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Film / Tenet

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"You have to start looking at the world in a new way."

"All I have for you is a gesture, in combination with a word: 'Tenet'. Use it carefully. It'll open the right doors, but some of the wrong ones, too."

Tenet (stylized in all capital letters as TENET, formerly TENƎꓕ) is a 2020 science fiction spy film, written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki, with Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh and Martin Donovan in supporting roles. It is also the first Nolan blockbuster, and his first film in 15 years, not to be scored by Hans Zimmer, as he was already committed to Dune (2021); Ludwig Göransson was chosen in his place.

Tenet follows an unnamed CIA operative (Washington) as he and his team go undercover in an opera house siege in Kiev, which ends with the team getting wiped out and the operative taking a cyanide pill before he can be forced by torture to talk...only to wake up some time later, officially declared dead. An organization has recruited the "Protagonist" for the aim of securing everyone's survival from, as he will learn, antagonists from the future. Now armed with one word — Tenet — and a goal that transcends national interests, the Protagonist must navigate his way through a twilight world of international espionage, gaining allies for a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.


Not Time Travel. Inversion.

Tenet was originally scheduled for a simultaneous worldwide release on July 17, 2020, until the COVID-19 Pandemic caused Warner Bros. to start a series of incremental release delays, as well as scheduling an (also-delayed) 10th-anniversary rerelease of Nolan's Inception. It opened in 70 international territories on August 26th, with the US release starting out in select cities on September 3rd and a Chinese release beginning September 4th.

Previews: Trailer 1, Trailer 2, Esquire TV Spot, Final Trailer


"Wake up the tropes."

  • Action Prologue: The movie jumps right into the action with armed terrorists attacking an opera house in Kiev, with the Protagonist's team blending in with the local police to save their real target, a CIA agent whose cover was compromised. This also establishes the Protagonist as a skilled operative with an unwillingness to let people die needlessly, convincing another team member to join him in gathering up the bombs in the opera house, saving the unconscious audience and musicians inside.
  • Actor Allusion: "Good-bye, Sir Michael."
  • Age-Gap Romance: Kat and Andrei are a married couple with a 29-year age gap between the actors.
  • The Air Not There: Averted. An inverted person must carry their own inverted oxygen supply because their inverted lungs cannot absorb normal air. In long-term inverted missions, they also must stay in an airlocked environment conditioned to have breathable air as well.
  • Alliterative Name: Sanjay Singh.
  • Always Save the Girl: The Protagonist repeatedly jeopardises his plans to save or protect Kat, and even continues protecting her from afar once the mission is over. That said, it pays off when she proves invaluable in the final operation, fooling Sator (who had left her to die in the Rotas firm in Tallinn) for as long as she did.
    • During the post-heist car/inverted-car chase, Sator's inverted vehicle pulls up to show the man himself pointing a gun at Kat and counting down. The message is clear: "give me the goods or I'll shoot her". After hesitating, the Protagonist complies. Then, once Sator and his men abandon Kat in the moving vehicle, the Protagonist and Neil move to stop the vehicle before they smash into held-up traffic, giving up the opportunity to catch Sator.
  • Anachronic Order: Played With. Due to the nature of inversion, the order of events turns in on itself in the final act, so that the characters revisit the timeframe of the previous two acts in reverse, with the final scenes taking place near the film's chronological beginning (the Kiev opera siege). In other words, the events of Tenet are structured around a palindrome of events.
  • Anti-Hero: Tenet as an organization is full of members who are willing to do shady things for the sake of the world's safety. Ives originally planned to kill the Protagonist at the end to keep the Algorithm a secret before deciding to let him and Neil go with a third of it each; and Priya attempts to have Kat assassinated since she knows about it as well, though Priya at least wants to make sure it happens before Kat's son arrives.
  • Apocalypse How: The Algorithm will cause at least a Class X by forcing "the whole world"'s entropy into reverse, and possibly a Class X-4 if "the whole world" is understood to mean "universe"; the "... everything that's ever lived..." warning could apply to either.
  • Arc Words: A tenet that Neil believes in is that "What's happened's happened."
  • Attack Backfire:
    • Sator leaves the Protagonist to die in a car that explodes, but because he, the car and the explosion are all inverted, the explosion dies out almost immediately against the non-inverted air around them and is replaced with a harsh drop in temperature. The Protagonist nearly dies of hypothermia instead of burning to death, so Neil easily revives him, amused by the Irony.
    • Next time, Andrei just orders his mook Volkov to shoot the Protagonist. An inverted Neil is lying dead before them; having Taken The Bullet, he comes back to life when Volkov pulls the trigger.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Notably, both the protagonist's insertion at the Kiev opera and his inverted insertion into the Freeport involve entering blended in amongst a wave of first responders.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The heroes managed to stop Sator from destroying the world but can never go back to live normal lives again. The Protagonist's knowledge of the Algorithm means he will always be a target, either from enemies in the future, and from Ives who must silence him because He Knows Too Much and thus, he will not see Kat again except as her guardian angel from afar. However, it turns out that in the future, he will become the new head or even the founder of Tenet! Also, to complete the Stable Time Loop, Neil must go back in time and make a Heroic Sacrifice to save the Protagonist so he can complete this mission in the first place. And Kat, as mentioned, is free to live without Sator hanging over her, able to take care of Max in peace.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: During their first meeting, Kat calls the Protagonist out for using the term "making arrangements" instead of simply calling it blackmail, as Andrei Sator has to her.
  • Bond One-Liner: "Mission accomplished."
  • Bookends:
    • The Protagonist's first and last meetings with Priya involve him holding an arms dealer at silenced gunpoint. In their first meeting, he has Priya's husband (her front as an Arms Dealer) at gunpoint but does not fire since Priya is a member of Tenet. In their last meeting, he pulls the trigger on Priya and her mook for not keeping to her word to him, the person who will create Tenet.
    • The Protagonist first watches Kat in front of her son's school, from his car. In the epilogue, Priya and an assassin are getting ready to kill Kat, but the Protagonist slips into the car from behind and eliminates his "boss" and her mook first, then watches as Kat and Max walk home, entirely unaware of the danger they were in.
  • Bullet Catch: Inverted guns do this with inverted bullets. Barbara, who introduces the Protagonist to them while explaining inversion, even says "You're not shooting the bullet; you're catching it". Two other notable instances of this include the inverted Gas Mask Mook that the Protagonist fights in Freeport, and the Rotas interrogation scene where Kat is shot with a bullet that is buried in the glass behind her.
  • The Cameo:
    • Michael Caine as a member of British Intelligence who briefs the Protagonist on how to get close to Andrei.
    • Also, Jeremy Theobald from Following plays a steward at the restaurant where Crosby and the Protagonist converse.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: When Kat throws her abusive husband overboard to drown, the Protagonist must dive in and save him, to Kat's anger. Which is just as well as we later discover he's wearing a Dead Man Switch that will set off the Algorithm, so they can't even kill him until they're sure it's been deactivated.
  • Car Fu: Used for the plutonium heist by surrounding and boxing in the convoy en route with multiple vehicles, including a fire engine.
  • The Cavalry: Lampshaded by Neil when he calls in commandos from his own organisation to rescue them, revealing himself as a Tenet agent like the Protagonist.
  • Central Theme: The theme of Tenet is about a person's belief about reality. Neil believes that "what's happened, has happened"; he later clarifies that it is his expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. Sator believes that the world is effectively in the palm of his hand, regardless of whether he is right about that. His backers, the unseen antagonists from the future, believe that they can destroy their ancestors without also erasing themselves in the process, regardless of whether they are right about that.
  • Chase Scene: There's a car-versus-inverted-car chase following the plutonium heist, with Neil at the wheel against Sator's vehicle. During the chase, the Protagonist sees a crashed car ahead of them invert its roll, letting it get back on all four wheels.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The red-string backpack trinket belonging to the masked agent who saves the Protagonist at the beginning. The inverted corpse that takes the bullet for the Protagonist is wearing it. The Wham Shot at the end reveals that it is Neil's trinket—he was the same agent who saved the Protagonist in the opera house and the cavern.
    • Sator's fitness tracker is linked to trigger the Algorithm upon his death. In the climax, Kat must delay Sator's death to give the Tenet forces enough time to disarm the Algorithm and prevent the apocalypse.
    • The phone that the Protagonist hands to Kat before both head out for their respective missions in Stalsk-12 and Sator's yacht. He tells her to use it if she thinks she is ever in danger; "Posterity" will receive the message. The phone allows the Protagonist to counteract Priya's attempt to assassinate Kat in the denouement, presumably by means of inverting Kat's message for the Protagonist to receive.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Neil's talent for picking locks.
  • Clipboard of Authority: Lampshaded by Barbara along with the Reflective Vest of Authority, both used as the Protagonist's disguise when he makes to visit her for information on the threat.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The Protagonist gets this early in the film – his teeth pulled out with rusty pliers, among other things. Despite it all, he refuses to sell out his teammates, which leads to him getting recruited for Tenet's mission (which came with fixing the damage to said mouth while he was unconscious).
  • Color Motifs: Red (for people/objects going forward in time) and blue (for inverted people/objects).
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: An inverted soldier takes shelter in a ruined building opened by a rocket, then gets sealed up in it when the rocket that caused it reforms and flies back to its source.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Protagonist flattens five of Sator's goons in a restaurant kitchen.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Sator threatens the Protagonist by saying that he will cut his testicles off and insert them into a small hole cut into his throat, so he will choke to death on them. He says he does this to all people he particularly hates.
  • Cyanide Pill: The Protagonist passes a Secret Test of Character where he chooses to take a colleague's (fake) Cyanide Pill rather than give up his team.
  • Danger Takes a Backseat: In the final scene, the Protagonist takes Priya and her bodyguard by surprise when he suddenly appears in the backseat of their car.
  • Dead Man Switch: Sator's Fitbit is revealed as one of these, meant to trigger the reverse-entropy Algorithm. He wants to take the entire world with him when he dies.
  • Deal with the Devil: Imagine you are a lowly Soviet worker assigned a suicidal clean-up duty at a radiation accident, with nothing to look forward to other than a lingering death. Then you dig up a message from the future addressed specifically to you, promising a life of luxury, power, advanced medical treatment to delay your death, and marriage to a beautiful aristocrat who will give you a son... All you have to do is help bring about the end of the world.
  • Death Faked for You: The Protagonist takes a suicide pill that turns out to be fake, allowing others to extract him and officially pronounce him dead.
  • Disarm, Disassemble, Destroy: The Protagonist uses this move in the Action Prologue. When he later enters the time-travel vault and sees a dissembled pistol on the floor and bullet holes in the window glass, it's obvious what's about to happen, if not exactly how.
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: The creator of the Algorithm split it into nine pieces. After retrieving it from the hypocenter, Ives breaks the Algorithm into thirds, giving Neil and the Protagonist one third each in order to make sure the future can never get to use it.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The Big Bad is ultimately killed by his long-suffering wife, Kat, who wants to deny him any chance of thinking he will win.
  • Doomed Hometown: Example for the villain, Andrei Sator. He was born and raised in Stalsk-12, a Russian closed city that was the site of a nuclear explosion that wiped everyone there out... save for Sator, who climbed out of this "blank spot on the map" with information and gold bars addressed to him from the future, and a newfound ambition. In the Protagonist's meeting with Crosby regarding Sator, Crosby makes mention of an explosion that recently occurred at Stalsk-12, on the same day as the Kiev opera siege. Stalsk-12 – on the date of this explosion – becomes the site of the Final Battle between Tenet and Sator's men, with both sides employing "temporal pincer movements" against each other. The explosion was meant to ensure the Algorithm's burial; Tenet's mission becomes extracting the Algorithm while letting the explosion also take place.
  • Doomsday Device: The Algorithm, which becomes the MacGuffin in the second half of the movie, is a nuke-like device that can cause unstoppable large-scale inversion.
  • Driven to Suicide: The Protagonist learns from Priya that many generations into the future, the scientist who discovered inversion realized that her work could be abused and – among destroying her research and inverting the Algorithm into the present – killed herself to try and prevent it from getting out.
  • Drone of Dread: Droning music appears during intense action scenes like the car chase.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After the hell she's been put through until the final act, Kat ultimately kills Sator, and returns home to take care of her son, her safety guaranteed by the Protagonist.
  • Eco-Terrorist: Played With. The instigators of the attack from the future are supposed to have initiated their plan because of the ravaged state previous generations have left the world in by their time. Somehow, they do not seem to fear risking their own destruction by their plans coming to fruition. They intend to colonize the past instead of saving their own future.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: Tenet has a commando force on standby, Ives and Wheeler among them, which deploys to aid the Protagonist and Neil.
  • Emergency Temporal Shift:
    • Midway through the film, Sator captures the Protagonist with the aid of his future self (moving in reverse). When agents of Tenet storm Sator's base, both Sators flee into a Turnstile (the machine that allows time inversion), seemingly disappearing as the present Sator escapes into the past.
    • When the Protagonist inverts and fights his past self at Freeport, he flees their tussle by leaping into a Turnstile. However, this only looks like an escape from his perspective; From the past Protagonist's un-inverted POV the reverse happened and the future Protagonist seemingly appeared out of thin air and attacked him.
  • Face Death with Dignity: An inverted corpse who resurrects to assist the Protagonist is revealed at the end to be Neil. At the end of the mission, he calmly bids the Protagonist a fond farewell and goes to meet his fate smiling.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Wheeler warns the Protagonist that the side effects of inversion in an uninverted world include distortions in one's vision and hearing. This seems to be how both the Protagonist and the audience fail to spot the Algorithm piece in the Saab that he will bring to the Rotas firm. He did search the car before heading out, but only realizes the piece was in his car as earlier-Protagonist tossed it in before/after Sator sent him crashing.
  • Famous Last Words: "Then you had better tie up those loose ends." - Priya, just as she sets the rearview mirror back and the Protagonist shoots her.
  • Foil:
    • The Protagonist to Sator. The Protagonist is willing to give his life to save others (hence the Secret Test of Character that allows him into the Tenet organisation), while Sator in contrast is willing to destroy anything that he can't have.
    • The Protagonist and Neil's relationship to Kat and Sator's. The former starts out professional and grows into friendship whilst the latter (presumably) started off romantic and then became antagonistic. The former is deeper than it seems at first glance (since Neil is actually a long-time friend and ally), whilst the latter is shallower due to Sator's motivation to possess her as one of the things he was essentially granted in a deal to eventually destroy the world.
  • Forced to Watch:
    • When Sator's goons take the Protagonist into a restaurant kitchen to be roughed up, Kat has no intention of hanging around, but her driver refuses to leave until a battered body rolls down the steps. And it does, but it is the last of Sator's goons. As the driver floors the gas, Kat sees the Protagonist calmly walk out the door having disposed of all the mooks, so the 'lesson' was not what Sator wanted. As the Protagonist has left his phone number with Kat, she calls him the next day for help.
    • Sator forces the Protagonist to watch him shoot Kat with an inverted bullet.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: An easy one to miss during the car chase, but The Protagonist had the Algorithm piece in one hand while he threw to Sator the (empty) orange case it was in.
  • Fun with Palindromes:
    • The word "tenet" itself is a palindrome – it stays the same word when reading backward. The original movie material has added fun with it by rotating the last two letters one-hundred-and-eighty degrees clockwise.
      • In fact, this is part of the larger palindrome of the Sator square, "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas". The film uses all five words in one way or another.
    • A marketing example: The film's original Meaningful Release Date was July 17th — in other words, 7.17 (7-1-7).
    • Mahir and his partner crash a 747 aircraft into the freeport.
    • The caretaker for Kat's son Max is a woman named Anna.
  • Future-Self Reveal:
    • At Freeport, the Protagonist and Neil are attacked by two masked men. Priya explains these to be the same individual, moving opposite directions in time. Midway through the film it turns out that individual was the future Protagonist, moving backwards through time and perceiving the fight as being in self-defense.
    • At a highway, the heroes are attacked by the Big Bad Sator, who seems to know all their moves ahead of time. It turns out this is the Sator of 20 minutes from now, having been fed intel by a past Sator who he then gives to his next self in a Stable Time Loop.
    • Returning to her husband's yacht, Kat sees a woman jump off and assumes it's someone Sator was having an affair with. The ending reveals the other woman was the future Kat herself, escaping after killing Sator.
    • Twice in the film, the Protagonist is saved by a mysterious masked agent with a red trinket on their backpack. This agent turns out to be his best friend Neil, and he claims to have been aiding the Protagonist for years, that is, the far future Protagonist who's been secretly running the show all along.
  • Genre Mashup: It is a science-fiction spy conspiracy war heist film with a Time Rewind Mechanic mixed in.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • A passing train obscures the Protagonist's torture at the hands of Russian mercenaries.
    • Sator caving a mook's head in for stealing his gold is obscured by his body.
    • The scene where the Protagonist assassinates Priya only shows him pulling the trigger. We don't even get to see her corpse.
  • Grandfather Paradox: Lampshaded. Whoever is backing Andrei Sator, they apparently believe that invoking this trope on a worldwide scale won't affect their future in any adverse way, or are simply desperate enough that they're willing to risk it.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Whoever in the future will be responsible for setting Andrei Sator on his omnicidal course to begin with.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Outside of Kat, the rest of the world will never know about Tenet and its black ops operations against Sator and his future bad guy backers to destroy the past. Neil summarizes it at the end of the movie:
    Neil: It's the bomb that didn't go off. The danger no one knew was real. That's the bomb with the real power to change the world.
  • Green Aesop: It's only brought up at the end, but it turns out that Sator's future backers want to invert the planet so they can escape their climate change-ravaged world. Considering the film's themes, this can probably be prevented by eco-friendly actions in the present.
  • Guns Do Not Work That Way: Minor case in the scene with the Protagonist and the concrete slab full of inverted bullets. When Protagonist test-fires his first inverted bullet, he notes that the gun is empty. The inverted bullet is fired and he pulls the magazine to discover a round loaded in it. However, the round shouldn't be in the magazine, it should be in the chamber; the last round in a magazine is the second-to-last round a semiautomatic weapon fires.
  • Hallway Fight: The Protagonist fights the Gas Mask Mook in a corridor.
  • Have We Met Yet?: Neil has had a long friendship with the Protagonist from his perspective and dies in the climax, but they had/will have their first meeting later in the Protagonist's timeline.
  • He Knows Too Much: A young Andrei Sator kills the man who finds the time capsule with the message from the future. The Protagonist worries that Tenet will kill Kat once she has outlived her usefulness. And he and Neil find their fellow team member draws a gun on them once they've retrieved the Algorithm, due to the risk of knowing that a world-ending weapon of this nature even exists.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Used during the infiltration of Priya's compound in India. The Protagonist uses one again to kill Priya when she tries to have Kat assassinated.
  • Hollywood Tactics: During the final assault, the Tenet forces' strategy consists of running straight in tight columns, with little use of cover or heavy suppressing fire.
  • How Would You Like to Die?: As calmly asked by Sator:
    Protagonist: Old.
    Sator: You chose the wrong profession.
  • If I Can't Have You...: Outright said by Andrei to his estranged wife. Turns out that's why he's willing to go along with a plan to destroy the world—he's dying of radiation-induced cancer and wants to take the world with him.
  • Improvised Weapon: During a fistfight, the Protagonist uses a cheese-grater against an opponent, ramming it against the guy's face and dragging his head into a metal shelf. Thankfully, we do not see the actual damage to the mook's face.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bomb: The KORD team in the Action Prologue uses bombs with a timer display and a loud ticking sound.
  • Infraction Distraction:
    • The terrorist attack on the opera house was a cover for a plutonium-smuggling operation. The "plutonium" is actually a piece of the Algorithm that the Protagonist and Neil have to retrieve in Tallinn.
    • The attempt to destroy the forged Goya in Freeport is covered by hijacking a cargo plane, dumping its cargo of bullion during taxi, and then crashing it into Freeport, making it look like either a gold heist gone wrong or an act of terrorism, rather than an attempt to break into Freeport.
  • Insert Cameo: The heavy breathing in the film score, meant to stand for Sator, is Nolan's own breathing.
  • Inspired by...: The opening scene obviously drew inspiration from the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, albeit with a secret context and different priorities.
    • The KORD team uses gas to knock out all the hostages. However, aside from the power of Hollywood knockout gas, the terrorists also came prepared with gas masks.
    • The anti-terror response also resulted in heavy hostage casualties. Unlike the real event, however, the priority was NOT to rescue hostages, but instead take out a CIA operative. In fact, the KORD team planned to blow up the entire opera house anyway to cover their tracks.
  • Institutional Allegiance Concealment: In the opening hostage scene at the Opera House, the Protagonist's team wait until the local KORD team shows up, then put on KORD patches on their BDUs from a tray holding patches for different police divisions.
  • Irony: During the Tallinn heist, the Protagonist disguises himself in a fireman's jacket and boards the fire engine as part of the plan. While inverted, Sator crashes the Protagonist's car, then blows him up... which results in the Protagonist almost dying of hypothermia instead, thanks to reversed heat transfer.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The Protagonist occasionally acts like he is aware that he's the hero of a movie. He outright refers to himself as "the Protagonist" and two masked men he fights in Oslo as "antagonists" (though he was unaware that the "antagonists" were really his future selves trying to reach the Freeport Turnstile).
  • Logo Joke: Hinting at the film's Color Motifs before the film properly introduces them, the Warner Bros. logo is tinted red with normal music, while the Syncopy logo is blue with reversed music.
  • The Man Behind the Man:
    • The Protagonist infiltrates an arms dealer's residence and interrogates him at gunpoint, only to find his wife Priya is both the actual arms dealer and the person behind the Tenet organization. And then, it turns out she works for a future version of the Protagonist, though she likely had no idea compared to Neil.
    • The Protagonist is this to himself. Not only did he recruit Neil at some point in his past/The Protagonist's future, the future Protagonist is also implied to be the leader and maybe even founder of Tenet, all to counteract the faceless antagonists from the same future.
  • Meaningful Name: The film names people and things after the words of the Sator Square:
    • "Sator": Andrei Sator, the Big Bad.
    • "Arepo": the Goya forger, whose work Sator uses as blackmail against Kat.
    • "Tenet" (the square's central palindrome): the organization that recruits the protagonist.
    • "Opera": the Kiev opera house in the Cold Open, as well as one of the places where Neil and the Protagonist plan out the Freeport heist.
    • "Rotas": Sator's construction and security company at the Oslo Freeport firm.
  • Mercy Lead: At the end of the film, Ives draws a gun on both the Protagonist and Neil, since they both know the existence of the world-ending weapon Algorithm, but he decides to give them a head start instead, only planning to kill them if he crosses paths with them again.
  • Mind Screw: How inversion works, and how it affects some action scenes (such as the Freeport incident with the inverted Gas Mask Mook, the red-room/blue-room interrogation scene, and the battle of Stalsk-12 in the climax), can be pretty hard to grasp for many viewers. The important thing to keep in mind is that such scenes must make sense going backwards and forwards (i.e. "palindromic continuity").
  • Mirror Match: The Gas Mask Mook that Neil and the Protagonist fight in the Freeport vault turns out to be the Protagonist, though we don't find out until later in the movie. From their perspectives, there are two mooks that pop out of the Turnstile, but both are the Protagonist: one is inverted, the second moving forward in normal time since the Protagonist uses an inversion machine in the vault to un-invert himself (his reason for returning to the vault).
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Kat thinks that Sator was having an affair because she saw a woman jump off his yacht. It turns out the woman was her from the future.
  • Mr. Exposition: Barbara's appearance in the film is dedicated to trying to familiarize the Protagonist and the audience on the nature of inversion and how inverted objects work in forward-moving time.
  • Ms. Fanservice: As benefiting of a quasi-Bond girl. The film never hesitates to show off Elizabeth Debicki's legs.
  • Multinational Team: Tenet recruits from all over the world, including in the US (the Protagonist), UK (Neil), France, and Eastern European Countries.
  • Murder-Suicide: Ives suggest this to Neil and the Protagonist to ensure no hostile groups would go after the Algorithm in the future.
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: Downplayed. The Tenet operative says that an inverted person coming into physical contact their normal-time self is “bad”, but it is "skin on skin" contact only. The Protagonist, entirely covered in body armor and combat gear, getting into a fight with his past self does not provoke anything nefarious because there's no direct contact.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The "plutonium" that the Protagonist was told to steal is actually one of the nine pieces of the Algorithm. And since the Protagonist unwittingly brought the last piece to the Rotas firm in Tallinn while inverted, Sator now has all nine pieces (he previously had the other eight pieces as well) and is ready to kickstart the end of the world. The Protagonist later takes advantage of his first inversion escapade to talk to Priya before the plutonium heist takes place, in hopes that warning her can avert this, but Priya tells him that they can't do that: The Protagonist has given Sator the full Algorithm, and will have to continue their mission with the stakes raised even higher. Besides, this way, Tenet can retrieve the entirety of the Algorithm after Sator's men gather all nine pieces in one place. As such, Priya will not warn the Protagonist.
  • No Escape but Down: The Protagonist and Neil use bungee cords to make a dramatic escape from the arms dealer's apartment to the street market below. The Protagonist did not like this plan. However, if you'd seen the rest of the movie, you would realize that this was not so dramatic nor an escape, since this was actually a Secret Test meant for the Protagonist.
  • No Hero Discount: Subverted. The Protagonist assumes he's on a budget when he has to buy a fancy suit to get in first contact with Kat, but Crosby reassures him that he can spend whatever he needs to prevent the literal end of existence, and they can worry about the checkbooks later.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: The Algorithm, the device that can invert the entire planet, is the only one of its kind, invented by a scientist who destroyed all records of its creation, inverted the pieces, then killed herself so no one would be able to force her to recreate it.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Implied when Neil rips the helmet off of the non-inverted "antagonist" in Oslo, complete with his stunned and panicked reaction causing him to drop the helmet and run back to the Protagonist. Turns into a Bait-and-Switch when it turns out that the "antagonist" was really the inverted-then-uninverted Protagonist. Neil had realized who his partner was fighting and bolted off to stop him.
  • Not So Different: Kat and Sator accuse the Protagonist of being no different from Sator: using and lying to others to achieve his goals.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Kat's driver (under Sator's employ) is expecting the Protagonist to come tumbling out of the restaurant backdoor, beaten by his five fellow mooks. Instead, the last mook to survive the Curb-Stomp Battle topples out instead, followed by the Protagonist, prompting the driver to shut up and drive Kat away.
    • Kat gets an understated one when Sator has a "dish" brought to her: the forged Goya drawing. Despite the Protagonist's efforts, Sator still has his blackmail over Kat—he had the fake moved out of the freeport before the 747 smashed into it.
    • During the Tallinn heist, the Protagonist has a look of dawning realization when a car driving backwards toward them un-smashes the side mirror and starts heading toward them from behind at full speed, revealing it to be an inverted vehicle under Sator.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: The Protagonist's first time experiencing inversion at the Rotas firm brings two:
    • First, while experiencing the chase in reverse, the inverted Protagonist's perspective from the inverted silver Saab shows that:
      • A.) he was the guy driving that car
      • B.) his past self saw him and tossed the Algorithm piece into his car
      • C.) because of B. currently happening backwards, the Algorithm piece that was in the silver car all along winds up in Neil's car, along with its orange case (given/"taken" by Sator)
      • D.) Sator saw this unfold during the hand-off, prompting him to grab his car's steering wheel and send it against the Protagonist's, causing it to crash in the first place.
      • From a normal-time perspective, the inverted Protagonist brought a third car to the handoff, received the Algorithm piece from his earlier self, drove backwards all the way to Rotas Tallinn, and stepped backwards into the airlock, leaving the piece to be collected by Sator's men.
    • Second, during the original Freeport break-in, Neil seemed oddly focused on heading the Protagonist off the Gas Mask Mook that suddenly appeared from the Oslo Freeport Turnstile. While inverted, the Protagonist, wearing full-body armor, winds up fighting his earlier self. Because earlier-Protagonist (like us) had no idea that it's himself, the "Mook's" actions here take on a whole new meaning: he was going on the defensive the entire time, all to get himself to the Turnstile. Even the gun that he "reassembled" was just the Protagonist's last-ditch effort to avoid hurting either version of himself. Furthermore, once he un-inverts himself and bolts away, earlier-Neil chases him and tears off his mask and helmet. Recognizing him and realizing what's going on, earlier-Neil wordlessly tosses the Protagonist his gear back and runs off to stop his partner from unknowingly killing himself. Neil later confirms this when they get Kat to an ambulance and drive away: "It's a lot to explain when you're trying to put a bullet in your own brain".
  • Poisoned Weapons: An inverted bullet causes greater damage than a normal one, due to the weird interactions between objects running on opposite clocks. When Kat is shot by Sator while the latter is inverted, she has to be inverted to heal her, it takes a week for her to stabilize, Neil and the Protagonist have to sneak her into the Oslo freeport heist as it unfolds (in both directions) in order to return her to normal time, and the whole ordeal leaves her with a nasty scar on her abdomen.
  • Poor Communication Kills: One of the tenets of the Tenet organization is "knowledge divided", which leads to this trope being invoked deliberately. People only know what they need to know, when they need to know it, lest things go very wrong. If someone knows something they should not, that someone is assassinated, because it's the only way to be sure what they know doesn't make it to the future antagonists.
  • Possible War: In-Universe; the Secret Government Filing Cabinet at Laura's workplace holds pieces of inverted technology such as gears and lenses, assumed to be "the detritus of a coming war."
  • Posthumous Character: Tomas Arepo, the forger. This is how Kat can tell that the Protagonist was lying about meeting him.
    Kat: If you'd actually met Arepo as you'd claimed, you'd understand he no longer walks anywhere.
    Protagonist: We spoke on the phone -
    Kat: He can't do that, either.
  • Practical Effects: The production team bought and then crashed a real 747 airplane into a hangar. The stunt was all practical effects, with no visual effects or CGI. Christopher Nolan had originally planned to use miniatures and set-piece builds; however, while scouting for locations in Victorville, California, the team discovered a massive array of old planes and it became apparent that it would actually be more efficient to buy a real plane of the real size, and perform the sequence for real on camera.
  • Pre-Asskicking One-Liner: "I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago."
  • Precision F-Strike: Sator to Kat.
    Sator: Look at me! And understand… you don't negotiate with a tiger. You admire a tiger until it turns on you, and then you feel its true fucking nature!
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Kat in her final retribution against Sator.
    "I’m not the woman who could find love for you even though you’d scarred her on the inside...I’m the vengeful bitch you scarred on the outside."
  • Randomly Reversed Letters: On the first poster as well as on the film's webpage, the last E and T in the "Tenet" logo is upside down, appearing as two "TEN"s joined together at the "N". This palindrome design, along with the design of a later poster featuring the Protagonist pointing a gun in two different scenarios (pictured above), was in keeping with the film's overarching forwards/backwards motifs. The film dropped the original "Tenet" logo design after a complaint from a bike company with a remarkably similar logo. That being said, some of the marketing, such as the Final Trailer, alludes to that earlier design by having the "ET" in "Tenet" appear on the screen upside-down as before, but morphing into their right-side-up shapes as the logo fully appears.
  • Reconstruction: Of Time Travel tropes, by showing exactly what kind of situations one can get in if they experienced time in reverse. Instead of having the protagonists use an object and appear in the past, time travel in this movie is done via a process called "Inversion", where people essentially travel to the past in "real time", experiencing the world in reverse as a result. The movie revels in showing the audience how Inversion can lead to confusing scenarios, like wrecked cars flipping into operable states and driving backwards, or fighting an opponent who seems to be able to predict every move you make. Inversion also has concrete rules for how it functions, with individuals needing to take The Slow Path if they wish to truly travel back in time. The result is turning time travel, a subject that audiences have gotten used to over several decades of it being explored in media, fresh again.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The Protagonist's MO when dealing with situations. It helps him get out of where less confident people would have died.
    • Thugs want to rough you up? Just make a Pre-Asskicking One-Liner joke then strike when they least expect it.
    • Evil arms dealer wants you dead and tries to intimidate you? Promise to work with him.
    • Dealer's wife enraged that you saved him, and that she's not going to trust you again? That you're no different from that black-hearted thug? Give her your gun and firmly tell her to try not to use that kind of power.
    • Caught seeing something you really should not have? Reiterate your business deal. He even demands payment!
    • Neil is more overtly this, to the Protagonist's astonishment. Need to get into the deepest bowels of the Oslo freeport? Crash a 747 plane into the back wall and start a fire!
      Protagonist: (in disbelief) You wanna crash a plane?
      Neil: ...Well not from the air! Don't be so dramatic.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: After finding out his torture and 'death' was just a Secret Test of Character, the Protagonist says he quits. Fay makes it clear that the stakes are so high that he can't.
    Fay: You don't work for us [the CIA]. You're dead. Your duty transcends national interests. This is about survival.
    Protagonist: ...Whose?
    Fay: Everyone's.
  • Retroactive Preparation: Happens during the Final Battle. The Protagonist and Ives arrive at the cave, but there's a locked door between them and Sator's right-hand man Volkov, who is burying the Algorithm for the people from the future to find. Fortunately, an inverted corpse springs back to life, takes a bullet meant for the Protagonist, and opens the door, allowing the Protagonist and Ives to overpower Volkov and retrieve the Algorithm. When the battle is over, it is implied Neil will eventually invert so he can open the door and take the bullet.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The film never reveals exactly who in the future wishes to destroy the past, and why. Andrei disparages the Protagonist as a fanatic fighting a war he barely understands. He implies that climate change (or another environmental catastrophe) has ravaged the future world. Whatever future faction he is working with views destroying the past as their best choice.
  • Sadistic Choice: Sator gave Kat the choice of leaving him, but never seeing her son Max again. She admits that the worst thing was that though she didn't go through with it, she actually considered abandoning her son just to be free of Sator, and Sator knew it.
  • Sdrawkcab Speech:
    • Someone who has been "inverted" has to use a radio with translation software to speak with someone in normal time, as their speech sounds this way. The Protagonist first hears this following the "plutonium" heist, as Neil is listening in on Sator's men.
      Sator: (In backwards speech) "It's in the back of the Saab... Make sure he's dead.. Pick up the algorithm at the Freeport"
      Neil: "It's not Estonian. It's backwards."
    • Sator interrogates the Protagonist this way before/after shooting Kat with an inverted bullet.
  • Secret Handshake: Members of Tenet reveal themselves by intertwining their fingers with their palms apart and slipping the word "tenet" into a sentence. The gesture shows normal and inverted objects colliding with each other as their time flows in opposite directions.
  • Secret Test of Character: Russian mercenaries torture the Protagonist for hours by pulling his teeth out with pliers. He chooses to take a colleague's (fake) Cyanide Pill rather than give up his team. He wakes up from the induced coma in a hospital bed.
    Fay: Welcome to the afterlife.
    • Fay's last words imply that he failed the same test that the Protagonist just passed, leaving him in a position that is far removed from Tenet's operations—and a purposefully-minor character in the plot, like Barbara (the scientist) and Crosby (the informant).
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Providing you have access to a time inversion machine; Tenet has the ability to use the reversal of entropy to launch outright military assaults into the past... provided that their presence was there to begin with in the Stable Time Loop, as it was in Starsk-12 in the film's climax.
  • Short-Distance Phone Call: Kat calls the Protagonist; coincidentally, another phone rings nearby. Turns out he was right behind her the whole time.
  • Shout-Out: One of the last scenes references the ending of Casablanca, in Neil and the Protagonist's final conversation.
    Neil: For me, I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship.
    Protagonist: But for me, it's just the beginning?
  • Single Tear: Not called to attention, but following his recovery from Kiev, the Protagonist has the strength to only manage a few weak words and a tear.
    Fay: "Not you. You chose to die instead of giving up your colleagues."
  • The Slow Path: Works in both directions. In the world of Tenet, Time Travel to and from specific points a la Doctor Who is impossible. Instead, one can invert themselves and experience time backwards, eventually ending up at the desired point. If there is an available Turnstile to set them forward again, the person can then turn around and eventually reach their original starting point. With adjustments such as airtight containers and portable oxygen, inverted people experience time just like regular people do... just with the large inverted elephant in the room.
    Kat: (staring out the window of the icebreaker they are travelling on, with a mug in her hands) "I can't get over the birds [flying backwards]."
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To James Bond movies in general.
    • While Bond is an emotionally-distant, womanizing MI6 agent, well-known in the intelligence community (and the audience); the Protagonist here is a nameless CIA operative who instead possesses an emotional warmth that allows him to empathize with others.
    • Kat fills the quasi-Bond Girl role in this film, but unlike the Trope Codifier, the film does not treat Kat as a Love Interest or conquest who dies before the end. On the contrary, the Protagonist respects Kat as her own person, and takes risks to save her from Sator's machinations. Kat even becomes integral to the final mission on the 14th, sneaking onto his yacht in Vietnam and distracting Sator while Tenet works to retrieve the Algorithm. When Kat realizes that she is about to run out of time before her past self returns with Max, she takes the opportunity to kill Sator himself and escape. In the end, Kat returns home to take care of her son, her safety ensured by the Protagonist.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • John David Washington describes the movie as one to Inception, in the sense that they're "related by marriage". Both films see the Experienced Protagonist recruited for a mission with higher stakes than any they have undertaken before: Cobb is a freelance corporate spy working for the highest bidder, and only works for Saito for his own interests, whereas Tenet's Protagonist is a CIA agent whose recruitment by Tenet hinged on him protecting his colleagues and facing death as a result. Both are entangled with their respective story's plot device in different ways: Cobb is an experienced "extractor" who infiltrates his targets' dreams regularly via the PASIV system, while the Protagonist first sees an inverted object in motion before he's formally introduced to the phenomena, only becoming acclimated to it as the film goes on. Finally, both films end differently: while Cobb may (not?) have returned to a normal life with his kids at the end of Inception, Tenet's Protagonist certainly does not return to being a CIA agent, instead embracing his role as the founder of Tenet (and to an extent, Kat's guardian angel from afar).
    • In ways it could also function as one to Interstellar, as both deal with the nature of time in similar ways. But whilst Interstellar saves most of the time-related consequences for the third act, Tenet is about it from the start. They also both involve a group being tasked with Saving the World and contain a central Fire-Forged Friends relationship as well as a platonic relation between a man and a woman. Finally, both films feature a circumstance that results in a parent not being able to be around to raise their child as part of the narrative and a desire for this parent to protect and be there for their child despite this (Kat being the parent here, Cooper being the parent in Interstellar).
  • Spiteful Spit: Sator spits on Kat after disarming her half-way through the movie.
  • Spotting the Thread:
    • The Protagonist risks his cover as a wealthy man a few times early on and it becomes important that he learns to keep up his facade in order to get close to Sator. Acting rude to waiters, jokingly asking for the high-class food to be boxed, accidentally calling Sir Michael "mister" rather than "sir", wearing a suit from Brooks Brothers (an American retailer) rather than straight from a tailor.
    • Kat knows from her first meeting with the Protagonist that he isn't who he says he is, as he claims to have met or called Arepo recently, when in truth Arepo is dead.
  • Spy Speak: Done very inconspicuously: agents reveal themselves with a single word, "tenet", combined with a hand gesture. By slipping the word into a seemingly innocuous sentence while making the gesture agents can identify themselves to one another in a way that does not sound at all strange should someone outside the organization hear it.
  • Stable Time Loop:
    • After the Final Battle, Neil leaves the Protagonist so he can save his life in the opening scene in the Kiev Opera house, and (fatally) by Taking the Bullet during the Final Battle.
    • The inverted car that "flipped over" in front of the Protagonist and Neil as Sator chased them? It's the Protagonist himself, who went back in time through inversion and is using an inverted car, unwittingly ensuring that Sator gets the Algorithm piece they had just lifted.
    • The inverted Gas Mask Mook that the Protagonist and Neil encounter during the Oslo heist? It's the Protagonist again. He is borrowing the Freeport Turnstile to un-invert himself but cannot communicate with his past self and must resort to going on the defensive.
    • The lady Kat sees jumping in the water from Sator's yacht, who Kat thought was a new girlfriend of his? It's Kat herself, having arrived from the future and just killed Sator after seeing her earlier self approaching.
  • Stealth Pun:
    • The Protagonist doing pull-ups on the icebreaker while inverted. What is "pull-up"? A palindrome.
    • During the climactic battle scene, the red team and blue team both have ten minutes to complete the final mission. TEN forward and TEN backward makes TENET.
  • Stuff Blowing Up:
    • As a distraction a 747 aircraft is taxied straight into the Freeport building, causing one of its jet turbines to explode.
    • During the Final Battle, we have things both exploding and unexploding due to inversion.
  • Summon to Hand: Inverted objects display this, due to effect happening before cause. You cannot call an inverted object to your hand just by thinking it, but you can use proper gestures in reverse to achieve the same effect.
  • Tagline: "Time Runs Out".
  • Temporal Paradox: Discussed. At one point, Tenet tells the Protagonist not to enter a turnstile if he does not see his inverted self entering the other side. Otherwise, he will not come out the other side at all.
  • Time Capsule: Andrei's mysterious benefactors use inverted time capsules to recruit Andrei and fund his activities.
  • Time Rewind Mechanic: The movie's whole plot hinges on it. It is not actually time travel—as the Protagonist learns, it is a phenomenon called "inversion", the reversal of cause and effect induced by reversing the entropy of a given object. There are instances of this phenomenon, both blatant and subtle, throughout the film. Tenet is concerned because they have discovered an increasing number of inverted objects.
    • A large boat that the Protagonist is performing pull-ups on is going backwards, but the wakes in the water are in front of it and are going in reverse. Another boat behind it does the same. This is because in this scene, the Protagonist is currently inverted, experiencing normal time around him in reverse.
    • A clear example is the car Chase Scene, where one car that ends up doing a rollover gets rewound to a point before it did that rollover, while Neil and the Protagonist's car (which it was chasing) follows a normal time course.
    • While infiltrating Freeport, Neil and the Protagonist walk into a room where there are bullet holes in the dividing wall's glass windows. When Neil asks what happened, the Protagonist realizes that the event has not happened yet. Cue the Turnstile opening with a man in body armor then going through it in reverse, and attacking the Protagonist, while the same man runs out of Neil's side of the room in normal time. While they are fighting, the man is trying to shoot the Protagonist. From the Protagonist's inverted perspective, the window's bullet holes disappear as the bullets reverse into the man's gun while the Protagonist wrestles it away.
      "The hell happened here...?"
      ..."Hasn't happened yet."
    • The Protagonist is at a shooting gallery with a slab of rock peppered with bullet holes at the end of the range. Instructed to aim and pull a gun's trigger at it, the Protagonist causes one of the bullets to fly out of the slab and into his gun.
      Barbara: You're not shooting the bullet; you're catching it.
      Protagonist: ...Whoa.
    • Barbara's workplace has a large archive full of "inverted objects", such as small gears and bullets that rise into the air into one's waiting hand. She tells the Protagonist that "someone manufactured [these objects] in the future", hence their inherent inversion.
    • Wheeler also explains more rules of the phenomena before the Protagonist runs through the reversed aftermath of the Tallinn heist.
      You are inverted, the world is not. ... Don't worry about things falling as much as rising.
    • The Protagonist gets flipped over by a rising piece of debris during the Final Battle.
  • Time Travel: Played With. What inversion happens to be; or rather, inversion is the effect of time travel on the traveller/travelling object here, with travel taking the form of The Slow Path.
  • Trust Password:
    • The Protagonist and his quarry use "We live in a twilight world" and its response phrase "And there are no friends at dusk" in the Action Prologue. They abandon it because Sator knows the "twilight world" line.
    • "Tenet," accompanied by intertwined fingers with palms apart, lets the members of the organization reveal each other.
  • Turbine Blender: The jet engine on the crashed 747 explodes, sucking the Gas Mask Mook who attacks the Protagonist out of the building. Subverted when it turns out to be a coincidence with the Gas Mask Mook—in truth the Protagonist—just moving that way due to inversion. When the runaway turbine exploded, it blasted the inverted man through the roller shutter, but from the view of those watching in normal time, he appeared to have been sucked out of the room, followed by a big explosion.
  • The Unreveal: The movie never reveals the mastermind of revealing the Protagonist's presence in Kiev to Sator's forces. Granted, news networks did cover the Kiev opera siege, leaving behind a record for the future to pass onto Sator in the past.
  • Vapor Trail: Sator makes the Protagonist's flipped over car explode by performing a Reusable Lighter Toss onto the end of a fuel trail.
  • We Need a Distraction: To break into Freeport at Oslo airport, Neil comes up with a crazy plan: have Mahir and his guys hijack a cargo-carrying 747 on the ground and drive it into the building they're in, setting off the halon gas system so the staff have to evacuate the vaults. To create further chaos, they scatter the cargo of gold bullion on the runway, forcing the police to stop and secure the area and also creating confusion over whether it was an act of terrorism or a heist gone wrong, when the real target was in the Freeport vaults.
  • Western Terrorists: To the extent Ukraine counts as Western, the masked terrorists involved in raiding the Kiev National Opera House are this. The KORD anti-terror responders wipe them out during the raid.
  • Wham Line: Scattered liberally throughout the film (as befitting a time travel story) but special mention goes to one of the final lines of dialogue:
    Protagonist: I realised I wasn't working for you. We've both been working for me.
  • World War III: What Barbara says that Tenet is trying to prevent, at least, "as [she] understand[s] it". It is not going to involve nuclear warfare, at the very least. Instead, it will be a war between people from the present and the future, with the stakes being total annihilation.
    Protagonist: Nuclear Holocaust.
    Barbara: No. Something worse.
  • Write Back to the Future: This is Inverted because of inversion (yes). Someone in the future recruits Andrei for their scheme via an inverted Time Capsule (played straight of course from his point-of-view). It is also weaponized in the last battle by having two combat teams, one inverted, with the past team learning from the other's experience. Tenet refers to this as a "temporal pincer movement" through a specific event. Played straight when the Protagonist gives Kat a mobile phone at the end and tells her to give her location if she ever thinks she's in trouble. This saves her life as the Protagonist can receive the messages in the future and travel back to the present to always be there to stop any assassination attempt.
  • You Already Changed the Past: The 'summoning an inverted object to your hand' trick only works if you will have actually dropped it in the immediate future, which will be the object's immediate past. That requires the appropriate hand gesture, such as "scooping up a bullet" to pull it from the table or "pulling your fingers away from a bullet" to drag it toward you, as seen with Barbara's explanation.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: And the first time, Sator's right. Kat eventually finds the anger to kill Sator to replace the despair holding her back when she can no longer bear the thought of Sator thinking he'd won as he dies.

"Mission accomplished."

It's the bomb that didn't go off. The danger no one knew was real. That's the bomb with the real power to change the world.


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