Tenet: Meaning of Christopher Nolan movie title revealed in crucial scene

It isn't fully explained in the new film

Jacob Stolworthy
Thursday 27 August 2020 08:04 BST
Tenet trailer

Tenet, the latest film from Christopher Nolan, is set to leave viewers entertained and baffled in equal measure.

The film has finally been granted a cinema release in several countries, and so become the first major picture to be unveiled in the wake of the pandemic.

Tenet doesn’t have much time for easing cinemagoers back in. Instead, the espionage thriller forces the viewer to consider its complex plot points to make sense of what is going on more than any other Nolan film to date.

Should you be willing to do so, Tenet is wildly satisfying – find out where it features in our ranking of every Nolan film to date here – but you might still be left with some questions once the credits roll.

The good news is we’re on hand to help, and you can find our explanation of the film’s depiction of time travel and time inversion here (probably a good idea to read up on that).

John David Washington tries to make sense of ‘Tenet (Warner Bros Pictures)

Another thing you might be wondering after is: why is the film called Tenet? The word is spoken several times throughout – mainly by Martin Donovan’s agent who gives The Protagonist (John David Washington) his mission.

He tells him that the world is at threat from a temporal war due to a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh).

At this stage, The Protagonist is told the only clue he has is the word “Tenet” as well as a hand movement in which your fingers merge together to combine into one whole.

But, what does Tenet actually mean? The dictionary definition is “a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy”, but there is something larger at play.

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The word “tenet” is a palindrome, meaning that it’s spelt the same way forwards as it is backwards. This is undoubtedly a reason behind why Nolan decided to name the film this.

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington take time out from thinking about ‘Tenet’ (AP)

In many ways, Tenet is itself a palindrome, with the characters working their way back from the midway point.

*Warning – major spoilers follow: do not read if you haven’t yet seen Tenet*

Look further, though, and you’ll see there is a specific reason behind this particular palindrome. It arrives in the climactic battle sequence in which The Protagonist and a team of special operatives, including Robert Pattinson’s Neil and Aaron Taylor-Johson’s Ives, attempt to secure Sator’s world-ending device, which is called the algorithm.

To do this, Ives concocts a Temporal Pincer Movement in which a “blue” team of operatives will move through a turnstile to invert (AKA move backwards from that point in time) to one hour before. They will experience what the “red” team will experience an hour before they do, meaning they will then be able to brief them on what has happened/will happen.

Still with us?

Robert Pattinson hides his confusion over ‘Tenet’ (Warner Bros Pictures)

This means that, in 50 minutes time, they will work in tandem to prevent Sator’s algorithm from activating before the blue team have to move back through the portal to return to a normal timeline. If it does activate, it will reverse the entropy of the world, which means the future ceases to exist (for the purpose of this explanation, this isn’t so important right now).

Because these two teams are working an hour apart, in 50 minutes, they will both have 10 minutes to pull off the mission: the blue team moving backwards to their point of entry, the red team simply moving forwards to when the blue team entered AKA two tens merging together.

One forwards, one backwards.

In a word: TENET.

Does your brain hurt too?

Tenet is out now in select countries worldwide now.

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