Christopher Nolan is back in theaters starting this week with Tenet, his latest mental puzzle that manipulates/inverts time for the benefit of an action-thriller. Think Inception or Interstellar, only with sophisticated spies (John David Washington, Robert Pattinson) and the challenging concept of time inversion. Now that you have seen the Tenet ending, it’s time for us to explain the Tenet ending. As best I can, anyway. Like Nolan’s best movies, this one will take multiple viewings to unpack, but CinemaBlend is more than up to the task.
Needless to say, if you have made it this far into our Tenet ending conversation, we are about to spoil the entire movie for you. Not that there is some massive twist reveal, or surprise final scene. Tenet is almost too complicated to fully spoil, but we are going to analyze the intricacies of the Tenet ending, so stop reading now if you still want to go into the movie unsullied.
What The Main Characters Do In Tenet's Final Act
Up until the final act of Tenet, John David Washington’s The Protagonist character believes he is preventing the evil arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from obtaining plutonium. Before you can say Back to the Future, though, we learn that the case that is stolen from the back of a truck (during a thrilling convoy sequence) contains one of the nine pieces of The Algorithm, a device invented in the future that could allow someone to invert our existence, with devastating consequences.
Understanding that they need to prevent Sator from triggering the Algorithm in our present day – thereby helping a future society to possibly stave off a planet-ruining global warming – the Tenet team divides into factions. Here’s how that plays out:
What Kat Does
Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), reveals that her husband is dying from an inoperable cancer. She knows that the villain will trigger the Algorithm as he is dying, because, to paraphrase his own megalomaniacal statements, if he can’t own the world, no one can.
She predicts that he’ll end his life, and therefore the planet’s “life,” on the day he was happiest: during the couple’s Vietnam vacation. So Kat inverts herself to be able to travel back to that day, and prevent Sator from swallowing a suicide capsule long enough for the Protagonist and Neil (Robert Pattinson) from completing their mission.
What Neil And The Protagonist Do
These guys have figured out that the remaining pieces of the Algorithm have been buried under an isolated Russian city. They need to retrieve the pieces before Sator takes his own life, so they stage what we are told is a “temporal pincer movement.” In that phase, half of a team of soldiers are able to move forward through time in the battle zone, while the other half of the team is able to move backward.
The Protagonist and Tenet team leader Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have to infiltrate an underground tunnel to retrieve the Algorithm. They find that their path is blocked by a locked gate. In classic Christopher Nolan fashion, the forward-moving teams and the backward-moving teams have digital watches that are counting down the minutes that they have left, while Kat knows that she has to keep Sator distracted long enough for everyone to complete their legs of the missions.
How The Characters Do It
OK, again, I’m going to remind you that at this point, I’ve still only seen the Tenet ending once, and while I believe that I have a good grasp on what happens in the closing minutes of the explosive finale, there is a LOT going on. But here’s what I think I know.
Neil, The Protagonist And Ives
So, they are stuck behind the locked gate, and unable to stop one of Sator’s thugs. But there’s a masked body behind the gate, and it springs to life, saving The Protagonist from getting shot, and also unlocking the gate. Nolan zooms in on a recognizable red string, which we had seen previously and later determine is a part of Neil’s backpack.
This, I believe, means that this is another Neil, sent backward through time to be at this moment to save The Protagonist. The red string was seen on a masked soldier who prevented the Protagonist from being shot and killed at the Opera house at the beginning of the film. This indicates that Neil essentially has been watching over The Protagonist on his entire journey, needing to get him to this place. Think of it like The Terminator. Neil would be Reese, sent back from the future to protect John Conner. That’s why, after the mission, Neil says to the Protagonist that this is the beginning of a long friendship. Neil has known the Protagonist for decades, even though the Protagonist thinks they have just met.
Kat And Sator
Now on the boat in Vietnam, the inverted Kat knows that the version of herself who is living in the time has traveled to the mainland with their son. She pretends to be herself for a bit, but as she pays close attention to the time, she sees that Sator is onto the ruse. Somewhat. Sator is communicating with The Protagonist at the bottom of the cave. He believes he has the upper hand on Neil and the Protagonist, and that once he swallows the suicide pill, their mission will fail.
But Kat has other plans. She has greased the deck of the boat, and now offers to smear suntan lotion all over her husband’s back. Kat, in this moment, needs to take control. She needs to be the one to kill Sator. Which she does. She shoots him 10 seconds before she is supposed to. Because she needs to take back control, and own his death. She shoots him in the chest, then uses his greased body to push him off the boat. As the “present day” version of herself returns to the ship, one Kat sees the other Kat diving off the boat. This was referenced earlier in the film, but we now know that Kat saw Kat.
Kat confesses that she almost jeopardized the mission by killing Sator early, but she tells The Protagonist she was confident they’d figure out a way to make it work. And they do. Neil, Ives and The Protagonist divide up the nine pieces of the Algorithm and go their separate ways. Neil makes it clear that he has been sent back in time to complete this mission, and by the end of the film, the Protagonist comes to understand that HE has been the one pulling the strings on Tenet this entire time. He stops one last assassination attempt on Kat and her son, comes to terms with his role at the head of the organization, and the movie comes to a close.
Oh, there's one more fascinating line of dialogue that leads me to believe that if he wanted to, Nolan could stage a Tenet sequel, or even a trilogy of films. Pattinson's character says to Washington after the mission that this is the beginning of a lifelong friendship for him, but the END of it for Neil. This implies that these men have known each other for decades, even though The Protagonist is only meeting and working with Neil for the first time. Will they continue to work on adventures that start with this one, right now? Possible. Nolan hasn't done sequels outside of his Batman series, but Tenet could inspire him, if audiences like this film.
Whew. I think that’s it. What did I miss? Head to the comments below and fill in some of the details you might have seen during the heart-pounding Tenet ending. Now excuse me. I’m running back to the theater to absorb all of this all over again.
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Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.
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