Tenet Movie Ending Explained & Terminologies Analyzed: Christopher Nolan’s most recent science-fiction venture has essentially all the elements that have become characteristic of his filmmaking style – non-linear storytelling, temporal manipulation, familial estrangement, parental love, megalomania & fate vs. free will.
At the same time, it is both a tribute and at times, a parody of a Bond film. It also is his most complex film to date, with Physics and logic colliding at every step and a plot that moves at a breakneck speed to allow for any breathing room. So putting the pieces in place can become a frustrating job.
Yet, there’s a method to this madness that when decoded, is extremely rewarding, So here’s some explanations that can hopefully be of use when you get around to watching it again (it’d be quite a loss to sacrifice the experience of it in favor of understanding it if you’re watching it for the first time and there are spoilers galore in this).
Tenet Movie Terminologies Explained:
The dominant facet of the world of ‘Tenet’ is the concept of inversion. At some indefinite point in the future, a scientist figures out how to make objects move backward in time through nuclear fission. This menaces the law of cause and effect. So an inverted object like a bullet can be fired by catching the shot, not shooting it (an inverted bullet wound is lethal). A human being that undergoes inversion perceives the world around them very differently. They cannot breathe normal oxygen or feel the wind in its actual direction. The transfer of heat is reversed so if an inverted person catches fire, they freeze. This is why ‘Tenet’ is not exactly a time travel movie but one about the manipulation of time and exactly characters cannot simply travel to and back from the future.
These are circular objects that are parted down the middle with rotating doors. They are used to invert human beings, unlike inverted objects which possibly undergo radiation to facilitate their conversion. One doesn’t enter a turnstile unless they see themselves reverse-exit on the other side. It is a device invented in the future but the technology required to do so was sent to Sator in the present to aid him in his search for the artifacts.
To ease our understanding, Nolan color codes the two sides of the turnstile. Red indicates the side where people move forward while blue indicates the side where people move backward. This scheme is also followed by Tenet’s two attacking teams during the climax.
‘Temporal’ pincer movement:
A traditional pincer movement is a form of military attack where a force simultaneously attacks its enemy on both flanks. A temporal pincer movement refers to a similar attack though not in space, but in time. Here, one team attacks moving forwards while the other does so moving backward.
Technically, they aren’t exactly attacking simultaneously as the first team to do so is passing on the information it has gathered about the enemy to the team attacking second by moving back in time. There are two clearly depicted types of this in the film – the first is during the highway chase and the second is during the climax in Stalsk-12.
Though not explicitly elaborated on, a dead drop is essentially a location where the people in the future are leaving the inverted objects for Sator to collect, like bullets. The climax of the film takes place at a dead-drop. Sator on the other hand contacts the people in the future using texts, emails, archives – any writing recorded for posterity.
Tenet Movie Plot Summar & Synopsis:
As mentioned above, at some indefinite point in the future, a scientist discovered the ability to invert objects and then weaponized it into something called the ‘Algorithm’. The Algorithm, when triggered, turns back all of time itself and ceases life on earth completely. Realizing the ramifications of her discovery, she breaks the Algorithm into nine parts and hides them in her past, which is the present-day timeline, in high radiation zones where no one will venture to find them, in each of the nine nations possessing nuclear power.
Then, she kills herself to never reveal the secret to anyone else. Forces in the future, desirous of revenge against their ancestors for having ruined the climate of the world and bringing their generation to the edge of extinction, decide to put the Algorithm back together and annihilate their forefathers to prevent them from ruining their world. Somehow, they’ve found a solution to override the grandfather paradox and manage to continue existing despite eliminating their antecedents, which is why they proceed with their efforts.
Andrei Sator grew up in one of the USSR’s secret cities (closed cities absent on maps). As a teenager, he took up a contract to procure plutonium from a nuclear explosion site. This derring-do of his in dealing with toxic radiation sites made him the perfect candidate for the people in the future to use him as a means of finding the pieces of the Algorithm and putting it together. Following the fall of the USSR, he made his fortune as an arms dealer, becoming an oligarch while also searching for the Algorithm pieces, referred to as artifacts, having successfully found 8 and the final one being what is referred to as plutonium-241 throughout the film.
The Protagonist is a CIA agent, recruited by a spy organization named Tenet to basically stop Sator from putting the Algorithm back together and destroying the present-day world.
The Main Events:
Kiev Opera House:
The Kiev Opera scene is important with regard to the events that happen around it. As Sir Michael Crosby informs the Protagonist, an explosion in Stalsk-12 went off around the same time as the siege and when Sator was on his doomsday yacht with his family. As it turns out, with the progression of the loop, this moment when the Protagonist’s test to be recruited by Tenet, under the orders of his own future self, is happening simultaneously with the ambush of Stalsk-12, the most important job he pulls off as a Tenet operative.
It’s also the place where the Protagonist first encounters inversion, comes across the soldier with the trinket who saves him, and sees a section of the Algorithm for the first time. Therefore, the introduction of ‘Tenet’ and its world happens at the same time as that of its climax, when this world is on the verge of destruction.
Oslo Freeport and Tallinn Car Chase:
A ‘freeport’ is a section of an airport or dock where goods are received and shipped free of customs duty. Sator owns several such freeports around the world through his company, Rotas (the inverse of his name). The false appraisal of a fake Goya painting as original by Katherine, his wife, had become his leverage on her, which if exposed, would ruin Katherine’s reputation as an appraiser. This leverage was used by him to keep her from their son. The Protagonist, in order to gain an audience with Sator through Katherine, decides to steal the fake Goya painting from his freeport in the Oslo airport. This event is intrinsically connected to the car chase in Tallinn later on in the film.
During the execution of the heist, two masked men emerge from a turnstile that was built inside the freeport and ambush them but they manage to deal with them. Later, Priya informs the Protagonist that it wasn’t two but one man, and he had used the turnstile.
In Tallinn, on the mission to obtain some missing plutonium-241 (which is really the 9th artifact) from Ukrainian Special Services for Sator, the Protagonist and Neil find themselves in a car chase with an inverted Sator, in a car moving in reverse holding Katherine hostage.
During this chase, an upturned car turns itself back and also starts driving in reverse. The Protagonist saves Katherine by handing an empty container to Sator but is captured and taken in for interrogation. He is placed on the red side of the turnstile and he sees an inverted Sator on the blue side with Katherine who shoots her with an inverted bullet while asking him about the location of the artifact.
The Protagonist ends up telling him that the artifact is with his past self in the car, at which point, Sator moves through the turnstile to the red side and again interrogates him. When the military team of Ives intrudes on the scene, Sator moves back through the turnstile and sets out in the same car, with Katherine, in which we saw him earlier (the interrogation basically started on the red side from which Sator moved to the blue side to use Katherine in his interrogation, at which point he got the artifact’s location from the Protagonist).
The Protagonist passes through the turnstile and it turns out that the upturned car contained him, in which he was chasing the inverted Sator. When Sator realizes that he’s been lied to, he sets the Protagonist’s vehicle on fire though Ives’s team manages to save him from dying.
Before the Protagonist passed through the turnstile to go after Sator, he formed a plan to save Katherine. Given that she would die from the bullet’s inverse radiation, Neil suggests that taking her through the turnstile would slow down the process, and then they would revert her to normalize it all. But since the turnstile was until recently owned by Sator’s, if they go back, Ives won’t be able to be there for the reversion. So the Protagonist suggests using the turnstile in the Oslo freeport, a week ago on the day they ambushed it, to revert her.
He rejoins this mission to save Katherine after being saved by Ives in the car chase. Back in Oslo on the day, the Protagonist is revealed to be the soldier that his past self and Neil got into a fight with at the Freeport. The fight is inverted this time, at the end of which when the place is clear, the present Neil successfully passes himself and Katherine through the turnstile and she is saved.
Stalsk-12 and Vietnam:
On 14th June, Sator was on his yacht in Vietnam with Katherine and their son. The Protagonist learns from Katherine in the future, that is, after the recovery of her wound, that Sator plans on killing himself. His constant exposure to radiation in search of the artefacts had led him to contract an inoperable form of pancreatic cancer and so he wants to kill himself. This death has severe ramifications as Sator is a dead man’s switch, meaning that the moment his fitness tracker records his death is when the Algorithm is triggered by the future at which point, the world comes to an end.
Katherine is therefore sent back to that day in Vietnam in an attempt to delay his suicide. She is to let Sator kill himself only after Mahir has signalled to let her know that the Algorithm has been secured by Tenet operatives. On the actual day, Katherine had abruptly left the boat with their son after he offered to not reveal her mistake if she kept away from their son forever. So the future Katherine arrives on the boat pretending to have changed her mind and therefore having returned, acting amiably around him to postpone his suicide, which works.
Tenet soldiers plan a temporal pincer attack on a hypocenter at Stalsk-12, now a ghost town and the dead drop for the entire Algorithm, at the same time as Katherine is doing her job. A detonation that is to go off there is meant to trigger the Algorithm, coinciding with Sator’s death. Volkov, Sator’s henchman, is overlooking the drop of the Algorithm.
The Blue Team, going backwards, lands on the site of the explosion just seconds before it takes place to gather information about the zone and the best plan of attack. The Red Team, going forwards, is to attack the launch site and clear it while the Blue Team evacuates. A battle is to take place between the two teams on one side and Sator’s forces on the other, who are also a combination of forwards and backwards soldiers since the hypocenter has a turnstile inside. A splinter unit, containing just Ives and the Protagonist, will go to the bottom of the hypocenter to recover the Algorithm before the explosion goes off.
The splinter unit reaches the hypocenter’s bottom where it notices a dead soldier from their side with a trinket in his bag, behind the locked gate where Volkov is handling the Algorithm. The Protagonist realises that he’s the one who saved his life in Kiev. Neil, who’s on the Blue Team, sees Volkov escape the cave after successfully putting the Algorithm in place. So he abandons his team, reverts himself using the turnstile there (he was inverted since he was a member of the Blue Team) and takes control of a truck.
The dead soldier is revealed to be his inverted self, who saves the Protagonist from getting shot, opens the door for him to kill Volkov and retrieve the Algorithm. In Vietnam, Katherine reveals herself to be from the future and kills a shocked Sator without waiting for Mahir’s signal, so that he doesn’t have the satisfaction of dying thinking he’s won. Ives and the Protagonist, along with the Algorithm, are pulled up to the ground by the reverted Neil in his truck, right before the explosion is set off, hence saving the world.
Tenet Movie Ending Explained:
Ives divides the Algorithm into three parts between himself, the Protagonist and Neil. They are to hide them and kill themselves to prevent anyone from finding its location. Neil then leaves to rejoin the mission with Ives as he’s the only locksmith good enough to open the door on time, before the explosion. The trinket in his bag reveals to the Protagonist that he’s been secretly saving his life all this time.
Neil reveals to the Protagonist that the latter is the one who recruited him in the past and that they would go on to become great friends and partners. The entire operation, starting from the Protagonist’s recruitment through the Kiev opera siege to the Stalsk-12 ambush is a temporal pincer, orchestrated by the Protagonist’s future self. In fact the present Protagonist, Neil, Priya – they’re all working for the future Protagonist. It’s possible that since Tenet was founded in the future, the Protagonist played a founding role.
Katherine records a message on the device she was given by the Protagonist stating suspicion at being murdered. The Protagonist secretly shows up at the place and time when the message was recorded, seeing that Priya indeed intended to kill Katherine as she’s a ‘loose end’, knowing too much about inversion and the Algorithm for a civilian. The Protagonist instead kills Priya as a loose end, saving Katherine and her son and continuing with his temporal pincer to save the world.