It feels strange to be worrying about spoilers for a movie that was supposed to come out more than a month ago. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which was originally scheduled to hit theaters on July 17, kept on getting its release pushed back and delayed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, although that pandemic is still very much ongoing, Tenet will be on the big screen soon. It’s premiering in certain countries (with a better handle on the virus) starting on August 26, and it will open in select American cities on September 3.
What does this all mean to the average American? Well, you probably won’t be seeing Tenet for a while, either because it hasn’t yet opened in your area or because, you know, it’s not a great idea to go to the movies in the middle of a pandemic. I’m personally not able or willing to see Tenet in theaters. And yet … I do want to feel like I’ve seen it, which has led me to sniff out every possible spoiler I can find online. If you’re reading this, you probably have a similar inclination.
The first reviews for Tenet came out on August 21, about a week before the international release. Typically, journalists and critics who are invited to advance screenings are bound by an embargo — it’s the reason why a ton of reviews arrived on the internet at exactly noon on the Friday before Tenet’s global premiere. Part of that embargo implores, explicitly or not, that those journalists and critics don’t spoil the entire story and/or its ending. The upside to not going to such a screening is that I’m not bound by any embargo; I’m free to scour stray Reddit posts in order to piece together a semblance of Tenet’s plot and climax. So that’s exactly what I’ve done here, and I will continue to do so in the coming days and weeks. Because if we put enough spoilers together in one place, maybe we can make sense of a Nolan movie without leaving the comforts of our quarantine.
Where did I look for said spoilers? Plenty of plot synopses can be found on Reddit and other forums, along with a few blogs (and, uh, Wikipedia.) How do I know they’re legit? Given the similarities in details (and a bit of fact-checking from a writer who has seen the film), I feel confident in the below spoilers. Be warned, though — there are trolls out there who are trying to spread rumors, for example, that the movie is about preventing 9/11. Inevitably there will also be bootleg versions of the movie lurking on the web if you know where to find them; people watching them instead of waiting to pay for a ticket is Warner Bros.’ worst nightmare. But then again so is a pandemic, and we’re all living that nightmare.
Warning: If you’ve made it this far without realizing there are major spoilers ahead, I have very little confidence in your ability to make sense of another Nolan film. Proceed with caution.
Spoiled: The Protagonist
BlacKkKlansman star John David Washington plays the protagonist in Tenet, a CIA agent who soon becomes part of a much more covert — and trippy — organization. Early reviews revealed that Washington’s character doesn’t actually have a name, and that the end credits merely identify him as “The Protagonist.”
Spoiled: The First Scene
Tenet opens with The Protagonist, at this point an undercover CIA agent, at an opera house in Kiev to extract an asset who had been made. In the process of accomplishing his mission, The Protagonist’s life is saved when a bullet heading for him strangely moves in reverse, soaring backward and taking out a man with a gun to his head instead.
This opening scene was first shown in theaters in December of last year as a “prologue” ahead of certain Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker screenings. (If you try, you can find footage of this opening scene online — not that we’re encouraging piracy or anything.)
Spoiled: The General Plot Set-Up
Shortly after this opening mission, which reviewers say contains “clues and cues” for later events in the movie, The Protagonist is captured and tortured before taking a CIA-issued suicide pill. However, he wakes up on some sort of Baltic oil rig where a senior agent played by Martin Donovan tells him the pill only put him in a coma, and that because he was willing to take his own life rather than give away secrets, The Protagonist is worthy of induction into a mysterious international espionage agency. Their mission? To stop something worse than World War III.
The Protagonist, with help from Clémence Poésy’s scientist character (who helpfully advises that he “doesn’t try too hard to understand it”), learns that people from the future are sending objects back in time. These objects’ entropy has been inverted, meaning they operate in reverse.
So he joins the organization with his new handler Neil, a suave, scarf-wearing Robert Pattison, to track these objects down. Their source, Indian arms dealer Sanjay Singh (Denzil Smith), is in Mumbai, but once they arrive there they learn that Sanjay’s wife Priya (Dimple Kapadia) is the real brains behind the operation. She explains that she’s working on behalf of oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is acting as a broker of sorts between the present and the future.
Sator becomes the key, but as Nolan stalwart Michael Caine explains in a very brief scene as a British Intelligence veteran, The Protagonist will only get access to Sator through his wife Kat, an unhappy art dealer played by the incomparable Elizabeth Debicki. (We know she’s unhappy because she gazes longingly at a woman on her husband’s yacht and proclaims that she envies her freedom. This little aside is important later.) Debicki, who develops a bit of chemistry with Washington, is motivated out of concern for her son, as Sator has essentially taken custody of the lad to control her.
Spoiled: The Reason Christopher Nolan Destroyed a Real Plane
Nolan famously prefers big, showy, practical-effects-driven set pieces in his movies. (See: The flipping over of a semi in The Dark Knight.) Tenet garnered early buzz when it was rumored that Nolan destroyed a real-life 747 airplane during shoots. Why? In the movie, The Protagonist and Neil need access to a piece of art located in a vault at an airport. In order to procure it, they crash a plane into the side of an airport, as one does. There, the pair encounter two masked men, one of whom is moving backward through time. As they fight, Neil discovers one assailant’s true identity, which is kept from the audience. It’s set-up for a twist, one that will become clear later.
Spoiled: The Time-Ending Catastrophe That’s Worse Than World War III
After having gained access to Sator, The Protagonist agrees to steal plutonium from an armored car on Sator’s behalf as a way of staying in his good graces — for now, at least. This leads to a chase scene involving some cars that are inverted and going in reverse. Sator shoots Kat with an inverted bullet — but don’t worry, she’ll come back.
Eventually, after a failed double-cross, Sator’s plan comes to light: He has terminal cancer and is working for the future (where everything is so terrible they have no choice but to attempt to work backward), and wants to use plutonium-powered devices (themselves sent back through time by their creators in the future) to end all entropy, essentially ensuring that time stops when his own heart does by means of an explosion in the past. Although The Protagonist gets some help in containing Sator, in the form of special forces (including Aaron Taylor-Johnson in another seemingly nameless role), Sator eventually escapes. This is about the point in Tenet where the plot gets extremely dense and the mechanics of time inversion get extremely confusing.
Spoiled: The Big Twist
The specifics of the twist are complex but not hard to see coming: It turns out, The Protagonist is going backward through time, so when he and Neil were fighting those masked men it was actually The Protagonist himself moving in reverse. Ultimately, throughout the movie, some characters are working toward the climax of the movie, whereas others are working backward to it. How? Well, in part, there are events called “temporal pincer moments” and machines called “time stiles” that allow characters to invert themselves (i.e. travel back in time). It’s best to just accept that as fact.
Spoiled: The Ending
The ending of Tenet involves The Protagonist, Neil, and Taylor-Johnson’s character going back in time to steal one of the pieces of the device Sator is using to cause doomsday — while not-dead Kat distracts him long enough to prevent him from committing suicide, which would trigger the device. After another really cool action set piece whose details I’ll skip over for the moment, the good guys succeed. Kat kills Sator and learns that the woman jumping off the yacht was in fact, herself.
At that point, our heroes decide to go their separate ways, and that’s when we’re treated to another twist — it was The Protagonist who recruited Neil into the organization in the first place, having opted to continue living life in reverse through time in order to make all this possible. (Multiple fans have compared this reveal to Doctor Who’s River Song, if that clarifies anything for you.) Essentially, what we just saw was only the start of The Protagonist’s relationship with Neil, but it’s the end of Neil’s time with The Protagonist. Because Neil was also the guy who saved The Protagonist’s life with the reverse bullet back in Kiev at the beginning of the movie. And Neil must go back in order to complete the loop, which makes it seem like everything was predetermined, rather than a set of actions meant to change the way things happen in time. Maybe? Your guess is as good as mine.