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Tenet explained – Nolan’s brilliant time inversion revealed

Tenet with John David Washington and Robert Pattinson

Is Tenet too hard to understand?

Tenet is the latest movie by director Christopher Nolan, and as is traditional for the director the details of the plot can be hard to understood. On this page I hope to provide an in-depth analysis of Tenet’s themes and timeline. I will be using the tie-in media such as The Secrets of Tenet and the novelization. I hope they will provide some of the explanations that a visit to the cinema cannot provide. Furthermore, I have also included some diagrams created by some knowledgeable fans, references included. If you are uncertain what the movie is about you can always read my Tenet review.

Sator Square
Sator Square

Director Christopher Noland first conceived of a movie like Tenet over 20 years ago, roughly when he was making Memento. However, earnest work on a script only began in 2014. To underscore the use of the time inversion mechanism the title itself is a reference to the Sator Square, a Latin five-line palindrome that form a square. The word Tenet which is centrally located in the square means keeps, comprehends, possesses or masters. Sator on the other hand means founder or progenitor. Both Tenet and Sator are interesting references to the main characters of the movie: Protagonist played by John David Washington and Andrei Sator played by Kenneth Branagh. The other three words: rotas, arepo and opera are also featured.

Tenet timeline explained

For those eager to understand the weird timeline of Tenet here is the brilliant diagram created by @cookpete on Reddit. It tracks the major characters such as Protagonist, Neil, Kat and Sator and the moments they undergo entropy reversal.

Tenet timeline explained

I will clarify one point. After Sator manages to obtain the last artifact in Tallinn to complete the Algorithm he moves back in time. At some point he will revert to move forward and becomes ‘Older Sator’.

That said, there remain a number of open questions. One of those is the relationship between Neil (Robert Pattinson) and The Protagonist (John David Washington). It is clear the Protagonist experiences time and the film’s events much like we do, with intermittent entropy reversion. By the end of the movie he becomes aware that his future self has been communicating back. These instructions are made through Priya, through means unknown. But what about Neil. By the end of the movie I was convinced Neil is from the future using long stretches of entropy reversion. This allows him join the Protagonist at certain critical moments in time to influence events. However, few other people agree with this assessment and consider Neil to be current but being ‘in the loop’ earlier than Protagonist. What do you think? If Neil is from the future there is a risk he will run into himself.

Tenet Oslo

Exploring contemporary themes

According to director Christopher Nolan Tenet is shaded with ‘apocalyptic sensibility’. It explores a wide range of contemporary themes: political and historical upheaval, the dangers of scientific advancement and impending environmental collapse. However, according to producer Emma Thomas the director never had any intention of making a ‘message movie’, it is as such not didactic. That said, with Tenet the director did hope to push the boundaries of cinema and with it our perception. “This liberation of our visualization of time that the camera provides”.

The Secrets of Tenet

The Secrets of Tenet by James Mottram is the official behind the scenes book of the movie Tenet. This ‘making of’ coffee table book with forwards and backwards by John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh lays bare the creative process that went into this production. It also features never before seen photos, production art and storyboards. I have written a review for this book which you can read following this link. It is currently available for $43.99 as a hardcover from Amazon.

Tenet Robert Pattinson as Neil

Official screenplay

This screenplay is written by Christopher Nolan. At first I thought it was a novelization of the story. It is also known by the name Merry Go Round which is the working title for the movie.

The characters of Tenet

Below is a selection of short character biographies. Their backgrounds are mostly obscure, but I want to point out any salient details that may clarify some of the obscure aspects of Tenet.


Tenet John David Washington as Protagonist


Robert Pattinson as Neil in Tenet

Neil is probably the most mysterious character throughout Tenet. We know nothing of his origin, though I suspect he is from years into the future and has inverted back on the orders of Protagonist. Some fans have theorized Neil may be Kat’s son Max. It is an interesting theory and it continues the theme that Neil has traveled back in time. Yet, the screenplay makes no mention of this. Neil is the source of most of the movies initial humor with fish-out-of-water Graham Greene character. But this is revealed to be an act to entice Protagonist to work with him.


Tenet Elizabeth Debicki as Kat


Kenneth Branagh as Sator


Martin Donovan as Fay

Fay is a minor character in the movie. He is the handler for Protagonist and sets him onto the mystery of time-inversion after the terrorist attack on the Kiev opera. The character imbues the qualities of a classic spy master. Fay may not know the exact details of time inversion though he might suspect its nature when he warns Protagonist of the consequences should the mission fail. It feels like Fay’s role might have been larger in an earlier draft of the screenplay. No doubt his recurring role would have ensured Protagonist and Neil got the necessary logistical support. That also makes it clear why the role was cut to what it is now. The character sets the Protagonist on his journey. Fay is played by Martin Donovan.


Dimple Kapadia as Priya in Tenet

Priya is an interesting character in this movie. Unlike Sir Michael Crosby she actually manages to help the Protagonist and Neil along. Yet she is also a red-herring. At first she is presented as an early villain and is nearly killed by Protagonist. This happened because she did not advertise she was closely cooperating with elements within the C.I.A. If she had, something would have been put on paper which would have alerted Sator when the information eventually streams back from the future. Throughout the story she consistently informs Protagonist to take a different approach in preventing Sator from assembling the algorithm. In the end her underhandedness gets her killed by Protagonist when she tries to have Kat killed in the epilogue. Kat informed Protagonist of potential danger, a warning that streamed back at him.


Clémence Poésy as Barbara in Tenet

Sir Michael Crosby

Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby in Tenet

I hope you enjoyed this explanation of the movie. Over the coming weeks I will slowly expand its contend to also encompass some of the deeper themes. If you have comments or suggestion you can post them in the official movie discussion board.