Tenet Really Explained, For Real This Time

After a long game of chicken with the coronavirus, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet finally hit US theaters in August. You probably didn’t see it then. On December 15th, it hit on demand services, but if you watched it then, you probably didn’t understand it. And even if you rewatched it, which you absolutely have to do to understand Tenet, you still probably don’t understand it.

Naturally, Tenet explainers exist on the internet, but GQ humbly finds them to be either confusing or incomplete. And sure, the idea of doing homework to explain a movie might not sound exciting, but once you know what’s going on, there’s a lot to like in Tenet — and arming yourself with the proper tools to understand it can let you focus more on the deeply impressive and exciting filmmaking on display for the third, fourth or even fifth rewatch. Here are six key things to know.

How does time in Tenet work?

Despite what you may have heard, Tenet isn’t really about time-travel–it’s about time manipulation. Rather than jumping forward decades like Back to the Future, the characters are able to do something more like rewinding and fast-forwarding through time. This core idea is known as inversion, and it’s possible thanks to a new technology that can reverse the entropy of people and objects, but thankfully you don’t need to know what entropy is to get it. Inversion first appears in the movie around 15 minutes in, when the scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy) makes loose bullets jump off a table into her hands in order to demonstrate the concept to the Protagonist (John David Washington)–the bullets are moving backwards through time while the people stay stable.

Inversion becomes more complicated as it trickles into complicated action sequences, like the highway chase. Eventually, when we realize that the masked man the Protagonist fought down corridors during the Freeport battle was an inverted version of himself, it becomes clear that scenes from the first half of the movie involved characters who rewound from the second half.

How does inversion happen?

Inversion takes place when a person or thing passes through a temporal turnstile. The turnstiles were created by Tenet’s bad guy, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and are typically housed in a large space. They show up in a few different places throughout Tenet, but the first time is during the Freeport sequence in which the Protagonist grapples with a masked trooper. Later in the movie, the turnstiles are color-coded on either side to let people (and the audience) know what side is which; red signals forward movement through time, while blue is for those going backward.

Crossing through a temporal turnstile automatically inverts whatever passes through it. Once on the other side, time is reversed, but only for the object or person that passed through — for everyone else, time is still proceeding in a forward direction. And so an inverted bullet isn’t fired by a gun, but instead is caught by it. Cars seem to drive backward. People who are in inverted time can’t breathe air backwards, so they have to carry oxygen machines. If you’re in a fire, the flames draw heat away from the body, which means you freeze instead.

When someone is inverted, they can move backward for a seemingly infinite amount of time–to the point, for instance, where they can interact with an earlier version of themselves. However, inverted time still flows at the same pace, which means if you’re trying to get to an event that took place a week ago, you’d have to wait a full week. This is why near the end of the movie, for example, Neil (Robert Pattinson), Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki), and the Protagonist have to wait things out in an inverted shipping container for a while before returning to the Freeport.

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