Tenet Explained Simply (With Timeline Diagrams)

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Hi, this is Barry, and welcome to my site. After prepping our minds with Inception and Interstellar, Nolan delivers Tenet which has, by far, the most complex visuals that have been created in a time-travel based movie. If you’re looking for answers to, “what the heck did I just watch?”, you’re in the right place. What adds to the confusing nature of the film is that there are critical events in the story that are not shown in the movie; they are only mentioned. I’ll try and cover everything in as much detail as possible. There are plenty of timeline diagrams too. Here’s the plot explanation and ending of the movie Tenet explained; spoilers ahead.

Contents

Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:

Tenet: Explained In Short

Before going into all the details, let’s address what the film really is about. The humans of the future, many generations from now, are at war with the present. Why? Because we humans live frivolously and end up ruining the planet, making it a terrible place to live in for future generations. 

In the future, a scientist ends up inventing a device (the algorithm) that can invert entropy. Soon as she does, she realises this invention can be weaponised to obliterate the planet. So she splits it into 9 parts and scatters them at various locations and sends them back through time.

The future people, who have developed a hatred for the past, use the time-inversion technology to identify an individual (Sator) who will help them find and assemble the device and trigger the algorithm to end the world in the present time. A counter group, called Tenet, is established to ensure that the end of the world is averted. 

It is revealed in the Tenet movie ending that The Protagonist is the founder of Tenet. Many years into his future (much after the movie ends) The Protagonist travels to the past to start Tenet. The Protagonist already knows that he has saved the world, he just needs to go back in time and ensure it happens.

Tenet: Detailed Plot Explanation

We’ll follow the life of The Protagonist to straighten out the convoluted plot and simplify it.

Who Is The Protagonist?

The Protagonist is a CIA agent who is put through a test at the Kyiv Opera House. This is the opening of the film. He’s sent to retrieve one of nine parts of a doomsday device. We see him and his team infiltrate the enemy team and get to the device before anyone else. After that his test begins where he’s tortured into giving up his team. He chooses to bite on a cyanide capsule and opting death instead. Given the torture on the rail tracks and the pill were part of the test, The Protagonist stays in a medically induced coma for a few days when his jaw is repaired. When he gains consciousness, he’s told about Tenet and recruited.

During the Opera Heist, we see an inverted person firing an inverted bullet saving The Protagonist. It’s not disclosed, but this is Neil.

inverted bullets

What is an Inverted Person or Inverted Item?

This is the central concept of the movie Tenet. The future has invented time inversion. When an item is sent through this device, it begins to travel backwards in time at a constant pace. The same is applied to humans. As opposed to classic time travel where a person travels instantaneously from time T2 to T1 while going back in time, Tenet has people and objects getting inverted. Which means the inverted person moves backwards in time at a steady rate from T2 to T1.

All the other people, who are in the regular flow of time, will see inverted people and objects doing everything backwards.

The Protagonist goes to a lab where he’s introduced to inverted bullets and how they are moving backwards through time. He identifies the shells from the field, and they trace the composition to Sanjay Singh in India. Neil shows up to help The Protagonist. 

Who is Neil?

While told only at the very end of Tenet, Neil is someone who was recruited into Tenet by a much older time-travelling Protagonist. Neil has come to do his part so that The Protagonist can get his meeting with Sanjay Singh and Priya. Neil already knows the older Protagonist.

Who is Sanjay Singh? Who is Priya?

Sanjay Singh is a decoy, Priya is the one who is part of Tenet. Priya explains to The Protagonist that these bullets came from a Russian arms dealer named Andrei Sator. And that Sator can communicate with the future. As Priya explains, any electronic text, like email, once sent is accessible many years in the future. Sator is supplied with weapons and information using time-inversion technology. 

sator tenet

Who is Sator? What’s his role in Tenet?

When Sator was a teenager, he was commissioned to an area called Stalsk-12 to look for scattered Plutonium. The future identifies him to be the right person at the right time to be entrusted with the responsibility of world-destruction. He is sent a letter giving him the details on how he needs to be the one to take control of the Stalsk-12 region.

Over the years, Sator has been given weapons and gold by the future to help set up his empire. Sator eventually gains access to the inversion technology as well. His goal is to locate the 9 pieces of the doomsday algorithm and destroy the world. Sator is suffering from incurable cancer, and he wants to take the world with him to the grave.

The Protagonist gets his initial details about Sator from Michael Crosby.

Who is Michael Crosby?

Sir Michael Crosby is a top man from the British Intelligence who informs The Protagonist that the easiest way to get to Sator is through his wife, Kat. And the reason is that Kat’s friend Arepo happened to work with her to get a fake Goya painting into an auction which was eventually bought by Sator. Sir Michael Crosby hands a second faux painting to The Protagonist and suggests that he uses it as leverage to get Kat to introduce him to Sator.

What is Kat’s story?

When The Protagonist meets Kat, she explains to him that she and Sator are estranged. And ever since she got caught on the fake painting, he’s blackmailed her by threatening to expose her on fraud. Also, on a past trip to Vietnam, he has told her that the only way she can leave him is if she’s willing to never see her son, Max, again. The fake Goya that Sator happened to buy is kept in his vault at the airport in Oslo. The Protagonist offers to destroy that painting for her in exchange for a meeting with Sator.

In her narrative of her time on the yacht in Vietnam, she recalls a woman jumping off into the sea and swim away. Kat is jealous of her freedom. Ironically, this woman jumping overboard is a future version of Kat, who has travelled back in time. We’ll get to that later on.

The Oslo Airport Incident

With the help of Neil, The Protagonist decides to destroy the vault at the airport. They plan to do this by smashing a Norsk Freight carrier to cause a fire. Neil makes a precheck at the venue that a fire causes the facility to get flooded with Halide gas which displaces the air. If one can hold their breath long enough, they can easily pick the internal locks to move around to get to the vault.

Neil and The Protagonist plan precisely this, they use a large aircraft to smash into the building to trigger the fire. They use the help of Mahir to arrange the hijacking of the plane and the crash. They also toss the gold that the Norsk Freight is carrying to divert the attention away from the explosion. Once the air is displaced, Neil and The Protagonist begin navigating the corridors until they arrive at a turnstile.

inverted fight protagonist

What is that inverted fight scene? What’s going on here?

At this point in time, there are three Protagonists. Yes, three.

  1. The Protagonist from the current time who’s come to destroy the Goya fake that’s in the vault.
  2. An inverted-Protagonist who’s travelling back in time and emerges from one side of the turnstile.
  3. A Protagonist who is from the future who reverts himself using the turnstile.

Protagonist 2 and 3 emerge together. The reason is that Protagonist 2 (who is inverted) uses the turnstile to flip back in the forward direction of time. Protagonist 2&3 are from one week into the future.

Protagonist 3, now that he’s reverted himself, he exists the turnstile in the current time as a time traveller—a person from one week into the future. Not knowing who he is, Neil chases him down. This is revealed at the end, but Neil realises that he’s chasing a future Protagonist. Knowing it is dangerous to interfere with a future event, he simply turns and leaves. 

The Protagonist ends up fighting Protagonist 2, who is inverted. We get to witness the most unique fight sequence in the history of films. Just as The Protagonist gains the upper hand, Neil interferes as he knows that the inverted person is The Protagonist from the future. Neil does not disclose this information to The Protagonist as he doesn’t want to change the course of the future.

The Protagonist meets Sator

Because Sator always has a team working in the reverse direction of time, he gets to know of the accident at Oslo. He removes the painting before the incident. Kat’s heart sinks when she gets to know this. Later, The Protagonist gets Sator’s attention when he mentions the Kyiv Opera to him. The next day they go sailing, and Kat tries to kill Sator by loosening his harness, but The Protagonist saves him as he needs to get to Sator’s masterplan.

As a thank you for saving his life, Sator accepts the deal to help The Protagonist get to the Plutonium in Trieste. The Protagonist gets caught overseeing Sator collecting his gold, but nothing severe happens, and he makes it out alive. 

The Highway Plutonium Heist – Temporal Pincer Manoeuvre Explained

Pincer Highway Chase Timeline Diagram ThisisBarry
(click to enlarge)

Okay, this scene has a lot going on. A few folks are inverted, a few are not. Then the ones who are not, go ahead and become inverted and the same car chase plays out backwards. So here’s what we’ll do. Let’s go through this scene as experienced by each person to get their perspectives. Remember, in this sequence, only the people are inverted, not the cars.

It all begins with Sator bringing Kat to a warehouse which has a inverted-driver waiting outside in an SUV. Kat pulls a gun on Sator and gets beaten to the floor.

Kate experiencing the Temporal Pincer Manoeuvre

  1. Kat watches Sator leave.
  2. She’s picked up from the floor by an inverted-Sator and put in the SUV with the inverted-driver.
  3. She’s in the SUV that drives backwards up to the point they encounter The Protagonist’s car.
  4. She sees inverted-Sator and the inverted-driver leave the SUV.
  5. The Protagonist enters her SUV, which is now heading in reverse without a driver. The SUV comes to a stop.
  6. She’s taken into the inverted side of the warehouse. However, she’s not inverted. But since the inverted side is set for inverted-people, forward-moving-people will not be able to breathe normally. So a mask is put on her.
  7. An inverted-Sator pulls her into this section.
  8. Kat gets shot by an inverted bullet.
  9. She’s brought to the other side. At this point, she is still not inverted, and her wound is causing her to lose vitals.
  10. The team takes her through the turnstile and Kat becomes inverted for the first time in this sequence. After that, she’s made to rest.

The Protagonist experiencing the Temporal Pincer Manoeuvre

  1. The Protagonist enters the truck to steal the Plutonium. 
  2. He comes to realise that there is no Plutonium but an odd device (the same as the one at Kyiv Opera). 
  3. They are chased by an SUV in reverse. This SUV has Kat being held hostage by an inverted-Sator and his inverted-driver. Kat is not inverted here.
  4. A silver car in the distance is also progressing backwards. It recovers from being turned over and joins the chase backwards. We’re shown later that this is an inverted-Protagonist from moments in the future
  5. Now, this is important. The Protagonist wants to avoid Sator getting his hands on the device, so he first takes the device out and throws the empty orange case to inverted-Sator. 
  6. After that, he tosses the device into the [inverted] silver car.
  7. Then The Protagonist enters the SUV and saves Kat. 
  8. After this, he gets caught by Sator’s men, and an inverted-Sator demands the location of the time-device and watches Kate being shot by an inverted bullet.
  9. He then gets hit by a forward-moving-Sator for more questioning and watches him enter the turnstile.
  10. Neil arrives with the cavalry.
  11. The team takes wounded Kat through the turnstile.
  12. The inverted-Protagonist gets into the silver car and locates the empty orange case and puts in a transmitting device. Once it reverses into inverted-Sator’s car, he hears the conversation and traces Sator’s location to the highway.
  13. On the highway, he realises that he was the car that was between himself and inverted-Sator’s SUV. Before he can get a handle on the situation, he sees the time-device leave his vehicle. 
  14. He sees inverted-Sator tossing the case over to The Protagonist.
  15. Inverted-Protagonist’s car is struck by the SUV knocking him upsidedown.
  16. Inverted-Sator sets fire to Inverted-Protagonists’s car.

Sator experiencing the Temporal Pincer Manoeuvre

  1. Sator leaves after hitting Kat.
  2. He waits for the car chase to finish and goes to The Protoganist (held by his men by the turnstile) and questions him about the time-device.
  3. The cavalry shows up, so Sator enters the turnstile.
  4. Inverted-Sator sees the wounded Kat and uses her to question The Protagonist about the time-device. 
  5. He shoots Kat.
  6. Inverted-Sator pushes Kat outside and places her in the SUV.
  7. He then goes looking for the time-device which The Protagonist says was in the glove compartment of the BMW. But that was a lie.
  8. Inverted-Sator and the inverted-driver then get into a car and catch up with an SUV that is driving itself. On the way, he un-throws the orange box. (this is what the inverted-Protagonist sees after putting the transmitting device)
  9. During the chase, inverted-Sator sees the time device leaving the silver car being driven by the inverted-Protagonist.
  10. He throws the orange box over to The Protagonist.
  11. Inverted-Sator clips inverted-Protogonists car, which then crashes and upturns.
  12. Inverted-Sator stops and exits the SUV to set the inverted-Protagonist’s car on fire.
  13. Inverted-Sator gets back into the SUV and drives up The Protagonist’s car and drives right behind it, causing the reverse chase.
  14. After that, inverted-Sator and inverted-driver turn around and drive Kat over to the warehouse. They leave her on the floor where she is after being hit by Sator.
  15. Now that inverted-Sator is back at the start of the manoeuvre, he will revert himself. Since he has seen the time-device passed to the silver car, he can simply go over to the silver car’s parked location outside the turnstile place and pick up the time-device and walk away.

Back to the Airport at Oslo – The Protagonist vs The Inverted Protagonist

Because of the inversion, the explosion has the opposite effect on the inverted-Protagonist, he gets hypothermia. The inverted-Protagonist realises that he enables Sator to get a look at the time-device that is present in the silver car he was driving. He causes the very thing he was trying to avoid. Inverted-Kat, inverted-Neil and the inverted-Protagonist lay low as inverted-Kat’s wound heals. They plan to use the turnstile at the airport to revert themselves. Notice how a wound grows on the inverted-Protagonists hands. This is because, from his inverted perspective, this wound is about to be formed in an upcoming fight.

At the airport, we see the aircraft explosion in reverse. It’s revealed to the audience that the masked man who fights the Protagonist is the inverted-Protagonist. He finds himself by the turnstile and jumps in. The inverted-Protagonist reverts and runs into Neil. This Neil belongs to a week ago, he chases down this future-Protagonist to realise that he’s a time traveller, and leaves him alone. 

At this time, the inverted-Neil goes through the turnstile with inverted-Kat, and both get reverted. They meet with the revered-Protagonist and make their way out. Now, remember, at this time, there are two Protagonists, two Neils and two Kats. But they don’t run into each other to cause any severe repercussions.

Meeting Priya again… for the first time

Future-Protagonist goes to meet Priya. From her perspective, she’s meeting him for the first time. This is two days before The Protagonist and Neil break into her house. He learns from her that he was set up to fail at retrieving the time-device. Priya then explains that it was one of nine parts of a doomsday device she refers to as the algorithm. Priya needs the Protagonist to get and lose the time device as that is the only way Sator will bring out the remaining that are already in his possession. The Protagonist knows where Sator is going to assemble it as he heard Sator mention Stalsk-12. He makes Priya give her word that Kat and her son will not be touched.

Travelling back in time to the day of the Kyiv Opera Heist

While not shown in the film, Kat, Neil and The Protagonist invert themselves again and get on a vessel to travel back in time. They discuss how Sator has a heart monitor connected to the activation of the algorithm. And that Sator plans to kill himself to trigger the end of the world. Kat mentions that Sator has inoperable cancer. 

They then figure that Sator is going to choose to kill himself on the boat in Vietnam. The day he felt loved by Kat. On that day, Sator left to go to Ukraine for the Kyiv Opera incident, and Kat took a day trip with her son. The boat was empty that day. They realise that a future Sator, who has got the algorithm assembled in Stalsk-12, is going to return to that boat and end his life. They plan that future-Kat will also need to be on the yacht to stall future-Sator from killing himself. While this happens, future-Neil and future-Protagonist will be part of the mission in Stalsk-12 to locate and extract the algorithm before its detonation is triggered by the bomb connected to Sator’s heart.

Future-Protagonist gives future-Kat a phone and tells her to call and state a message anytime she thinks her life is in danger. We’ll see the use of this device at the very end of Tenet.

kat tenet

What does future-Kat accomplish on the yacht in Vietnam?

While the team in Stalsk-12 is executing a mission to recover the doomsday algorithm device, future-Kat gets on the yacht. She sees her past self leave with Max. Remember, the Sator from this time is in Kiyv. Future-Sator arrives, expecting the boat to be empty as his men have told him that his son is out with Kat. He doesn’t know the Kat on the yacht is from the future, but she knows he is.

Future-Kat then acts like she’s in love and keeps future-Sator from taking his life. At one point, he has a call with the future-Protagonist thinking he has won. Soon after the call ends, Kate reveals herself to be from the future as she shows her bullet wound because she can’t stand that he might die knowing he’s won. She then shoots to kill future-Sator. 

After this, she cleans up and throws his body overboard. She gets ready to jump off the boat and sees her past self return with Max. Now we know that on that day, Kat actually saw her future self dive off the yacht.

Explanation of the Stalsk-12 forward and inverted operation

The Tenet team divides itself into two parts. The Red Team, which will go through the mission in the forward direction of time. And the Blue Team, which has already completed the task in the inverted order of time. The Blue Team’s mission started one hour later.

To make things clear – the Red Team, say, starts its mission at 2PM and ends at 3PM. The Blue Team would go elsewhere and wait till after 3PM. By then the Red Team would have finished the mission, they can now give a briefing to the Blue Team. After this, the Blue Team will get inverted. Now the Blue Team will start its mission at 3PM and end at 2PM. Because the Blue Team has experienced the events between 3PM and 2PM in reverse, they can revert and give details of what they saw, and this becomes a briefing to the Red Team. This is the temporal pincer manoeuvre.

(click to enlarge)

The Red Team is briefed that the Blue Team has found an opening, a tunnel, that will lead to the bomb and the doomsday algorithm. The Red Team needs to go in and retrieve the device before it is detonated. Ives is leading the attack, he’s a time traveller too. Eventually, they find the tunnel, and future-Ives and future-Protagonist enter the tunnel while a truck approaches behind them honking. At this time future-Neil is inverted, and he sees Sator’s men placing bombs at the entrance of the tunnel to seal it. 

Future-Neil reverts himself and tries to stop future-Ives and future-Protagonist from entering the tunnel. It is revealed that he’s the one in the truck honking to grab the attention of the two men running into the tunnel. Future-Neil heads to the areal opening, drops a line, and hopes for the best.

Soon as future-Ives and future-Protagonist enter, they are sealed in. They run to the end where they find themselves behind a locked gate. They see Sator’s man readying the bomb. Future-Protagonist sees a dead body with a backpack that has a ring on it. This is actually future-Neil who is inverted, but we find this out only at the ending of Tenet.

Future-Sator, from his yacht, talks to future-Protagonist. Future-Sator instructs his man to put a bullet into future-Protagonist’s head. Just then future-inverted-Neil un-dies to stand in front of future-Protagonist to take the shot. The gate opens, and future-Ives and future-Protagonist kill Sator’s guy. Remember, future-Neil is waiting above them with his truck and the dangling rope. The two men take the algorithm, reach for the rope, and future-Neil drives away pulling the duo safety.

Tenet Ending Explained: The Final Scene: Neil’s bag with the ring

Future-Ives, future-Neil and future-Protagonist split the algorithm threeway. But on hearing that the gate by the bomb needed to be picked, he realises that he needs to go back and invert himself to get to that location to help open the gate. When he turns to go, future-Protagonist notices that ring on the backpack and connects that it was future-Neil who was lying dead at the drop-zone. His eyes tear up. Future-Neil also realises that he’s going to die down below after he inverts himself. So he bids farewell to future-Protagonist saying it is the end of a beautiful friendship for him.

Future-Neil explains that future-Protagonist is the one who many years later, travels back in time and starts Tenet. And that he as an older man would recruit a young Neil. Which is why, for future-Protagonist, this would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Neil, but years later in his life.

The Complete Timeline Of The Protagonist

The Protagonist complete timeline
(click to enlarge)

The Protagonist Kills Priya

The Protagonist we see in the last scene entering Priya’s car has travelled back in time. The path of The Protagonist and how he knew where Priya’s car was is as follows:

  1. Kat calls using the device she gets from future-Protagonist before she goes to Vietnam.
  2. Kat leaves a message saying where she is and the car that she finds to be suspicious.
  3. The Protagonist receives this message.
  4. The Protagonist inverts and travels back in time.
  5. At that the moment he received the message, he goes to the location that Kat states.
  6. He finds Priya’s car there.
  7. The Protagonist enters the car and kills the shooter and tells Priya that it is he who will go on to create Tenet. That both of them have been working for an older version of himself.
  8. The Protagonist kills Priya as she’s a loose end in the equation whose word cannot be trusted. Kat walks away with Max safely.

Tenet: Is Max Neil?

Well, it’s a nice theory. But the answer is no. Here’s why. This is what Neil has to say, at the end, when The Protagonist asks Neil who recruited him.

Haven’t you guessed it by now? You did. But not when you thought. You have a future in the past. Many years ago for me. In many years for you.

This means The Protagonist takes his knowledge of defeating Sator to the past with him, becoming the founder of Tenet. The Protagonists future is in the past. Many years ago, Neil was recruited by an older version of The Protagonist. At the present time, Max is a young boy. Many years back, Max would have been an even younger kid. Neil can’t be Max because The Protagonist is not the type who would recruit a little boy into war. Neil is not Max.

TENET: The Palindrome Explained

Palindrome is a word or group of words that is the same when you read it forwards from the beginning or backwards from the end. Like TENET.

If you notice the movie has many scenes that are a palindrome. It’s the present and future happening at the same time but in two directions yet they are part of the same event. The Temporal Pincer Manoeuvre that Sator executes on the highway is an excellent example of this. So is the final battle in Stalsk-12 with the Red and Blue teams operating in opposite directions.

But the real palindrome is the movie itself. Observe that the film begins on the day of the Kyiv Opera event. The date is the 14th. Sir Michael Crosby mentions that on the same day there was a bomb explosion in Stalsk-12. The movie begins on that day of the 14th and follows The Protagonist in the forward direction. After Kate is shot by Sator, The Protagonist travels backwards through time, and the climax of the movie happens on that same date, the 14th. The beginning and end of Tenet happen together. Either way, you look at the events of TENET, backwards or forward, it tells the same exact story. 

What did you think about the film? Did you like it? Does some aspect of the film still stay unexplained for you? Why don’t you drop a comment below and we can discuss it.

If you liked Tenet, check out this list of best Time Travel movies:

best time travel movies films

 

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