‘TENET’ Analysis & Ending Explained

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Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking has the capability of creating a universe where he bends reality in a very perceivable way while making a story that can do justice to the sheer ambiguity of the whole thing. The latest addition to the decorated filmography of Christopher Nolan is TENET which makes the script of Inception look like a child’s play. The ever-growing global reputation of Nolan has allowed him to tweak the reality to an extent where almost everything is made-up yet it feels more real than reality itself.

Decoding Tenet and the brainchild of Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema (cinematographer) is quite a remarkable feat if done in accordance with the story. In order to do justice to it let me first introduce you to the process of Time Inversion.


Major Spoilers Ahead

‘TENET’ Time Inversion

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TENET is guided by the multiverse theory which states that a multiverse is a hypothetical group of multiple universes linked together, also known as parallel universes. This phenomenon is propelled to another level of execution by the imminent danger of destruction of our planet. TENET takes the theory of multiple universes and merges it with the infamous Bootstrap Paradoxes.

A Causal Loop approach is taken which states that due to retro-causality or time travel, certain sequences of events will occur and these events are in turn among the causes of the first-mentioned event. *Mind blown*. Just to put it in simple perspective as per a Dr Who storyline which bewildered me was a causal loop, the premise is that a hypothetical time-traveller copies Beethoven’s music from the future and publishes it in Beethoven’s time in Beethoven’s name.

TENET (2020 Film) Analysis & Ending Explained
The bullet hole on the mirror is created by Inverted Timeline.

TENET breaks boundaries by inculcating this theory as the future is not able to acquire the Algorithm, which we witness ‘from the inside’. Time Inversion comes into play instead of time travel as the time flow in TENET is a fixed loop with a uniform speed of travel. This makes sure that in order to move along the timeline the time has to be inverted which means in order to go 10 years in the past; a person will age for 10 years making the time loop fixed. The inversion if done to any object or subject is purely subjective to the perspectives and for a body that is inverted everything non-inverted moves backward.

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Now that it has been established let’s dive further.


What the Hell is Happening?

The plot of the movie is not too difficult to understand, it’s just that due to application of aforementioned theories it becomes too complex to psychologically agree with the whole scenario, as we don’t go through time-loops in everyday life, and becomes even more excruciating if you miss a scene or two.

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The premise of the film is that scientific research and analysis in the future allows a curious scientist to acquire the Algorithm. In the process of understanding it, she discovers the destructive capabilities of it and in order to maintain harmony and peace in the world, she moves back into time. The Algorithm is broken into 9 fragments by the scientist which she hides in the past and commits suicide to avoid a world-ending catastrophe. Andrei Sator stumbles upon a capsule in the past that gives him gold and more importantly it provided him with the invaluable instructions which made Sator acquire the fragments of the Algorithm. The perseverance of Sator played by Kenneth Branagh establishes him as the primary antagonist of the film.

TENET (2020 Film) Analysis & Ending Explained
Sator played by Kenneth Branagh

The Protagonist portrayed by John David Washington is so aptly named that it personifies the minimalistic and subtle nomenclature of characters in a Nolan project. The protagonist is a CIA operative who comes across the 9th fragment of the Algorithm, namely Plutonium-241. This is the only fragment required by Sator and he is exploring the timeline in order to acquire it and complete the Algorithm. This kicks in a series of events which makes the opening scene of the film where we see the Protagonist is being tortured by Sator’s men who want the location of the 9th fragment and in order to refrain himself from telling anything the Protagonist takes a ‘death pill’ and passes out. He wakes up dazed and confused as he isn’t able to fathom what is happening and he wants to leave his job for good but instead of that he gets recruited in the TENET in order to save the world.

The Protagonist portrayed by John David Washington
The Protagonist portrayed by John David Washington and Neil played by Robert Pattinson

The first inverted object that we see in the film is a bullet and in order to know where it came from the Protagonist goes on a hunt to know the arms dealer who supplied the inverted bullets. Neil played by Robert Pattinson establishes the next paradox in the timeline, he meets the protagonist and they come across Priya who is aware of the whole inversion in time and she tells the protagonist about the fact that she had nothing to do with the inversion and the bullets that she sold were normal and Sator got them inverted. In pursuit of Andrei Sator, the Protagonist has a rendezvous with Sir Michael Crosby who has valuable intel about the explosion on 14th which will introduce the fourth paradox in the timeline. Sir Crosby becomes even more pivotal as he introduces the character of Kat, spouse of Andrei Sator and gaining her trust is important in order to reach Sator. Kat and the Protagonist meet and Kat tells him about how she sold a counterfeit painting to her husband and making amends for it might help the Protagonist. Neil and the Protagonist then go to Oslo Freeport for the theft and come across the Temporal Turnstiles resulting in a fight with the Protagonist from the Future. In no time the Protagonist finds himself sabotaging and hijacking a Ukrainian convoy which apparently is transferring Plutonium 241 in Tallinn.

TENET (2020 Film) Analysis & Ending Explained
Tallinn – Location of the TENET’s Finale

Tallinn heist is an extremely integral part of the film and beautifully crafted to put in the final pieces of the puzzle of TENET. Protagonist and Neil try to execute a robbery of an armoured truck that is carrying the final fragment and to increase the pressure on them, the heist has to be done while the truck is in motion. The heist itself is a cinematic beauty and the various hindrances that come into play during the filming are tackled effortlessly. The Protagonist is able to acquire the last fragment of the Algorithm and to everyone’s surprise, he witnesses inverted cars which implied that the heist was interrupted by Sator and he uses the turnstile to go to 14th and execute his sinister plans. The turmoil in the environment turns to chaos as Kat is shot, compelling the Protagonist to return to the turnstile in the Oslo Freeport as TENET is yet to have the capability of taking over a turnstile. Kat’s life is saved by inverting the time which allowed her to have some time to heal from the wound while creating a problem for the Protagonist. The revelation of using a Temporal Pincer Movement makes us realize how it is another paradox in time and the reason why Sator was always a step ahead of the Protagonist, no matter what. The only window of opportunity for success was allocated by the Protagonist and he chose the only turnstile available in the timeline which was Oslo Freeport turnstile. The movement in time had its climax in the Hallway fight scene but from a different perspective.


The Ending Explained

The Tallinn heist did not end as per the Protagonist’s plan but Kat was safe. The protagonist had lost his course of action and in order to acquire one, he meets Priya and learns a bit more about the Algorithm and returns to the TENET squad. Kat tells him about the Sator’s cancer and even his probable choice for dying in peace, which is their cruise ship in Vietnam. The Protagonist asked Kat to go to Vietnam and prevent Sator from committing suicide and the TENET squad goes to Stalsk in order to retrieve the Algorithm.

Tenet Ending Explained
Red Team with Red Watch led by “the Protagonist.”
Tenet Ending Explained
Blue Team with Blue Watch led by “Neil.”

The squad upon reaching Stalsk is divided into two groups, Team Red and Team Blue, in order to successfully perform a Temporal Pincer Movement which gives rise to the sixth paradox chronologically. Team Red which includes the Protagonist and Ives goes non-inverted and the blue along with Neil who waited for the cue to go through time inversion. Neil saw a henchman setting up a tripwire and he wants to warn others about it so he inverts himself back and tries to alarm others by honking but his eyes sense his future self and he goes back to the hole to save them. Neil’s warning did not reach the Protagonist and the taskforce due to which they get stuck in the tunnel where the inverted future Neil is seen creating another paradox.

The Protagonist understands by the end that TENET’s purpose was never to win against the tyrannical powers rising but to showcase that they lost whilst in order to satisfy and satiate the tyrant’s ego by making him understand that he won. The Protagonist is able to use the fight against the oligarch Andrei Sator to his advantage by making the whole scenario a cover and retrieve the Algorithm so that Sator dies thinking he won but in reality, TENET lost and evaded the catastrophe and safeguard the future.

“TENET never won but it didn’t lose either.”


TENET is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Shreshtha Shukla
"Thou art the suffering from which unwarranted melancholia emerges" Shreshtha Shukla is a writer, teacher, and a film enthusiast.

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