What is Tenet? Meaning and background to the title

The title of Christopher Nolan’s movie is itself a bit of a puzzle.

John David Washington

The meaning of the word “Tenet” has puzzled Christopher Nolan fans for a long while. Obviously it forms the title of the director’s long-awaited blockbuster movie, the first major release in cinemas for most of the year – but beyond that, how does it relate to the film’s action? What does it mean in the context of the story? And what has any of it got to do with all the strange rewinding of time that forms the crux of the storyline?

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Well, the answers are fairly straightforward – if you know where to look for them. Within the film’s story, Tenet is the name of an organisation that recruits The Protagonist (John David Washington) to help end a coming apocalypse. Specifically, this apocalypse relates to “inverted time” i.e. time running backwards, as demonstrated by bullets that fly back into guns, ships that sail in reverse and so on.

The name of this organisation is not chosen at random, however. As a word, a “tenet” is defined as a principle or a belief, traditionally relating to a religion or philosophical understanding – and within the film this seems to tie into The Protagonist’s mission, which he has to undertake on trust without knowing exactly who he’s working for or what he’s working towards.

“Ignorance is our ammunition,” he’s told at various points – but at other points, characters question his blind faith in his mission, with one foe decrying him as a “fanatic” for a cause he doesn’t even understand.

And of course, there are other reasons Nolan may have selected Tenet as the film’s title. As many have noted the word is a palindrome, spelled the same backwards as it is forwards, which overtly ties in with the inverted time, rewinding action of the film’s story (which we won’t spoil here).

Tenet filming
Director Christopher Nolan with John David Washington on the set of Tenet (Warner Bros)

Finding a word that fulfilled this palindromic purpose and made sense within the story would have definitely been a challenge – perhaps in another world, Christopher Nolan shoehorned in a lot of Formula One scenes so he could call it “Racecar” – but in choosing Tenet, the director also continued a little tradition.

On most of his non-Batman films, the director seems to favour a one-word title – Memento, Interstellar, Inception, Following, Insomnia, even Dunkirk (only The Prestige throws off the pattern). Many of these titles refer to a concept, rather than a name – and Tenet definitely fits easily among their number.

So there you have it – Tenet is a belief or principle, a palindrome and a secret organisation, all rolled into one. Like the story of the film itself, there’s a lot packed in there.

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Tenet is released in UK cinemas from Wednesday 26th August – find something to watch now with our TV Guide