November 20, 2020

Tenet: Why Time Travel Offers a Unique Way to Build Narrative

by Ian Ford

Tenet is available to pre-order on digital HD on Amazon.

Click the image on the right to buy it now.

The release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet signals the end of quarantine and the death of COVID-19. Okay, that’s not exactly true but for people like me who’ve waited months to be able to visit the local multiplex to watch a true blockbuster, the release of this oft-delayed epic couldn’t come soon enough.

But I suppose the question on most people’s lips is, was it worth the wait or has Nolan’s winning streak finally come to an end? The short answer is a resounding hell yeah to the first part and a stop talking rubbish to the second. While Tenet may not be the best Nolan film (that honour still goes to the amazing Dark Knight Rises) the intricate narrative and excellent cast make this film an absolute post lockdown treat and it easily takes the crown of best movie released so far this year.

But what exactly is Tenet about?

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John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

If you’ve seen any of the mind blowing but equally baffling trailers for Tenet, you’re probably scratching your head wondering what the film’s story is about. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the plot here, although I will later in the article (look out for the ***spoilers ahead*** warning). If you truly want to understand the film, you need to experience it for yourself. Preferably on the largest screen you can find (Imax baby) with bombastic Dolby sound… and a face mask of course.

Needless to say, that after a career skirting around and exploring time as a concept, Nolan tackles the subject head on during Tenet’s lengthy two-and-a-half-hour runtime. And we’re not talking the non-linear timelines of Dunkirk or the backwards narrative of Memento (although the latter is closer in terms of concept and use).

In simple terms Tenet is Nolan’s attempt to combine a Bond themed secret agent movie with his trademark flair and customary unusual narrative choices. The film follows CIA agent John David Washington (simply known as Protagonist) as he delves into the murky, twilight world of international espionage in a search for missing plutonium. On his quest he encounters a mysterious organization called Tenet who enlist him in their efforts to prevent the films antagonist Andrei Sator (played with sufficient gravitas by Kenneth Branagh) from starting World War III.

So far so Bond, but the film really starts to get interesting when Washington’s Protagonist learns the art of “time inversion” as a way to counter the threats he encounters.

Time inverwhat???

Time inversion, to be precise. We’ve seen the physics (or lack thereof) of time travel many times on celluloid and it’s easy to think that there’s nothing new under the time travel sun. But Tenet thrives by subverting our expectations at every turn and presenting the flow of time in ways we’ve never seen.

Rather than having characters jump from one point in time to another instantly, Tenet shows time flowing forward and in reverse (hence time inversion) allowing characters to move backwards through the timeline while taking us along for the ride. Never does the film follow the tired trope of jumping from one point to another, with the result of actions shown as an instantaneous change. If a character wants to travel backwards an hour, they have to physically live out that hour… but in reverse.

This allows events to be played out in inventive ways no matter which way time is flowing and the consequences can be seen with no chance of correcting them. As the film helpfully points out, what happens has happened and the actions are set in stone and cannot be changed. If somebody dies, moving backwards through the timeline will not undo that death because cause and effect cannot be changed.

How does Tenet’s manipulation of time affect the narrative structure of the film?

Yeah, we don’t understand it either Robert

Just like the palindromic nature of the name Tenet, the film employs time in both directions to drive the story forward and events can play out in either direction. On first viewing, understanding which way time is flowing (especially in some of the more action-packed sequences) can be tricky and often leads to confusion. But it is this fluidity that leads to many of the film’s more interesting plot points as sequences you believe are playing out a specific way are turned on their head (literally) when you realise that time is flowing in the opposite direction to what you assumed.

Your understanding of which way time is progressing and the order that events are taking place is a large part of how Tenet’s story unfolds and Nolan plays with our expectations at every turn to keep us and the hero’s idea of their current location relative to the story a mere guess.

Give us an example of inversion: The final scene

***spoilers ahead***

Okay, so if you don’t want the film’s story spoiling, then look away now. If you’ve already seen the film then come on in, let’s have a chat.

There are many scenes in Tenet that use time inversion in unique ways, but it is in the final fifteen minutes or so where the film really doubles down on the time travel motif. This wonderfully innovative series of action sequences culminate in a twist that turns the film on its head and will have you heading back to the ticket office to experience it all over again.

The temporal pincer movement

The final sequence of the film is set in the delipidated Sovieteraesque city of Stalask-12 and sees the Protagonist along with his new compatriot (at least that’s what he thinks) Neil and members of the Tenet organisation assaulting the city in what the film calls a “temporal pincer movement.” This time-bending McGuffin sees half the soldiers moving forward in time during the attack while the other half do so with time inverted.

You see Tenet believe that the terminally ill Sator has pieced together the nine components of the time inversion algorithm and is hell bent on using them to destroy the world. With us so far?

Using a time inversion turnstile, the group head back to the moment of doomsday and under the cover of the temporal pincer movement, the Protagonist infiltrates the “Hypocenter” to steal the algorithm.

This may all sound pretty standard stuff (really?), but the narrative is far more complex than it sounds and even includes the inversion of time being used to resurrect a previously dead operative to take a bullet for the Protagonist and help them inside the vault holding the algorithm.

In another sequence running parallel to the assault, Sator’s ex-girlfriend can be seen travelling back in time to a point where she’d previously seen what she thought was a woman her ex was cheating with jumping from a boat. During a confrontation with Sator she shoots him, killing him before diving from the ship herself, proving that she was in fact the ‘other woman’ seen before. This sequence also confirms to the audience that Sator never really disappeared. He was shot and his body lost to the ocean.

This is where the cleverness of Nolan’s script really shines. If Sator had been killed prior to the algorithm finding itself in the Protagonists hands, the world would have ended due to a dead switch in his fitness tracker. The use of the dual time frames converging adds a distinct layer of jeopardy to the final scenes, even if wrapping your head around them makes your brain hurt.

But the film’s story isn’t finished there and we find ourselves circling back to the Protagonist and his newish friend Neil who reveals that although, from the Protagonists and the audiences perspective, their time together has been brief, they have in fact been working together for years. Not only that but the Protagonist (or a future version of him) is the person who set up Tenet in the first place and was hell bent on finding the algorithm.

We also see (via a handy piece of red string on his backpack) that Neil was actually the reawakened corpse from the vault who took a bullet for our supposed good guy before giving him access to the vault and algorithm. This again flips parts of the story we thought we understood on their head as we realise that although the Protagonist thought this was his first mission with Neil, it was in fact his last and that unlike his characters billed name, he was actually more akin to the movie’s antagonist than the good guy.


“No. That’s a claw. I said temporal pincer movement. Like this!”

Then that’s probably down to my inability to express the narrative adequately in words. There’s no doubt that Tenet asks a lot of its audience (this is Christopher Nolan after all) and plays with common conceptions of how a story should unfold. But in the confines of the film and layered with epic sequences that are truly breath-taking in their design, you can’t help but be dragged along for the ride.

You’d think that time moving forwards and backwards at the same time would make for a confusing mess, but the opposite is the case and the story taken as a linear progression makes perfect sense. Yes, it requires concentration and twists and turns come thick and fast. But it is testament to the skill of Nolan and his team that you are never lost within the sequences structure and things still make sense (sort of). As the final moments progress, scenes we’ve seen earlier in the film are shown in a different light (like the woman jumping from the boat and the red string backpack) and things we thought were true are shown to be false (like who built Tenet in the first place). It takes real skill as a filmmaker to create sequences as dense and complex as the last few minutes of Tenet while keeping the film entertaining and the story moving coherently.

I’ve been around the block far too many times and seen too many lazy final act twists to be surprised by Hollywood’s penchant for implausibility when looking for one last shock, scare, or laugh (I’m looking at you Serenity 2019 — not to be confused with the excellent Josh Whedon film of the same name). The final revelations of Tenet feel natural despite their surprising nature and prompt a rethink of everything that has gone before.

It will be interesting to see how I perceive the film on a second (or third) viewing with advanced warning of the events to come. Will knowledge of the ending change my enjoyment of the film or will it reveal even more of the film’s intricate structure?

This quandary brings back memories of how subsequent viewings of Wes Craven’s Scream revealed more about the characters once I knew who the killers were. How I spotted more of their behaviour traits and began to question my own inability to see that they were the bad guys the first-time round. Will a second screening of Tenet highlight the same observations? Will I see more of the characters motives and will the final revelations be more obvious? I’m not sure but I do know one thing — I’m going to thoroughly enjoy finding out.

Even your explanation of Tenet is making my head hurt

Don’t let my explanation of Tenet’s time manipulation put you off this wonderful film. While Nolan subverts our expectations at every turn and is unique in his presentation of time, the film is still classic Nolan all the way. Muted colours, stunning cinematography, and tense, innovatively presented action sequences are enthusiastically plastered across the screen for all to enjoy.

Like Inception before it, the world Nolan has created is full of intrigue but the surprises the film offer are no longer quite as unique as they once were. That’s not to say this isn’t a good film or in the same league as the aforementioned dream-inspired masterpiece. But watching Tenet is like eating a bowl of chilli infused pasta — it’s comforting but at the same time offers enough spice to kick you exactly where it hurts and keep you coming back for more.

The film manages to employ the customary lofty ideas of a Christopher Nolan script to disguise the pacey James Bond inspired storyline (that’s not an insult). But at the end of the day Tenet has enough intrigue for ten 007 outings and that’s why, for me, it was well worth a visit to my local multiplex, even if I did have to wear a facemask to enjoy it.


Maths teacher, author, driving instructor, gamer, film buff, comedian, eco warrior, gigolo, prime minister, and fantasist.

movies, film, video game discussion

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