Сhristopher Nolan’s eleventh feature film Tenet became the first major Hollywood film to release in theatres amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Nolan’s persistence for a theatrical release makes more sense upon an initial viewing of the spectacle that is Tenet. The film is a labyrinth woven of threads reminiscent of past works. The intense battle scenes of Dunkirk, sci-fi action sequences of Inception, and fragmented time of Memento are all echoed in Tenet. So, what is Tenet about?

While the plot itself not only takes a bit of digesting, but possibly weeks of chewing to get even close to full comprehension, we’ve laid out the general plot points of the story. That being said, this is your formal warning — SPOILERS AHEAD.

Watch: How Nolan Directs Perspective in Tenet

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Tenet Movie plot summary

What is Tenet about?

In what is arguably the most ambitious and complex film by Christopher Nolan so far, Tenet follows an unnamed CIA agent played by a cool, calm, and collected John David Washington. The film opens guns blazing, literally. A symphony performance in Kiev is attacked and the unnamed CIA agent, dreadfully referred to in the film as The Protagonist, is sent undercover to retrieve a colleague and a strange artifact.

The Protagonist is captured and tortured, unwilling to disclose any information. He swallows a cyanide pill in an attempt to take his own life. He survives and wakes up to find out the cyanide pill was fake, the artifact was taken, and his allegiance to the agency has caused him to be adopted into a top-secret assignment known as Tenet.

What is Tenet About?

This assignment leads him to a secretive facility in which The Protagonist learns about the threat they face — inversion.

What is inversion? As we experience reality, we see objects and their entropy as they move forward in time. However, objects have been found in which their material has been inverted, causing them to move backward through time.

While this is demonstrated in the scene with a bullet, the real threat appears to be inverted nuclear weapons. Scratching your head yet?

The Protagonist and Neil - Tenet Cast

The Protagonist and Neil  •  Tenet cast

The Protagonist teams up with Neil, played by a witty Robert Pattinson. The duo tracks down the source of these inverted objects to a Russian arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). To get closer to the ultra-wealthy and acutely suspicious Andrei, The Protagonist enlists the help of Andrei’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Kat loathes her abusive husband because of his threat to take her son away if she disobeys him.

The Protagonist and Kat - Tenet Cast

The Protagonist and Kat  •  Tenet cast

Without diving into specifics and ending spoilers, what ensues is The Protagonist’s persistent attempt to prevent Andrei’s malicious plan of using inversion technology to end the world. All of which is framed by and achieved through inverted action scenes that have never been seen on the big screen.

Check out the extent of Tenet’s practical effects and Nolan’s unique storytelling in the exclusive behind the scenes video below.

Behind the Scenes with the Tenet cast and crew

The secrecy around the release of the film and the Tenet movie plot was thought to prevent any spoilers. Even with an early release of what seemed to be a Tenet prologue, many Nolan fans were left with more questions than answers.

To many critics, it appears that the secrecy may have had to do with the complexity of the film rather than mystery. Even the Tenet cast has had a difficult time answering the question, “What is Tenet about?”

Tenet cast tries to explain Tenet movie plot

The confusion, however, should not distract from the wildly entertaining scenes in the film. From reverse hand-to-hand combat sequences to epic gun fights to mind bending car chase sequences, Tenet demands your attention. The stunts, the effects, and the ambition of the film cannot be mistaken for any filmmaker other than Christopher Nolan.

Tenet movie style

Nolan’s style in Tenet

Tenet may be as close as we get to a Bond film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. A charismatic secret agent saving the world from the villainous plan of a Russian arms dealer may sound familiar. But how Nolan tells this story is anything but familiar.

Let's remind ourselves of how his previous film Interstellar was able to reinvent the sci-fi genre. Watch this complete Interstellar breakdown to see how Nolan does it, even at the scripting level.

Interstellar Explained  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Like many of Nolan’s best films, Tenet challenges our concept of time and how it unfolds in a story. Through the concept of inversion, Nolan again implements his use of circular filmmaking and storytelling that engages us deeply into the film.

The Shape of Christopher Nolan’s Films  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Inversion itself is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. Objects and people being able to move backward in time through a forward moving reality? Got it… I think.

Behind the Scenes of Tenet Christopher Nolan and John David Washington

Behind the scenes of Tenet Christopher Nolan and John David Washington

The film uses dialogue to extensively explain the concept and the plot (often to a fault). However, it is most entertaining when we are able to simply watch inversion play out on the big screen. The bizarre action sequences and car chases reminds us of the scale of film that drives us to the movie theatre. To quote the scientist that explains inversion to The Protagonist, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

Tenet Movie Poster

Tenet movie poster

The spectacle of Tenet undoubtedly lies in Nolan’s dedication to in-camera practical effects (Yes, Nolan actually blew up a real 747 airplane). There is an undeniable magic to a film that does not rely on green screens, but rather creative means to realistically portray what seems impossible.

This includes choreographed fight scenes that are meant to look inverted as well as shooting scenes in reverse to appear inverted.

TheTenet film budget of $225 million allowed Nolan in seven different countries on an imposing 70mm and IMAX process. It also enabled him to bring to life the ambitious effects few filmmakers are daring enough to envision. Needless to say, the production was made for theaters.

Final impressions of the Tenet movie plot

In conclusion...

There is no doubt that Christopher Nolan is among the leading filmmakers that is pushing cinema forward. The familiar distinctions to Nolan’s directing style prevail in Tenet yet are simultaneously presented in a brand new way.

Behind the Scenes of Tenet Christopher Nolan

Behind the scenes of Tenet Christopher Nolan

There are undoubtedly flaws in Tenet that we have seen in Nolan’s past work. Overly expository dialogue, thin characters, and glaring plot complexity, the Tenet movie plot can become exhausting to some. Nonetheless, it still encompasses much of what audiences love about Nolan’s best films.

How does the movie Tenet stand against Nolan’s best films? Take a look at our analysis of Nolan’s best movies before watching Tenet to see if it ranks among his best or worst.

Top 10 Best Christopher Nolan Movies Ranked  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Tenet takes risks, pushes boundaries and allows us to escape through film during a time where reality seems to be stranger than fiction. While it’s reception may depend entirely on the viewer, one cannot deny the grip Nolan has on his craft and the passion he has for telling a completely unique story.


Christopher Nolan’s Best Movies

Curious to see how Tenet stands against Christopher Nolan’s best films? Luckily, we’ve ranked Nolan’s past work for your binge viewing pleasure. Check out our complete list in the next article.

Up Next: Nolan’s Best Movies →
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  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

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