Tenet is a 2020 American epic spy science fiction action thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and co-produced with Emma Thomas. Tenet explores the titular organization through the eyes of The Protagonist as he works to ensure the survival of the entire world.
Scroll to the bottom for a graph showing the main plot points and how inversion moves between them.
Nolan took more than five years to write the screenplay after deliberating about Tenet's central ideas for over a decade.
Tenet was released in the United Kingdom on August 26, 2020, and in the United States on September 3, 2020.
Armed with only one word—Tenet—and fighting for the survival of the entire world, The Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
Not time travel. Inversion.
The Protagonist assists in a Central Intelligence Agency operation to foil an opera siege and retrieve a stolen cache of plutonium in Kiev. During the operation, the plutonium is found to be fake, but the Protagonist is saved by a masked gunman with a red string on his backpack. The Protagonist is then abducted and threatened with torture, but he bites on an apparent suicide pill before revealing any information. Upon waking, The Protagonist learns the pill was a test of his loyalty. He is recruited into a secret organisation, given only the information that the word "TENET" and a cross-fingered gesture will "open many doors" for him.
The Protagonist infiltrates a facility where he learns that in the future, technology has been developed that allows objects to have their entropy reversed and move backwards through time. The Protagonist is shown an inverted bullet that 'returns' to the gun it is fired from.
Tracking the metal from which the reversed bullets are made, The Protagonist infiltrates the compound of an Indian billionaire, with the aid of Neil. He learns that it is in fact the billionaire's wife, Priya, who knows what is happening. Priya tells the Protagonist that the time-reversing technology is under the control of an arms dealer named Andrei Sator, who is in communication with an unknown agency in the future.
In order to get to Sator, The Protagonist approaches Sator's estranged wife Kat. Kat tells The Protagonist that Sator has her under his control due to a forged painting that she gave to Sator. The Protagonist tries to win Kat's trust by retrieving the painting from Oslo Airport Freeport. To do this The Protagonist's associates (including Mo) crash an airplane into the freeport as a diversion. Unfortunately the painting is not in the freeport, and The Protagonist and Neil are attacked by a regular masked man and 'inverted' masked man (both of whom escape). It is later revealed that these are the same man using a turnstile (see below) located within the freeport.
The Protagonist returns to Kat and pretends the painting is "taken care of"; Kat introduces him to Sator at a dinner party. The Protagonist offers to steal weapons-grade plutonium for Sator. The next day, Sator reveals to Kat he still has the painting, which leads to her attempting to take his life, which The Protagonist prevents since he needs Sator alive. Sator attempts to abuse Kat in retaliation but she rebuffs him with her gun.
The Protagonist and Neil prepare and execute the first phase of stealing the plutonium. They successfully remove the plutonium from a government convoy, but are then interrupted by an inverted vehicle and several regular ones. Sator's plot gradually becomes clear: he is operating a "temporal pincer movement" - the regular vehicles watch what is happening, and then relay the information to the inverted vehicle to act on with the benefit of knowing what will happen (and vice versa).
Sator captures The Protagonist and takes him to the nearby "temporal junction" (where inversion occurs). Sator interrogates the Protagonist and shoots Kat (who is with him) in the abdomen via inverted bullet, before leaving in the inverted vehicle (Sator himself now inverted). Special Forces arrive and secure the scene. The Protagonist inverts himself via the "temporal stile" or "turnstile" located within the temporal junction, follows the inverted Sator, and rescues Kat but at the expense of the plutonium.
The Protagonist returns to the temporal junction (still inverted) and confronts Neil, who admits he is a member of Tenet as are the Special Forces unit. They reveal that the plutonium is actually one of seven pieces of The Device. In the far future, a scientist creates the ability to invert the entire world, as a desparate way to escape the effects of climate change by inverting to move backwards in time (and overwrite the past in the process, creating the Grandfather Paradox). The scientist however sees sense and splits the Device into seven pieces before it can be used, inverts each piece so that it can (temporally) travel far away from those in the future who want to use it, and suicides.
Meanwhile, Kat is dying from Sator's inverted bullet. Special Forces confirm it will take about a week of Kat living inverted to stabilize the infection, which fortunately is the amount of time that has passed since the Protagonist and Neil robbed the freeport (which has a turnstile they can use to reverse the inversion). The three - the Protagonist, Neil and Kat - therefore travel backwards in time to the freeport, and use the airplane crash to get inside and to the turnstile. It is revealed that the masked man the Protagonist fought earlier is actually the future inverted version of himself, clearing the way for inverted Neil and Kat. All three un-invert successfully.
The Protagonist visits Priya and urges her to tell his earlier self not to visit Sator (since at this point the future Protagonist is visiting Priya before the earlier Protagonist). Priya reveals that she intended The Protagonist to loose the plutonium/Device piece to Sator, since it was the last one he was looking for, and therefore will now bring all the pieces together in one place for Tenet to remove by force.
Priya reveals that the place Sator brings the Device together is a Soviet-era city, on the same day as the Kiev operation at the start of the movie. The Protagonist, Neil, Kat and Special Forces therefore invert (through off-screen means) and travel back to that day. Kat reveals that Sator is dying from inoperable pancreatic cancer and so has turned omnicidal, believing that if he is to die he would prefer to spread death to all humanity. The Future is therefore using Sator as their way of setting off the Device, for their own aim of inverting the world (see above).
Special Forces operate a temporal pincer movement in the Soviet-era city. The official aim is to prevent a bomb going off, which is used to seal the Device away so it can be safely launched. The unofficial aim is to fail to prevent the bomb going off, but cause enough of a distraction to allow splinter group to achieve their objective. The "splinter group" aim (which comprises of SF leader Neil and The Protagonist) is to disarm the Device, and then allow the bomb to go off, which means Sator will believe the Device is secured. Since Sator has tied the Device activation to his death, he would then suicide but in vain. Kat is sent to be with Sator (pretending she is an earlier version of herself) to make sure he doesn't set off the Device before splinter group have achieved their objective.
The official and unofficial aims succeed. However, The Protagonist and Ives are held off by Sator's men. A soldier appears to rise from the dead and kills Sator's men - it becomes apparent that this is an inverted SF soldier who is (from their perspective) killed saving the splinter group. Kat kills Sator to prevent him the satisfaction of believing he died succeeding, and splinter group deactivate the Device just in time.
Neil catches up with The Protagonist and Ives at the end of the battle. Neil says he will invert to save the splinter group, meaning he will become the SF soldier who dies. The Protagonist also realizes that Neil was the masked gunman at the Kiev opera siege who saved his life back then. Neil mentions that the entire Tenet operation is a temporal pincer movement - "I'll see you at the beginning".
The Protagonist and Niles divide the Device between themselves to bury away. The Protagonist inverts and prevents Kat being killed by Priya (who was attempting to tie up loose ends) by killing Priya. The Protagonist reveals his revelation - "you thought I was working for you but we've both been working for me" - he is the founder of Tenet.
- John David Washington as The Protagonist, a CIA Agent.
- Robert Pattinson as Neil / The Tritagonist, the Protagonist's Handler.
- Elizabeth Debicki as Katherine "Kat" Barton, an art appraiser and Sator's estranged wife.
- Dimple Kapadia as Priya Singh, an arms trafficker.
- Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby, a British Intelligence officer.
- Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator / the Antagonist, a Russian oligarch who communicates with the future
- Martin Donovan as Fay, the Protagonist's CIA boss.
- Fiona Dourif as Wheeler, leader of Blue Team.
- Yuri Kolokolnikov as Volkov, Sator's bodyguard.
- Himesh Patel as Mahir, a fixer
- Clémence Poésy as Barbara, a scientist.
- Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ives / the Deuteragonist, a military commander.
- Denzil Smith as Sanjay Singh, Priya's husband and an arms dealer
Christopher Nolan conceived the ideas behind Tenet over 20 years, yet, remarked "I've been working on this iteration of the script for about six or seven years". The title is a palindrome, reading the same backwards as forwards.
Nolan made a conscious effort to abstain from any influence of the spy genre other than his own memory, citing that "This is defiently the longest I've ever gone without watching any James Bond film", adding that; "I know as much about the Bond films as Alan Partridge does".
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki were cast in March 2019. The casting of Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh was announced as filming started.
Himesh Patel joined in August, with Denzil Smith being added the following month. Martin Donovan was revealed in the film's first trailer. Sean Avery joined in January 2020. Jack Cutmore-Scott and Rich Ceraulo Ko were included that February and June, respectively.
Nolan chose Washington for his performance in BlacKkKlansman (2018). Washington, Pattinson, and Debicki said they were only permitted to read the screenplay while locked in a room. Pattinson based his character's mannerisms on those of author Christopher Hitchens. Kapadia's screen test was put together by director Homi Adajania while working on his 2020 film Angrezi Medium. For one day of work, Caine was merely given his pages and had not heard from Nolan since.
Principal photography, involving a crew of 250 people, began in May 2019 and took place in seven countries — Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and United States. Filming in Estonia happened in June and July, with the Linnahall, Pärnu Highway, and adjacent streets closed to facilitate it.
Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart expressed concerns about potential disruptions as the original shooting schedule required that the arterial Laagna Road be closed for one month. Production eventually reached a compromise involving temporary road closures and detours, after which the city government granted them a two-day extension. Scenes were shot in Ravello, Italy and Hampstead, England at Cannon Hall late August, and on the roof of the Oslo Opera House and in Tjuvholmen, Norway, and in Rødbyhavn, Denmark at Nysted Wind Farm early that September.
A five-day shoot occurred later that month in Mumbai, where Nolan had traveled in February and April for location scouting. He decided on Breach Candy Hospital, Cafe Mondegar, Colaba Causeway, Colaba Market, Gateway of India, Grant Road, Royal Bombay Yacht Club, and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. A restaurant set named "Chaand" was built near the hotel, but never used, serving only as an alternative. Forty boats were positioned at the Gateway of India, where the crew also rescued a man who had attempted suicide.
A stunt where someone jumps off a building was done in Grant Road, and a helicopter was applied for aerial footage of the hospital. They moved to Victorville, California soon after, disguising it as Oslo, and worked with more than ninety extras.
Instead of using miniatures and visual effects (VFX) for a plane crash sequence, Nolan determined that purchasing a Boeing 747 proved more cost effective. October saw them in a desert outside Palm Springs, where an abandoned city had been constructed and hundreds were clothed in military camouflage uniforms.
Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema used a combination of 70 mm film and IMAX.
Ludwig Göransson composed the score as Nolan's frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer had committed himself to the 2021 film Dune. Ludwig Göransson recorded musicians at their homes. Jennifer Lame replaced Nolan's long-time editor Lee Smith, who was occupied with 2019's 1917. DNEG created about 280 VFX shots.
On July 2020, the film's official running time was reportedly revealed to be 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes), becoming Nolan's 6th longest film.
The Film Was Theatrically Released On August 26, 2020 (United Kingdom) And September 3, 2020 (United States).