If there are two things that most clearly define a Christopher Nolan film, they are bombastic, visually innovative action scenes and labyrinthian, narratively ambitious plots – and both of those features are present in spades in the director’s long-awaited eleventh film Tenet.
This means that while the film may be stunning to look at and incredibly impressive on a technical level, it is also confusing. Very confusing.
With a plot that leans heavily on the concept of “time inversion” and with phrases like “temporal pincer” thrown about like confetti, it can be a bit difficult to make sense of the action as it unfolds – but we’ve done our best to explain exactly what happens below.
And before you scroll down, a warning: this article obviously contains some pretty major spoilers for Tenet – so only read on if you’ve already watched the film.
Tenet ending explained
Before we get to the ending it’s probably best to make sure that certain aspects of the film are understood first – so you might want to read our explainers where we delve into what Tenet means and answer the question “What is time inversion?”.
Done that? Right, if your head isn’t hurting yet, let’s recap some of the action we see in the film.
Most of the film revolves around The Protagonist (John David Washington) who, along with his ally Neil (Robert Pattinson), is tasked with preventing a catastrophic event that will cause the devastation of the entire world.
The target of their operation is Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian arms dealer, who has learnt how to reverse entropy using tech that is handed to him by people from the future – which means that he can send both objects and people back in time as well as forwards.
It turns out Sator is dying from incurable cancer, and wants to take down the rest of humanity with him. His means of doing so is by collecting nine objects that when combined will create an “Algorithm” that will reverse entropy for the entire planet, having the effect of killing all life on Earth.
Having collected all nine pieces – with help from an army of future humans who believe that reversing entropy is their only option given the devastation caused by climate change – Sator travels back in time to an apparently idyllic holiday he took on his yacht with his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), where he plans on activating the weapon by killing himself, thus reversing entropy (there is a dead man’s switch).
He is foiled however by Kat – who stalls him, while The Protagonist and Neil travel back in time to a Soviet closed city where Sator has been storing the Algorithm, and where they are able to retrieve it before it is activated by Sator’s death.
So that’s the basic plot – but there’s a lot more going on when you add in the time inversion aspect and how the whole operation actually works – with “temporal pincer movements” and “temporal stiles” frequently coming into play.
What actually is a temporal pincer movement, then? Well, it’s an attack strategy that sees someone ambushed from two sides, by both an enemy and the inverted version of that enemy who has the added advantage of knowing how the original attack went. We see this strategy used at several times during the film, for example during the highway chase sequence with the reversing car.
As for a temporal stile, this is the means by which someone can travel back in time. It is through one of these that Neil and the Protagonist – along with character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson – must travel back to the Soviet closed city where Sator’s weapon is stored.
When they get there, The Protagonist enters a tunnel where he sees a masked man who is seemingly dead and who crucially has red string on his backpack (more on that in a moment). The Protagonist is shot by one of Sator’s men, but rather than killing him, the bullet is taken by this corpse – who returns to life and unlocks the gate. It turns out this was, of course, an inverted version of Neil, who in the future had gone back to this moment in order to take the bullet meant for the Protagonist, allowing him to retrieve Sator’s Algorithm unharmed.
At around this point, Neil reveals that it was The Protagonist who had originally recruited a future version of him, and that they have known each other for many years. This leads into the fact that, unbeknownst even to him for much of the film, it was actually The Protagonist who had started the whole Tenet operation after inverting himself in the future – not just recruiting Neil, but also recruiting the past version of himself.
All these revelations make scenes from earlier in the film make sense (or at least, make a little bit more sense) – it explains, for example, that it was Neil who rescues The Protagonist at the Kiev opera siege at which the film begins, he was also wearing a backpack with red string attached, of course.
So that’s about the long and the short of it. Now, maybe it’s about time for a second watch…