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TENET: An A-Z explainer of the year’s most confusing movie

We get it. You’re busy. TENET is both the first BIG movie back in cinemas in 2020 and also the most complicated. You don’t have the time to work it all out, you just want to enjoy it! If you want to read our review click here. If you want to truly understand TENET, below is our explainer of what’s going on, so you can use it to impress your friends:

Key to this Plot summary:

– We presume this film is set in 2021 (present day but no sign of COVID-19, here’s hoping)
– Events are listed chronologically. We guessed how long events take 
– The black text explains the linear plot. The hidden text explains the real meaning
– You liked Bandersnatch, right? Follow the Alphabet from A-U and read all the text shown first, then follow the instructions to reveal the hidden content – and have some fun!

L) The Climax - Read after The TENET Ship

Also Day 1 – Vietnam coast. Future Kat (with bullet wound) goes to meets Future Sator on his yacht floating off the Vietnam coast. Sator thinks she is current pre-Tallinn Kat. Kat tries to be nice to stop Sator killing himself and ending all space and time. Sator makes a call. Kat is angry, she wants Max to live, eventually shooting Sator with the gun given to her by P. The world doesn’t end. Not that Kat cared. She now dives off the boat, seen by past Kat. There are two version of Kat in Vietnam.

Also Day 1 – Siberia. Simultaneously 2 x teams of TENET soldiers go to a Siberian deserted city and use a temporal pincer movement to try to stop Sator ending the world. This means Blue team invert one hour earlier and move backwards through the battle for ten minutes, then they will tell Red Team what they learned so Red team can stop the dead man switch being set. The Red team then move forwards for that same ten minute period. Only P, Neil and Ives know that their real mission is to obtain the algorithm machine from a cave. Neil is in Blue team. P and Ives are in Red team. Cue epic forwards/backwards military battle, reverse explosions and hijinks.

P Timeline: During the battle P and Ives move into the cave triggering a tripwire which seals them in. They find Sator’s chief goon locked in a gated tomb. He is holding the algorithm machine, about to connect it to Sator’s bracelet. The goon stands over a soldier’s corpse. A gold coin dangles from their backpack. This is the same person who saved P in the opera house at the start of the movie.

Neil Timeline 2: Inverted Neil sees an inverted chief goon laying the cave trap, he works out that Sator’s men must have a turnstile somewhere. He finds the turnstile and re-inverts, so now he is moving forward in time. He drives a van. BEEPING the horn to try to stop P and Ives from entering the cave, but we know this proves fruitless.

P Timeline: The goon holds up a walkie talkie. Sator (he is making the call from Vietnam) says P is too late, the bad people from the future believe destroying this universe will save humanity. P asks why he’s willing to kill Max. Sator says he should never have allowed Max to be born. Suddenly the corpse reanimates, opens the gate for P then moves backwards. This is an inverted person. P and Ives attack the goon and grab the algorithm machine.

Neil Timeline 2: Neil hitches the van to the cave and somehow pulls P and Ives out (clutching the machine) just in time – HURRAH the universe is saved!

P Timeline and Neil Timeline 2 converge: Ives says they have to hide the machine then kill themselves so no one else can find and use the machine. P realises that Neil is the corpse in the cave and the person who saves him in the opera house (both have the coin dangling from their backpacks) and that Neil inverted in order to open the gate in the cave. This means Neil will die when he is shot by the chief goon. P is sad. Neil cryptically tells him “Don’t worry we’ve known each other for years, we have tons of adventures, it’s the end for me but the beginning for you”. Neil hitches a lift with Ives. This is the moment of Neil’s big sacrifice. He has to hitch the lift because he has seen himself die and so to complete the circle he must now go back in time and sacrifice himself in the cave as the re-animated corpse (making Neil Timeline 3). Neil saved the world. Now read M) Opera House Spoiler.

A) Day 1, Scene 1 Opera House – The Ukraine: A group of unknown bad guys hold an opera house audience hostage looking for an ‘asset’. The Ukrainian cops use sleep gas to drug the audience, then plant bombs to kill everyone and hide their crimes. A CIA agent known as the Protagonist or P (John David Washington) pretends to be a cop and seizes the asset – a square metal object. P tries to stop the bombing. He watches a bullet reverse from a hole in a seat. The bullet flows through a bad guy’s body, until it is retracted (or “caught”) in the barrel of an unknown person’s gun. The unknown person runs off, revealing a gold coin hanging from a red thread on their backpack. P escapes with the asset but is captured by bad guys. The bad guys torture P to find out who he is working with. P swallows a hidden cyanide capsule and ‘dies’.

M) Opera House Spoiler. Read this after The Climax
The unknown bad guys at the Opera house and P’s torturers are working for Sator. The man who retracted the bullet and saved P is Neil but we don’t know when he inverted to do this. Maybe he inverted today after the Siberian battle. The asset is one piece of the 9-piece algorithm machine which Sator’s goons steal from P. In the future, it’s possible that P orchestrated the entire plot in order to save the world. Now read N) Laura Spoiler

B) Days 2-7 Middle of the ocean: P is woken by an unknown man on a large ship. He didn’t die, he went into a coma. By not revealing who his colleagues were he passed a test to join a secret organisation known as TENET (the organisation uses a gesture – two hands clasped together, intertwined fingers). P docks at an unknown (possibly US) port and drive to a TENET facility to meet Laura (Clemence Poesy), a scientist studying inverted objects. Inversion = the entropy (heat increases as it moves through time but far more complex) of the objects is reversed which allows them to move backwards through time. Someone in the future is sending objects back through time to now, probably to start WW3. Being hit by an inverse bullet is fatal. P decides to trace the arms dealer who made the bullets.

N) Laura Spoiler. Read this after Opera House Spoiler
The person sending inverted items back to scientist Laura is either someone from TENET in the future or future terrorists whose movements have been intercepted by Ives’ team. Now read O) Priya Spoiler.

C) Day 7-12 Mumbai: P travels to Mumbai to find the arms dealer. He phones the CIA to ask for help. British spy Neil (Robert Pattinson) appears to assist. Neil seems to know P. They devise a scheme to bungee jump into the arms dealer’s penthouse. The arms dealer is Priya (Dimple Kapadia). She did not invert the bullets, billionaire arms dealer Andrei SATOR (Kenneth Branagh) did. Sator is looking for plutonium (to make nukes). Priya directs P to an MI6 contact in London for more information.

O) Priya Spoiler. Read this after Laura Spoiler
Neil was sent to meet P in present day Mumbai by P from the future. Neil has known P for many years (in the future) but this is the first time P meets Neil in P’s linear timeline. Priya is a double agent also working for TENET but hides it from P. She’s ordered to tie up loose ends from her boss – who is anonymous. Now read P) Sator Spoiler.

D) Day 13-14 London: The MI6 contact is Sir Michael (Sir Michael Caine) who tells P he can find Sator through Sator’s art-dealer wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Kat and Sator have one child, a boy named Max. Kat (unwittingly?) sold her husband a fake Goya painting made by her friend AREPO for Millions. Sator discovered the work to be a forgery. If Kat leaves Sator he will ensure that she never sees Max again. Sir Michael hands P another fake Goya to get an introduction to Kat. He also mentions an explosion two weeks ago in Siberia. P meets Kat and tells her that he knows about her problems, asking for access to Sator if P can get rid of the fake Goya. Kat thinks Sator has kept the painting in a freeport (a secure vault facility which keeps art that’s been sold, before sent to its final destination, to avoid taxes) at a Norwegian airport. Kat says, on a recent holiday she saw a woman dive off Sator’s boat “she looked free“. P fights some of Sator’s goons.

P) Sator Spoiler. Read this after Priya Spoiler
The explosion in Siberia that Sir Michael mentions is the Climax event. This is how P learns when to travel back to Siberia 2 weeks earlier to stop Sator linking his bracelet to the algorithm machine. Sator has inverted at this point and probably knows P is going to try to take the fake Goya so he removes it from the Freeport (not shown in the film). If the explosion went off in Siberia and time didn’t end then P must have stopped Sator from using the algorithm machine. The woman diving from the boat is future Kat after killing Future Sator. Max and Neil may be the same person – this is never proven in the film. Now read Q) Freeport Fight Spoiler.

E) Day 14 Somewhere in Norway: P and Neil travel to the Norway Freeport. P thinks Sator is keeping something in a secret inner vault. Neil cases the joint and discovers a complex fire alarm system. He comes up with a plan with the help of TENET crew member Mahir (Himesh Patel) to crash a 747 into the freeport to distract the staff so Neil and P can break into the vaults. Cue: spectacular plane crash scene #1. Neil and P make it into the inner vault, which has two rooms separated by glass, each housing a strange machine. Two men in full Black Ops gear jump out of the machine, one on either side. Neil and P fight them – the one P fights is inverted – both black ops dudes escape. P and Neil regroup in a hotel and discuss how people can also invert. They decide to go find Sator who is in Italy.

I) Norway Inverted. Read After Time for Inversion
We get back to Norway to watch P and Neil going backwards into the Freeport while the plane crash is happening. Cue: spectacular plan crash scene #2. P goes back into the freeport and fights himself from before (The events of Day 14, above). He uses the turnstile in this freeport to reinvert, now going forward in time on day 14. Neil successfully moves Kat through the turnstile so all three are now going the right way through time a week earlier. Neil says that there’s a TENET ship they can travel on and meet Ives. P decides to visit Priya for answers. Now read J) The Conference
K) The TENET ship. Read after Norway Inverted.
On a ship in the middle of the ocean inverting back to Day 1, there’s a big discussion between Neil, P and a healed Kat on free will. Neil says “What happened, happened” which means they cannot change the past (but maybe they can add to it?). P finally realises that Neil has done this all before, having been recruited by P in the future and moving back in time. Kat tells them that Sator has cancer and is going to die soon. P works out that Sator has all 9 pieces of the machine and he has connected it to his fitness bracelet and invert in time to a happy moment then kill himself and end all space and time. If Sator gets murdered by anyone, once connected, the machine will go off. P and Neil must get to the machine in Siberia before Sator kills himself. They tell Ives and a plan is formulated. Now read L) The Climax.
Q) Freeport Fight Spoiler. Read this after Sator Spoiler
The men that Neil and P fight in the Norway vault are both P who has inverted from the future. P never touches his future self as future P is in full riot gear. The machines are turnstiles made from ROTAS, used to invert back through time. P inverts back from one week later with Neil and Kat to bring Kat (shot with an inverted bullet) through the turnstile so that the bullet does not kill her. Now read R) Inception/Interstellar Spoiler.
R) Inception/Interstellar Spoiler. Read this after Freeport Fight Spoiler
Ha fooled you. There is nothing to suggest that this film is a sequel or prequel to any other Nolan film. However they do form a nice ‘I’ trilogy. Now read S) Gold Bars Spoiler.

F) Day 15-18: Looks like Positano, Italy. P tells Kat that the Goya has been destroyed in the freeport fire. He meets Sator, who checks his fitness tracker bracelet all the time. P mentions OPERA (apparent codeword for plutonium). Kat tries to kill Sator while they are sailing catamarans. P saves Sator from drowning, winning his trust. Sator reveals to Kat that he moved the Goya from the freeport before the fire, so he still has a hold over her. P gives Kat a gun to protect herself. P agrees to hijack a police-escorted transport of plutonium in Tallin in a week’s time and sell Sator the plutonium as long as he doesn’t hurt Kat. P spots Sator taking possession of a chest containing inverted gold bars. P gets beaten up and sent on his way.

J) The Conference. Read this after Norway Inverted
At some point after inverting in Tallin, P finds Priya at a European conference for arms dealers?! P wonders if she also works for TENET. Priya tells P that a female scientist in the future invented an algorithm which when used by the machine creates inversion. The scientist realised that the machine could be used to reverse all time and end the universe. She breaks the machine into 9 pieces and hides them across time, then kills herself. Meanwhile, also in the future, a group of terrorists want to end the world this year (because the future world is ravaged by climate change and they think this will solve it – go figure) so they send instructions of where the algorithm machine parts are and some gold bars back in time to young Sator in around 2000 which Sator digs up in a mysterious chest in his homeland (Chernobyl or other radioactive Russian enclave). The instructions says Sator will be a billionaire if he finds and reassembles all the algorithm parts in the future and blows up time. P gives Kat a phone to call him if she thinks she’s being followed at any point in the future. Now read K) The TENET ship.
H) Time for Inversion. Read this after Day 21
Day 20-14 (inverting) Container ship Baltic Sea: Neil, P and Kat are inverted travelling backwards through time in a cargo ship to the Norway freeport. Kat isn’t looking good. Now read I) Norway Inverted 
S) Gold Bars Spoiler. Read this after Inception/Interstellar Spoiler
The crate with the gold bars that Sator received on his yacht in Italy are payment from his future terrorist friends. Sator is getting ready to connect his bracelet to the algorithm machine, two weeks ago. The chest with gold bars was hidden by the future terrorists who are helping Sator end the world. Sator knew the Norway Freeport 747 attack was going to happen. Now read T) Last Scene.

G) Day 21 Tallinn: Sator takes Kat to a building at Tallinn port, presumably another freeport. P and Neil perform a daring plutonium heist along a motorway, except it’s not plutonium, it’s an orange box containing another square metal object like the one in the Opera house. Driving with Neil, they see a flipped silver car, then a black car drives backwards towards P. Inside the car, Sator in a gas mask holds Kat at gunpoint, he wants the orange box. The silver car flips back (as it is inverted), driving between the cars. P throws the orange box to Sator, who leaves Kat to crash. P saves Kat’s life but they both get captured by Sator’s goons, who Neil fights. Back at the freeport Sator speaks backwards to P, the freeport holds a turnstile Sator used to go back in time. Sator shoots Kat with an inverse bullet and asks P where the metal object is, as it wasn’t in the orange box. P lies to Sator about its whereabouts. Sator leaves, then Neil ‘calls in the Cavalry‘ = a TENET military group maybe called Posterity led by Ives (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Wheeler (Fiona Dourif) who shoot the goons and ‘take control‘ of the turnstile. P and Neil decide to take Kat on a stretcher through the turnstile and invert themselves with the aim to go back in time to the Norway freeport one week ago (day 14), so that Kat won’t die from the bullet wound. Wheeler tells P not to touch his past self or he’ll be annihilated! P wants to get the metal object first. He drives backwards in a silver car down the motorway, he sees himself and Sator on the motorway as before. He knows his past self threw the metal object into the silver car he’s currently reverse driving. The silver car inevitably flips and Sator takes the metal part, leaving P to die. Neil rescues P. Ironically, P inverting and driving the silver car is what helped Sator get the machine part. P has now given Sator 2 of the 9 algorithm machine parts (Opera house and Tallinn). Now read H) Time for Inversion.

T) Last scene. Read after Gold Bars Spoiler
Some time in the future after day 21 in London Priya goes to kill future Kat at Max’s school, believing her to be a ‘loose end’. P appears (having inverted from a call), telling her that he is the founder of TENET and she works for him. He ties up loose ends by shooting Priya. Kat makes the call to P on her phone worried that someone is watching her, but it’s probably nothing, she walks off holding Max’s hand. Now read U) Read This After Everything Else.
U) Read this after everything else
Congratulations you made it! Some stray thoughts.

  • Are Max and Neil the same person? Some say yes, some say that’s not possible.
  • Check out the SATOR square.
  • What exactly is Entropy?

Remember: What happened happened.

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