Tenet: Explained

Recently, auteur Christopher Nolan released his greatest masterpiece since his mega hit Insomnia. Tenet was supposed to save cinema, but the audiences that dared to venture out to the sanitized multiplex emerged from their viewing somewhat perplexed. If you are one such audience member, or someone who would like detailed spoilers, don’t worry, I’m here to help. The following, dear readers, is TENET: EXPLAINED. Read no further unless you’re ready for the truth. And actual spoilers, cause I’m going to explain the crap out of this, just for you.

Just FYI, it’s been like… weeks since I saw the film, but:

  • my mind is a steel trap
  • time is meaningless
  • if I just walk backwards for awhile I can relive anything I want


So there’s this orchestra giving a fancy performance in this huge opera house. It might be Russian, and there is a Very Important Guy there. You don’t need to worry about him actually, he doesn’t have anything to do with anything, he just wanted to hear some Vivaldi or whatever. But too bad for him, because either a SWAT team or some terrorists crash the concert. They shoot some people, but mostly they smash a cello really unnecessarily!

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington in real life, is also there with a counter-team in a van. I think there are two teams, that is, they might all be the same one– if they aren’t, though, it would have been helpful if they could have dressed in some identifying team colors. Denzel’s Son is there to extract the Important Guy (or kill him), and he’s pretty smart because he pretends to be asleep. Oh right, the whole audience has been gassed to sleep– probably not eternal sleep, which is nice of the terrorists, I guess.

While Denzel’s Son is pretending to be asleep (to fool the terrorists, or SWAT) he sees one of the dudes shoot a gun backwards (not like pointing backwards like Annie Oakley on a horse, but like a bullet hops back into his gun). While Denzel’s Son is distracted by this development, he gets kidnapped. By his own team. Or the terrorists. They take him to a place where trains are, which made me think of the train that goes BWAAAAH when it infiltrates the narrative in Inception.

I think Nolan is trying to tell us something about trains, because it is by the train that Denzel’s son is told to confess his secrets, and he says no, I’m gonna take these drugs that I stole from my dead friend and suicide! Denzel’s Son is hot, yes, but he doesn’t look much like his dad– he sounds EXACTLY like him, though, if you close your eyes.

When Denzel’s Son opens his eyes, though, he’s not dead, he’s on a boat, which was not how he imagined heaven. Or maybe it was. We don’t know, because we don’t know anything about Denzel’s son, except that:

  • he’s smart
  • not smart enough to avoid being kidnapped
  • he’s hardcore
  • he sounds JUST like Denzel
  • he makes a hot sauce joke at some point
  • he calls himself The Protagonist, which is a pretty healthy way to build self esteem, but an awkward way for Chris Nolan to point out that, after ten features and three decades of filmmaking, he has finally deigned to cast one black person in a movie
  • He might be into Elizabeth Debicki, but he also might be into Robert Pattinson

So anyway, he’s on this boat and he’s not dead, his hardcoreness was just being tested. By someone. A guy tells him this, and says that now it’s time to level up. Nameless Guy imparts a magic word: Tenet. He also shares a secret hand shake, but you don’t need to worry about that part because it never ever comes up again. Then Denzel’s son works out in a silo or a lighthouse until they let him out for his secret mission.

The first stop is a facility where an accented lady scientist shows off some bullets that go backwards, like the one Denzel’s Son saw when he was pretending to be asleep. She tells him that the bullets were sent from days of future past, probably the Rogue special edition. She tells him to pick up one of the magic bullets by dropping it. He does the thing and essentially masters that mind control over bullets dealio that Keanu Reeves took an entire movie to accomplish. Scientist Lady isn’t that impressed, though, because she has a big filing cabinet full of things that go backwards.

Speaking of Keanu, Denzel’s Son is next seen at an exotic hotel from one of the John Wick movies, probably. Keanu’s not there, but Robert Pattinson is! And he’s a wiry little dandy who likes to party and bungee jump backwards. He shows Denzel’s Son the ropes (ROPES GET IT BECAUSE THEY BUNGEE?) and they hurl themselves to the top of the hotel where some rich guy is. He’s not important, though, cause his wife is actually in charge. She tells the backward boys that Hamlet himself, Ken Branagh, is probably the guy making things go wonky.

Denzel’s son and his new special friend find out that Hamlet’s wife is Elizabeth Debicki, a lady who is 75% legs and 20% an art forger. Denzel’s Son is like what’s up, I know you forged a painting once, how about introducing me to your rich abusive husband? Also he is kind of into her, but he’s like two feet shorter than she and every time he looks at her you can see him trying to figure out those sexual logistics.

Legs Magee tells him listen, my hammy Bond villain of a spouse is like Bill Murray, he doesn’t answer his cell phone for anyone (except Wes Anderson). Then she gets in a car while said Bond villain’s henchmen attack Denzel’s Son in the best kitchen showdown since Jurassic Park.

Sorry, I forgot to mention that Michael Caine obligatorily pops up for a restaurant scene somewhere and says Michael Caine things. Denzel’s Son orders expensive food, because why not.

Once Denzel’s Son has taken care of that, he and his boyfriend go to the Oslo Airport, which is where they keep art forgeries or something. They crash an airplane into the building, and then they have a fight with a backward-moving SWAT member/possible terrorist (at no point do Denzel Jr. or his boozy pal ponder that perhaps causing a plane to blow up a building classifies them as terrorists, too– but perhaps the problems of two terrorists amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed up world). The mystery guy gets away, but there’s something about him… the way he matched every move of Denzel’s Son (only backwards, of course)…. the fact that he was exactly Denzel’s Son’s size… the way he sounded exactly like Denzel if you close your eyes…

Then some other guy tells them there’s a closet in the art forgery place that can invert entropy, which means that people who pass through that door walk backwards, exactly like science always taught us. So, no questions there. Time to get on another boat!

Lady Legs-a-lot hooks Denzel’s Son up with Evil Hamlet: hey honey, meet Protagonist. I don’t know, that’s- that’s his actual name. That’s what he said. Oh, maybe it’s pronounced LOOK AN AFRICAN AMERICAN LEADING MAN IN 2020? Yeah, you could be right about that. Anyway, let’s get on some boats.

So they do that for awhile, she tries to drown her husband, her husband threatens to wallop her hide with a belt, Denzel’s Son offers to steal some plutonium for them, you know. A typical weekend for the one percenters.

Then Denzel’s Son gets back with Pattinson (no one knows where he hangs out while Denzel’s Son is off on boats or how he is summoned, but it’s my theory that the bat signal is involved). Together, they heist the plutonium which is actually a Horcrux for Hamlet or something to that effect. But Evil Hamlet juuuuust couldn’t wait to get his paws on the thing, and he heists the heist, using cars. Then Legasaurus opens a car door… with her leg.

Hamlet then goes into one of those inversion closets, shoots his wife, and runs away, which makes Denzel’s Son feel bad. I think. So he goes through the closet and now HE’S BACKWARDS MAN! DRIVIN IN REVERSE! DOIN THE MOONWALK! And wearing a mask, because sometimes it’s hard to breathe in reverse and also Chris Nolan wanted to make sure that important dialogue is as obscured as possible. Denzel’s Sonula, RPatza Annnd Leggy, who is not quite dead, all go backwards together.

In order to prove that Chris Nolan doesn’t have a dead wife trope problem, this rag tag group has to head over to the art forgery airport and go through that one other closet. If all goes well, this precious female character may once again walk forward on her own two giant legs. So they all go back in time to when the airport was on fire, and Denzel’s Son fights with his past self– that’s right, you knew he was familiar.

Somewhere in here, Denzel’s Son asks Rob Pattinson “who trained you? anyone I know? Like, a mutual friend? I don’t know why I’m asking, obviously you’re my only friend. But of course you CAN have other friends. I’m not jealous. Who is he, though?” Pattinson says something like “I’ll never tell, but he sounds just like Denzel Washington. If you close your eyes.” Then he closes his eyes. And takes a nap. I’m actually not joking about that part, Robert Pattinson just trying to nap is probably the most memorable part of this masterclass in sci fi espionage. Pure Cinema.

Anyhoo. All that works out for them. Then. Uhhhhh

Oh that powerful lady from the John Wick hotel shows up somewhere on the timeline, and Denzel’s Son is like what’s up, Hamlet’s out of his gourd, right? And the lady’s like yeah, FYI, days of future past have been sending nuclear weapons to Hamlet and he’s gotta catch ’em all so he can become Voldemort and blow up the world by inverting it. Like the reverse big bang.

To stop this cataclysmic event, which has apparently already happened on some timeline or other– NOT THAT IT EFFING MATTERS– Denzel’s Son & Co have to go blow up shit in a desert. There’s a forward team and a backward team. They’re still not wearing team colors, so screw ’em.

Meanwhile, Leggo My Legs-O goes back in time to another boat to seduce her evil hubby before he goes literally nuclear. He wants to blow up the world because he has cancer, which is actually pretty understandable, but he gets all hot and bothered when his wife busts out the sunscreen.

You remember checking my math a few paragraphs and a hundred years ago when I was talking about Legs’s character percentages? Sucka, that missing 5% is MOTHER! Mother Legs to you, she has a kid and Hamlet has been keeping the child away from her because he’s an outrageous monster. But don’t you worry, Chris Nolan knows character development and he doesn’t need to establish that mom-child relationship for it to be the crux of the female lead’s motivation- nay, the crux of the movie!

Anyways so Mama Legs has ONE JOB (keeping Hamlet alive and busy so he doesn’t push the big bang button) but she totally blows it cause she has righteous mom fury or whatever and she puts him to sleep, perchance to die. But whatever, it’s all fine, women can’t do anything, even when their legs are 50 feet long.

RPatz is gonna go back in time again to do some housekeeping, but before he does, he’s like I love you, Denzel’s Son, because you’re also my time daddy. Denzel’s Son is like woah didn’t see that coming, maybe it’s because I’ve been walking backwards…. bye, Time Boy. This is the end of the beginning of the end’s beginning of the beginning’s end beautiful friendship. Possibly more. We’ll see where it goes.

Then Denzel’s Son goes to creep at the rich kid elementary school, where he watches the tallest mom in the world reunite with her tiny son who did not inherit his mom’s stature. Even though we don’t give a crap about this shrimp because we’ve only seen him for two seconds, Denzel’s Son looks on with what he hopes is some modicum of character growth. He is everyone’s time daddy now.

Tenet is a palindrome, which means it’s something that has the same meaning backwards and forwards. Tenet the movie, as I have now explained thoroughly, is the opposite of a palindrome, which means that it has no meaning backwards or forwards. Erup Amenic.

Now that you have complete understanding of this cerebral celluloid savior of the box office, my job here is done.

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