Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Tenet.
Impeccable suits and elaborate heists. Epic car chases and cryptic code words. Arms dealers with apocalyptic weapons. Fist fights and shoot-outs in exotic locales. A Russian villain and of course, a beautiful woman. No, it’s not the latest James Bond film: it’s Tenet—the previous summer’s blockbuster laden with the responsibility of saving cinema in the time of COVID-19. Tenet is a mind-bending, time-inverting tale from writer and director Christopher Nolan. Though structured like a spy thriller and an action film, Tenet delves into sci-fi for its imaginative premise and contains a hidden heart with a Christian subtext that only reveals itself on subsequent viewings. Tenet takes the best of Bond but ditches the playboy schtick, replacing it with complex physics and a band-of-brothers finale, making it simultaneously more cerebral and more relational than your average cinematic intrigue. It’s an immersive spectacle, an intricate puzzle, and (I’ll argue) a Christ-like parable.
Unlike “Bond… James Bond,” Tenet’s leading man is never named. We know him only as “The Protagonist” (played by John David Washington). He is a CIA agent tasked with extracting a colleague and retrieving part of a doomsday device in the middle of a Russian attack on the Kiev Opera House. Though he saves the lives of the symphony-goers with his ingenuity and boldness, he loses the device and is captured and tortured. He swallows a suicide pill to avoid outing his team. When he wakes up a few weeks later in safety, having been rescued and enabled to recover during a medically induced coma, he is told that the suicide pill was fake and that the mission was a test of his character. “You chose to die,” the handler says to the Protagonist, “instead of giving up your colleagues. We all believe we’d run into the burning building, but until we feel that heat, we never know. You do.” This is all the backstory we get for our hero.
The Protagonist is then recruited by a secretive trans-national organization known as “Tenet,” which aims to save humanity from World War 3. The threat isn’t nuclear: it’s from time-inverted technology coming back toward us from the future. As the Protagonist learns, “time inversion” is not “time travel” (as in Back to The Future): it’s “reverse entropy.” Objects and people that are inverted move backward in time at a steady rate. To the outside observer they look like a video playing in reverse: people walk and talk backward, crashed cars un-flip, and bullets fly back into the barrels of the guns which catch them.
The Protagonist partners with a jaunty and slightly gin-soaked agent named Neil (Robert Pattinson) to track down time-inverted weapons and the lost part of the doomsday device the Russians were after. They follow the trail to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian arms dealer and billionaire who is a broker between the present and the future. Sator is helping distant posterity use their time-inversion technology to enact their judgment upon the past (upon us) for leaving them an unlivable world devastated by climate change.
While individually inverted objects “swimming upstream” against the current of our forward-moving time don’t portend Armageddon, if Sator can gather all nine pieces of the future’s doomsday device (called “the algorithm”), then the entropic stream of the entire universe will be reversed. The future will conceivably rewrite over the past (like recording over an old video tape), and life as we know it will be annihilated. Sator, who is dying of cancer, shares the bitterness of those future generations: “When I die, the world dies with me,” he promises. The Protagonist and Neil work with other Tenet agents and Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debiki), in a complex series of heists and time-inverted missions to prevent the erasure of the world.
Why You Need to Watch Tenet More Than Once
Tenet has been faulted for emphasizing its intricate narrative and the physics of time inversion over and against its humanity, leaving the tone cold and impersonal. While I sympathize with this opinion, I consider it an indication that the critic only watched the movie once (since it came to theaters during a pandemic, this isn’t surprising). There’s simply too much demanding your attention for it all to be taken in at one go. The sound mixing (though intentional) contributes to the problem: at times the dialogue isn’t privileged over background noise or the soundtrack; the characters speak quickly, and some are even muffled by masks. Though it’s highly engaging, it’s also easy to feel lost, as if Nolan is disorienting us on purpose.
This is one film that not only rewards multiple viewings, it frankly requires them (subtitles help, and so does the fact that it’s now streaming on HBO Max). The emotional depth and symbolic meaning reveal themselves only after the narrative has become clear enough that you can take it for granted and place your attention elsewhere. The movie’s heart isn’t missing, but it is missable when your brain is too busy. Perhaps that’s Nolan’s fault for throwing too much at us. Or perhaps that’s the fun of it, chime the Nolan devotees—solving the puzzle afterward.
The word tenet is a palindrome. This word, along with multiple characters and plot points (Sator, Arepo, Opera, and Rotas) are all features of the real-life “Sator Square,” an ancient palindromic engraving that is meant to be read multiple times from various perspectives. Tenet the movie is palindromic in its whole structure: once you reach the end, you’ve got to go back to the beginning to appreciate it anew. When you get to the end of Tenet you are really “only half-way there,” as Neil puts it. A first watch just barely situates you in the nature of this “twilight world” that has “no friends at dusk.” A palindromic story of inversion isn’t over until your opening assumptions are flipped, and it’s revealed that the solitary spy we assumed would be like Bond isn’t solitary after all.
The Heart of Tenet Is Friendship
Unlike every Bond movie ever, Tenet has no sex scenes (none are even implied). When nothing’s going on below the belt, there’s time for other things, including something Bond was never able to manage—male friendship. Not only does the Protagonist know how to treat a lady (he helps the villain’s wife escape her abusive situation); he also knows how to make a friend. Nolan, himself a Bond fan, upgraded the archetype. He created the Protagonist to have a “very warm emotional accessibility,” a playful wit, a functioning conscience, and a refreshing mix of confidence and humility. He’s an inversion of the empty pleasure-seeking, selfishness, snobbery, misogyny, alcoholism, and friendlessness of the genre’s leading man—007, the spy with the cruel mouth and cold eyes. For all his swagger and skill, Bond is feared, envied, handled, and hated by other men, and he is desired by women (for sex, rescue, and excitement). But no one really loves Bond, and no one trusts him. Tenet’s Protagonist, however, is the kind of man who can generate the collegial devotion of other men.
While the story leads us to believe that the Protagonist meets his partner, Neil, for the first time in Mumbai, this is not true. Neil is no stranger, but has actually been a close friend of an older version of the Protagonist for years prior to this mission (thanks to time inversion). Neil was recruited into Tenet and mentored by the Protagonist himself, and the two have had countless adventures (at some future point not shown in the film). As the audience, we only get to witness the first half of their relationship—over the shoulder of the Protagonist, so to speak—in which the affection appears to be largely on Neil’s end. Neil offers his friendship, help, and trust long before the Protagonist can reciprocate with genuine understanding.
We realize the extent of Neil’s commitment to the Protagonist and to their mission during the final battle at Stalsk-12. Neil doesn’t just save the Protagonist (and the mission) once: he does so at least four times by my count. He extracts the Protagonist and Ives from the underground hypocenter by dropping them a cord and dragging them out with his truck seconds before a bomb would have killed them. Gifted lock-picker that he is, Neil also inverts himself and unlocks the hypocenter’s door that had been blocking the Protagonist from retrieving the algorithm. After this (or before?) Neil acts as a human shield in front of the Protagonist and takes a bullet in the head from Sator’s henchman, thus saving his friend’s life.
And while there’s two of Neil at this critical juncture (above and below ground, rescuing and dying at the same time), Neil later references the need to invert himself a third time to help the blue team whom he’d left temporarily: “I’ll get ’em on the next pass,” he promises. Not only that, but there is actually a fourth Neil saving the Protagonist at the Kiev Opera House siege we saw at the film’s opening (an event which is occurring simultaneously with the Stalsk-12 mission). Since the whole story is a palindrome it has to end at the same time as it began… Does your head hurt yet? The man is everywhere. His presence is signified by a token on his backpack: a small metallic loop through which multiple orange strings are threaded. This is Neil’s symbol: always going back, looping again and again to that one time period to facilitate the Protagonist’s success at every turn, to ensure the salvation of the world against Sator’s attempt to annihilate it.
Neil’s loving actions and sacrificial death are what make it possible for the Protagonist to become the eventual creator of Tenet, the organization which saves the present world from the future’s destructive judgment. This is the heart of the story: the world-saving goodness that flows directly out of the relationship of these two men whose self-sacrifice bookends the film. You won’t know to pay close attention to their dynamic until the show’s over (which is kind of the point).
In the Protagonist’s future (not seen in the film), he founds Tenet, develops his elaborate “temporal pincer” plan (which is basically the whole movie we just watched), and recruits a fresh-faced Neil who doesn’t know him yet, but to whom he is already deeply attached. In the farewell scene after the Stalsk-12 battle, the Protagonist realizes that he must recruit Neil in the future, knowing that this is necessary for the world to be saved, but that this will inevitably lead to Neil’s death (in the present). Their friendship unfolds like a pair of star-crossed Benjamin Buttons. There’s a strange beauty in this dynamic where (depending on which end of the timeline you start from) each one supports the other in an irreducible chicken-and-egg kind of way: they create one another as heroes. This reciprocal, mutual mentoring is possible only because of time inversion, proving that Tenet’s sci-fi premise is no mere gimmick. The story’s moral core depends on it.
The only moment where both men clearly and fully recognize their mutual bond is in their parting conversation (yes, I cried, but so did the Protagonist!). “For me, I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship,” Neil says, with a nod to Casablanca. “But for me, it’s just the beginning,” the Protagonist realizes. Neil informs him that he’s only half-way there in his efforts to save the world. “I’ll see you at the beginning, friend,” Neil says with a smile as he heads back to invert himself yet again and knowingly die down in the cave—“Now let me go.” (And for goodness’ sake, pass the tissues!)
The “thickness” of this one moment in the story, the “repeat stitches” Neil makes to go back over the same moment to warn, to assist, to rescue, to pick the lock, to open the door, and to die in his friend’s place—this moment of the story, and this man in the story, have a distinctively Christian resonance. Neil’s individual “temporal pincer” movement, his double-rescue of substitutionary death, and the act of dragging those doomed men out of what Sator calls “a tomb,” are echoes of Christ’s cross, the harrowing of hell, and the resurrection.1
Unlike Bond, the swanky assassin who always makes a name for himself (and by himself), Tenet’s heroes cooperatively save the world in secret. The Protagonist goes unnamed; Neil goes unnoticed. They conquer evil by self-sacrificial love, side by side, and no one will ever know it was them or thank them for it. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NIV). In Neil’s words,
“We’re the people saving the world from what might have been. World will never know what could’ve happened. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care. ’Cause no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off. Only the one that did.”
Third Time’s a Charm
Once you know all of this, your second viewing of Tenet will be markedly different. Now you know that the Protagonist does indeed have a “friend at dusk,” one who is always “weaving another past into the fabric of this mission.” The first time you watch Tenet, you’re on the forward-moving (ignorant) Red Team, and you’re likely to be confused. But on your second time through, you’re on the inverted Blue Team, armed with the knowledge of how it all ends, and how much care and kindness is stitched into those heart-pounding action sequences and seemingly casual conversations. When you re-watch Tenet, you’re watching a different movie. I’ve watched it four times, and I still haven’t caught it all.
In fact, this article barely scratches the surface of Tenet. I’ve reviewed the story’s palindromic structure, compared the Protagonist to Bond, described the friendship of the story’s leading men, and the subtext of Christ’s sacrifice. And yet, I’ve hardly said a word about the heroine, Kat, whose platonic connection with the Protagonist changes her from an abused wife to a free woman—an avenging Fury who not only gets the honor of killing the villain, but also the glory of being what no Bond woman has ever had the privilege of being: a mother. The film’s final image isn’t of the two spies who saved the day: it’s of Kat walking off into safety and freedom, holding her son’s hand. Don’t worry; you can get her on the next pass.
1. I credit “A Moonlighting English Teacher” with unpacking the salvific and sacrificial symbolism of Neil’s character in the YouTube video Analysis of Nolan’s Tenet: Control vs. Love.