A few weeks ago, I had been challenged by some friends to try to lay out exactly what occurred in the motion picture Tenet based on my one viewing of the film. I have opted to structure this chronologically to maybe map out what is occurring when and why. I will not pretend that I did not use the wikipedia summary and an (inaccurate but still close-up) transcript of the dialogue to clarify some of the more hard-to-hear areas (specifically the boating scene), but most of it I will swear on the honor system is my memory from the very first watch.
A few notes before I move forward:
– This really should not change anyone’s attitude on the movie. For one thing, I’ve already mentioned that the “plot” of any movie is not particularly important but it’s especially not a concern for me in Tenet. For another, I don’t know that the “what” is ever the point of the movie for anyone so much as the presentation and it’s clear the presentation is a big part of what makes everyone have a problem with Tenet.
– This isn’t a cudgel to protect Tenet from criticism. As you will see in the bottom of this page, this whole ordeal has led me to a particular gripe I have with the premise so if anything… it might illuminate more plot holes.
– I STRONGLY advise anybody who has no seen Tenet to watch the movie before reading this. Not only because this post is full of SPOILERS but because a lot of information here will be presented in an order ahead of when WE THE AUDIENCE learn that information and I’d daresay that’s a huge amount of the fun of the movie.
1990-91, Stalsk-12, Siberia: A teenaged Andrei Sator – while digging for Pu-241 (Plutonium 241) – encounters the first of many inverted time capsules addressed to him, having been left behind from people in the future and passing backwards through time to this point. Using the directions (including murdering his digging partner) and the foresight of these capsules as well as the gold bullion included in each capsule, Sator builds his reputation as an arms dealer while secretly building turnstiles and seeking out each hidden piece of the Algorithm, a weapon of mass destruction utilizing entropy reversal on a worldwide scale that would facilitate the wishes of Sator’s benefactors that the world is destroyed before reaching an apparent desolate future.
2008, Russia: A Russian missile station is occupied – I am unclear as to if it was occupied by CIA or Ukranian forces (I guess the latter because it IS a Hollywood movie). When Russia reclaims the station, it is light on 3/4 kg of Pu-421.
Somewhere between Sator’s Rise to Russian Oligarch (and Marriage to Kat Barton, Including the Birth of Their Son Max), His Collection of 8 of the 9 Pieces of the Algothim, and the Events of the Film: Kat and Sator have now become extremely estranged as a married couple. Kat, an art appraiser for the London-based auction house Shipley’s, has accidentally sold an ostensible Francisco Goya painting that turns out to be a forgery by her close friend Tomas Arepo. Kat finds this out too late and Sator uses this information to blackmail Kat into remaining in their marriage under the threat of prison and Kat’s career being ruined. Arepo, in the meantime, is implied to have been murdered under Sator’s orders.
Meanwhile, The Protagonist is a CIA agent who is recruited to investigate the missing Pu-241. He and the rest of his team are undercover with Ukranian officials. One of The Protagonist’s colleagues appears to have made contact with the individual holding the Pu-241.
Day 0, Vietnam: In order to write off the fraud commit to him by Kat, Sator shanghais her and Max to an expensive yacht vacation in Vietnam. During this, Kat tries to reconcile their relationship and eventually asks for emancipation from their marriage. Sator cruelly agrees on the condition that Kat never contact Max again. After a flicker of consideration, Kat lashes out and takes Max ashore. Sator in the meantime helicopters off of the yacht to Kiev to commit a siege at the Opera House where he is informed the final piece of the algorithm he is seeking will be located.
The yacht empty of all except staff, a future Kat is brought to the boat by Mahir to intercept and distract an approaching future Sator from committing suicide (and thereby activating a Dead Man’s Switch that triggers a bomb intended to activate the Algorithm). The future Sator arrives to reminisce about this last “pleasant” memory of their marriage and is suspicious of Kat being on the yacht when he boards but assumes it is the present version of Kat (with the belief that he killed Kat in the future in Tallinn) and calls over the boat containing Present Kat and Max under the presumption that it only holds their son. Future Kat finds herself unable to maintain the façade and kills Sator premature of Mahir’s signal that The Protagonist has secured the algorithm before throwing the body off the boat and diving to her freedom (Present Kat witnesses the dive as her boat approaches the yacht, but does not recognize herself and assumes Sator is having an affair).
Day 0, Stalsk-12: Tenet engages in a Pincer Movement offense towards Sator’s intended detonation area for the Algorithm – Inverted Blue Team and Forward-Moving Red Team acting as reconnaissance and cover for one another against Sator’s inverted and conventional soldiers. The Protagonist and Ives are a splinter team to enter an assumed open spot deep in the blast zone and retrieve the Algorithm. The opening to the descending tunnel is demolished behind them, forcing the two to move forward to find the gate to the blast zone locked and an apparent corpse of a team member (with a recognizable pendant on its backpack) behind the gate. Ives is shot by an approaching Volkov, who prepares the Algorithm.
Neil, whilst on the Blue Team, witnesses Volkov setting a trap to trap The Protagonist and Ives in the tunnel to the blast zone and – after locating a local Turnstile used by Sator’s soldiers – uninverts himself and steals one of Sator’s military vehicles. Failing to warn The Protagonist and Ives before they enter the tunnel, Neil attempts to use a tow line as an out for the two.
When Volkov prepares to execute the protagonist, the corpse is revealed to be inverted and takes the headshot before unlocking the gate for the Protagonist to incapacitate Volkov and secure the Algorithm but are informed that Kat has killed Sator. At this point, Neil’s tow line reaches them and they are able to be pulled out in time before the blast zone explodes from Sator’s dead man switch.
Ives, The Protagonist, and Neil arrange to break up the Algorithm once more and hide the parts. However, Neil is aware that he will be the one to unlock the Blast Zone gate for the The Protagonist and Ives (and thereby be killed) so he heads off to invert and perform the task. As he goes, he informs The Protagonist of the duration of their friendship and that he is behind the entire organization of Tenet.
Day 0, Kiev Opera House (This is where the movie proper opens and where we will be following the premise for a long while): The Protagonist’s colleague has by this point actually been in contact with the alleged Pu-241 that has been missing and while The Protagonist moves undercover with Ukrainian forces to extract his colleague and the Pu-241, Sator performs a siege on the Opera House seeking out the same container of Pu-241 aware that it has been used to make his final piece of the Algorithm. During the standoff, a likewise undercover Neil saves The Protagonist’s life with an inverted round, ostensibly The Protagonist’s first encounter with inversion of any sort. In the meantime, The Protagonist learns that the Pu-241 is in the form of the Algorithm piece, though unaware of what its purpose is.
While the Protagonist is able to extract both the Algorithm piece and his colleague and prevent a catastrophic explosion that would have covered Sator’s trails, he is nevertheless made and tortured by extrajudicial Russian operatives in order to reveal the location of the Pu-241 and his colleagues. The Protagonist is able to use a cyanide pill provided by a fellow captive to attempt suicide before talking and is left for dead.
The Protagonist wakes up to learn that the cyanide pills were fake. His team was unfortunately captured and killed regardless, but his superior alludes of a secret organization who make themselves known to each other through a gesture of crossing their fingers and stating “Tenet”. He is then sent on a trail to meet with a scientist part of this organization who is studying the reversed entropy that makes up the bullet that The Protagonist encountered at the Opera House. The bullets in question appear to move backwards because they are moving through time in a reverse direction to the rest of the world around them (although ostensibly any non-inverted human hit by an inverted round would be devastated since the wound would not be opening or closing correctly). The Protagonist requests the alloy makeup of the bullets which lead him to…
Mumbai: Where he arrives with the knowledge that the round was most distributed by Sanjay Singh. The Protagonist then meets Neil for the ostensible first time with the request to arrange a personal meeting with Singh, which they perform by sneaking into Singh’s personal high rise and dispatching the security. The Protagonist interrogates Singh at gunpoint before his wife Priya reveals herself to be the mastermind behind their arms dealing as well as a member of Tenet.
Priya informs The Protagonist that the rounds were sold to Andrei Sator and Sator has inverted them through technology provided to him by the future which he appears to be in contact with by means of records.
London: After receiving further information of Sator’s dealings and background with Stalsk-12 (informed of both Sator’s involvement with the Kiev Siege as well as the explosion in Stalsk-12 that occurred almost simultaneously), he is suggested an in by way of his wife Kat Barton and a forged Goya painting which she would be aware of due to its connection to Tomas Arepo.
The Protagonist meets Kat at Shipley’s, receives her attention through the forged painting, and learns of her marital situation (including that Sator is aware that she defrauded him and their trip to Vietnam). The Protagonist suggests that he may be able to make the painting vanish for her and, after suggesting his capabilities by dispatching of Sator’s enforcers, Kat informs him of the Freeport – a structure placed in an airport that is intended to hold valuable possessions rather than bring them through customs – in Oslo where the painting is held.
Oslo Freeport: Taking direction from one of the time capsules provided, Sator has the Arepo forgery removed from the vaults.
During the planning of their heist, The Protagonist takes interest in the unlisted ostensibly empty room at the center of the blueprint and this is ostensibly why absolutely no screentime when they are in the Freeport is spent even looking for the Arepo forgery.
The team’s plan goes mostly as expected at first: Mahir hijacks a Norsk-Freight plane with no casualties, chucking the gold bars that are its cargo on the runway as distraction and has the plane crash into the Freeport whilst The Protagonist and Neil are there under the guise of having property stored there. The subsequent fire and its gas-based extinguishing system allows The Protagonist and Neil an opportunity to break into that central room The Protagonist noted in the blueprints.
It is split in two with the doors to each half coding a red sign and a blue sign. Neil and The Protagonist enter each one respectively to find a weird machine at the other end that rotates its openings to reveal the same man in a tactical suit exiting from each half – these men are both the Protagonist in disguise, the red room one is inverted in an attempt to distract and chase our two heroes away in a struggle with Our Protagonist. The other is orthodox and chased by Neil until Neil is able to pull off his helmet, revealing his identity and bringing Neil to prevent Our Protagonist from killing his opponent before the inverted Protagonist is able to “escape” by being sucked out of room, ostensibly to be killed by the Norsk Freight turbine but in fact revealed to have come from a shipping container from Tallin with an inverted Neil and Kat, the latter suffering from a gunshot wound in the future.
As Our Protagonist and Neil play knocked out from the halcyon gas of the Freeport’s fire extinguishing system and are removed by paramedics, the newly uninverted disguised Protagonist exits the scene to signal to the inverted Neil that the Freeport is clear for him to go through without encountering Our Protagonist or Our Neil. As the inverted Neil takes the inverted Kat on a gurney into the Freeport and through the machine we saw The Disguised Protagonist come out of, The Newly Uninverted Protagonist steals an ambulance and once the Newly Uninverted Neil and Kat board, they leave to a secure spot for Neil to remove her bullet wound.
Mumbai: The Protagonist approaches Priya by surprise informing her of Kat’s near-death and Sator’s acquiring of the Algorithm. After Priya informs him of the Algorithm’s origins, she tells the Protagonist that Tenet in fact has similar technology to the one we witnessed in the Freeport’s secret room – known as the Turnstile, a machine used to invert objects or people and constructed/left behind by inverted people from the future – thereby giving The Protagonist and Tenet a chance to stop Sator at his plan. The Protagonist asks for Priya’s word that Kat or her son will not be killed once the operation is over, which Priya promises.
Moving the Opposite Direction in Time, Somewhere at Sea: The Protagonist, Kat, and Neil invert themselves along with the rest of the Tenet team. Meanwhile, they deduce that the Algorithm is located in Stalsk-12 and that Sator will attempt to detonate it via dead-man switch after he commits suicide at the Vietnam vacation (Kat knowing that Sator has inoperable cancer and will want to go out on his own terms). Neil alarms The Protagonist with knowledge that the original Sator will not be on the yacht because he will be at the Kiev siege so Kat can take him by surprise. In any case, Tenet aims to uninvert themselves on Day 0 and prepares for the operation at hand. Kat will be uninverting herself a few days earlier to meet with Mahir and prepare to infiltrate the yacht, but before The Protagonist uninverts, he gives Kat a phone for her to use if she feels in danger for “posterity”.
Mumbai, Later: Our Protagonist informs Priya of what he saw at the Freeport (personal note: the fact that he refers to himself in the tactical suit as “Antagonists”, not yet knowing they were in fact him, is a pretty amusing grace note) and she explains that they were the same person and the device is a Turnstile. She then explains that Sator was behind the Kiev Opera Siege in search of the same Pu-241 that The Protagonist was looking for. Sator failed to secure it and it is currently in Estonian authorities’ hands and will be transferred in Tallin shortly. She suggests that The Protagonist attempt to use this information to get close to Sator under the guise of, stressing that he must not kill Sator yet.
Salerno: The Protagonist – with Kat’s knowledge and after lying to her that the Arepo forgery was destroyed – attempts to give Sator the impression that he’s having an affair with Kat to get his attention. Sator personally informs The Protagonist that he will arrange for his murder for the antagonism, but The Protagonist clues Sator in of his knowledge of the Kiev incident. Sator invites The Protagonist to meet the next day.
The Following Morning, Sator’s Yacht on the Amalfi Coast: Sator disarms Kat by revealing that the Arepo forgery is still intact and in his possession. Later on, the two of them go sailing with the Protagonist where the Protagonist proposes a partnership in retrieving the Pu-241 that Sator failed to secure in Kiev, to Sator’s skepticism. Kat attempts to kill Sator by undoing his harness in the high-speed boat and leaving him to drown, but The Protagonist rescue Sator.
When they return to the yacht, Kat is infuriated by The Protagonist’s lying about the painting and his saving of Sator’s life. The Protagonist gives her a gun to protect herself with. In a follow-up meeting after their discussion on the boat was interrupted, Sator passes the attempt off as his own mistake and accepts the Protagonist’s offer to retrieve the Pu-241, inviting him to stay on the yacht. After failing to serve retribution to Kat, Sator goes up to meet with a chopper delivering another one of his time capsules.
Volkov finds The Protagonist sneaking around to witness this and brings him to Sator. The Protagonist reveals himself as CIA or former CIA (but not as a member of the task force searching for the Pu-241 as Sator tries to trip him up to reveal), thereby explaining his knowledge of where the Pu-241 will be and allowing Sator to spare his life for now. Sator gives The Protagonist the funds to perform the necessary heist and ejects him from the yacht.
Tallin Freeport: Sator – under the Protagonist’s direction – attempts to use Kat as the go-between to retrieve the Pu-241 once the Protagonist has it, but is enraged when Kat pulls a gun on him. He severely beats Kat into submission and opts to have his own already inverted team act as reconnaissance towards what is happening during the heist.
Tallin: After planning out the heist to retrieve the transporting Pu-241, The Protagonist and Neil perform it to success: They locate the armored convoy carrying the Pu-241 and box it and its security vehicles in using several different trucks. One of these trucks is a fire truck, the ladder of which the Protagonist uses to break into the convoy and steals the package.
When he returns to the original vehicle he and Neil were using to surveil the situation, The Protagonist is confused to find it is encased in the same Algorithm piece he saw at the Kiev Opera House. They are interrupted by an inverted SUV chasing them through the freeway (responsible for a cracked side mirror in Neil’s vehicle): it is revealed to have an inverted Sator, who holds a gun to Kat’s head and demands the Algorithm piece. Meanwhile, a likewise inverted vehicle which is driven by an inverted Protagonist speeds between the two. The Protagonist throws the box by bouncing it off the inverted Protagonist’s vehicle’s hood (not knowing the driver into Sator’s SUV (but not the Algorithm piece, which he throws into the middle vehicle) and Sator exits his SUV while leaving the tied-up Kat in the still reverse-speeding vehicle but not before his SUV sideswipes the inverted Protagonist’s vehicle into a wreck.
Once Kat is able to unlock and open her door, The Protagonist is able to enter the SUV and brake just in time. However, Sator’s orthodox team retrieves pins Neil down with gunfire (forcing to have to call “the calvary”, the rest of Tenet) and abducts The Protagonist and Kat.
Meanwhile, the inverted Sator sees the Algorithm piece is not in the case and tosses it on his way back to the Tallin Freeport, which carries a transponder that the inverted Protagonist uses to locate the chase and intervene in the hopes of preventing Sator from killing Kat. The inverted Sator meanwhile informs his uninverted self that the BMW location of the Algorithm piece that the Protagonist will give them is a lie and an uninverted Sator from later in the future locates the wreckage where his BMW knocked The Inverted Protagonist over. He taunts the inverted Protagonist by informing him that he saw the switcharoo and will be retrieving the Algorithm piece from the vehicle (which belongs to him and was picked up by the inverted Protagonist at the Tallin freeport) and lights the wreckage on fire, leaving the Protagonist for dead (and to be saved by plot armor).
Tallin Freeport: An inverted Sator forces the abducted Kat in the blue room of that Freeport’s Turnstile while the abducted Protagonist is forced into the Red Room and interrogated confusingly by both an inverted and uninverted Sator after they discovered that the Algorithm piece was not in the box. The Protagonist lies and tells them that the piece is in the BMW that he and Neil were driving but can not prevent the inverted Sator from shooting Kat with an inverted round. The uninverted Sator attempts to continue the interrogation but is stopped by the remaining members of Tenet, who force Sator and his henchmen to retreat into the Turnstile (from which Sator performs the inverted side of the Protagonist’s interrogation, takes the uninverted Kat hostage, and prepares to intercept The Protagonist and Neil as they have just retrieved the Algorithm piece).
Meanwhile, The Protagonist interrogates Neil as to how Sator was aware of their plan. Ives, the leader of the tactical side of Tenet, relaxes the Protagonist by informing him that Sator was aware by having an inverted team act as reconnaissance (including ostensibly the version of Sator that The Protagonist encountered on the Tallin freeway) and informing his uninverted self of what’s going on.
Desperate to find a way to save Kat, The Protagonist convinces Neil and the rest of Tenet to bring her through the Turnstile so that the entropy of the bullet inside her can be reversed long enough for Neil to retrieve the bullet and clean and close the wound. They estimate a week inverted would be able to do this, but this requires that they can access a Turnstile afterwards to revert back to orthodox time. The Protagonist and Neil realize this means the Oslo Freeport, which will be open to infiltration if they go back to the day of their heist there and the related plane crash.
Neil and Tenet find a shipping container headed to the Oslo Freeport and empty it except for the necessities for The Protagonist, Neil, and Kat to survive in there. In the meantime, worried about a threat from Sator during their interrogation, The Protagonist heads out to intercept the Tallin freeway confrontation. We know how that shit ends up.
This Part Is Just While The Protagonist, Neil, and Kat are headed back to The Oslo Freeport, There’s No Real Chronological Area to Put It: The Protagonist is explained what the Algorithm is and how the Pu-241 artifact they keep encountering is part of it (he also explains the reasoning behind The Protagonist not being burned to death by the explosion – some mumbo-jumbo about the transfer of heat being reversed), then they have a bunch of mind game conversations about theory that really aren’t necessary to the understanding of the story, just trying to make you go “woah” exactly like the Protagonist goes. In the meanwhile, Neil informs The Protagonist that since Kat is now involved and knows about the situation, Priya will possibly attempt to kill her.
When the shipping container they reside in is finally at Oslo, it is unfortunately placed outside of the Freeport. The Protagonist and Neil decide to use tactical suits to allow the reversed airflow that inversion requires to be maintained and also to disguise themselves. The Protagonist opts to go first into the Freeport disaster to signal that it is clear for Neil and at this point, you may as well Ctrl+F “Oslo Freeport” to get back to where I’m going with this.
After the Tallin Chase, London: Priya goes back on her word to the Protagonist and attempts to have Kat assassinated but is prevented by The Protagonist, made aware of this attempt by Kat alerting him with their “posterity” phone. The Protagonist informs Priya that he is now fully aware of his mastermind role within Tenet before killing her.
Somewhere in the Future: A scientist creates the Algorithm and, in Oppenheimer-like remorse for the destruction she has made feasible, breaks it up into physical pieces and inverts them in hiding before committing suicide.
Sator’s benefactors – living in a desolate future and looking to undo it by destroying the world – begin inverting time capsules with instructions, bullion, and necessary insight on the past for Sator’s utilization in their quest to find the Algorithm and have it activated.
The Protagonist begins founding and organizing Tenet to stop Sator’s benefactors, including meeting and recruiting Neil for the ostensible first time before inverting him to save them.
Bonus Piece of Information That I Don’t Think Is Particularly Necessary to Understand What’s Going On:
The Sator Square is a bunch of excavated ancient word squares creating a continuous palindrome out of five different Latin words. Of course, the palindrome element is a huge part of why Nolan took enough interest in it to inspire the names of various elements:
– Sator as the villain’s name.
– Arepo as the name of the ill-fated forger Kat and Sator become involved with.
– Tenet as the name of the organization combatting Sator and his benefactors (and the name of the MOVIE, oh look at dat!)
– Opera as the scene of the opening setpiece.
– Rotas as the name of the security company in charge of the Oslo Freeport (and I think but am not sure the Tallin Freeport).
My Personal Plot Hole/Contrivance Problems:
– Ives makes a big deal about not having an available turnstile a week before Kat’s shooting in Tallinn but we are later revealed that Tenet has turnstiles in their possession as early as Day 0.
– Why would the Protagonist throw the Algorithm piece in Tallinn into a presumably unsecured car? And even if that was a wise decision, why did he not recognize the car once he left into the open world inverted?
– None of the Turnstiles look big enough to fit a car and the Protagonist explicitly asks and is told about the hardships of driving a car, so how is Sator’s car or The Protagonist’s white car able to be seen as going backwards from the perspective of Neil or The Protagonist.
– When did Neil or anybody else in Tenet have the time to think about rescuing The Protagonist from his potential immolation?
– You buy the explanation behind The Protagonist surviving being in a car while it explodes? Me neither. Especially since he could barely put his mask on after the car crash and so his lungs could not have been functioning properly.
But as Barbara says…
Anyway, how did I do?