – inverts and travels back one hour to learn of the events that are about to happen (because for them, it would have already happened) so they can, in turn, brief the “red” team who are moving forwards in time. This team includes Ives and The Protagonist. They then have 10 minutes to work in tandem to prevent future Sator’s algorithm from activating: the “blue” team moving backwards, the “red” team forwards AKA ten minutes forward and backwards, which gives the film its name (TENET).
Midway through, inverted Neil prematurely goes back through the turnstile to help the “red” team. Once the mission is complete, though, he has to invert back again in order to catch the “blue” team on their next loop, so he can revert back to moving forwards in time at the correct stage. This version of the character will not see The Protagonist again. However, beyond the events of the film, The Protagonist – armed with the knowledge of his experiences – will invert at an unknown stage in the future to hire past Neil before they ever meet (in The Protagonist’s eyes). This is how the events of the film will then take place – the whole film is essentially a giant Temporal Pincer Movement.
Past Neil will know about these events before he meets The Protagonist – which is why he knows more than he’s letting on throughout, and also why Neil says he knows The Protagonist ”never drinks on the job” when they “first” meet. It is hinted that past Neil and the future Protagonist enjoy carrying out plenty of missions together and have a “beautiful friendship” long after the events of the film, Their final scene, though, is the last time he will meet Neil in a linear timeline.
After this, The Protagonist ”ties up loose ends” by killing Priya, who wants to kill Kat, who is alive and well in the future despite the fact that she would have died in the past. Inverting is what saved her. After Kat kills Sator on the yacht, she will lie low until her past self is shot and inverted (thus closing that loop) so that she can continue being a parent to her son. The phone call we see her make at the beginning of the film – to say she’s being watched – was actually set in the future. She is calling the present day version of The Protagonist, who is looking out for her from afar.
He then devises the “Tenet” mission that his past self will go on to be signed up to – with no knowledge that his future self is behind it.