Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Tenet, has now arrived in UK cinemas. It’s a great big spectacular espionage film turned sci-fi extravaganza which comes with a lot of questions, the most obvious of which could be ‘what does Tenet even mean?’
In the world of the movie, the word has multiple meanings. Here we break them down.
Spoilers for Tenet to follow.
Tenet the word
Very basically, it means “a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy”. In the film it’s less about religion as such and more about philosophy – a belief, a faith, part of a system one might live by. This concept is very important to the Protagonist (John David Washington) – as the founder of the Tenet foundation (more on this in a bit) he is a man who has to stick to his strong beliefs, has to have faith in the world and in himself. We learn from the start of the film that the Protagonist is a man of honor – after the initial opera house siege he has all his teeth pulled out, and decides to take a cyanide pill to end his life rather than give up his team to the terrorists torturing him.
Tenet the gesture
Martin Donovan’s CIA boss explains to the Protagonist that using the word ‘Tenet’ with a gesture of interlacing of the fingers would open doors for him. We first see him use this with Clémence Poésy’s scientist. He uses the word in a sentence and she shows him the inverted bullets and explains how inversion works.
Later Priya (Dimple Kapadia) uses the word and the gesture to indicate that it is her rather than her husband who is the power behind the arms deals that have led the Protagonist to Mumbai. Later we learn that Priya is actually a member of the Tenet foundation and was presumably recruited by the Protagonist in the past (but the future for him).
Tenet the organization
Tenet is the name of the organization which the Protagonist founded, in the future. But also the past. At the end of the film we understand that it was he that recruited Neil (Robert Pattinson), Priya, Ives (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and everyone else who is part of the movement – their objective is nothing less than saving the world. Though he’s spent much of the movie unpicking a mystery, some of which Neil already has the answers to, he explains that ignorance is their friend. Only by the end does the Protagonist have sufficient info to know that he will now need to go back and recruit everyone he needs to, to achieve the outcome that’s already happened.
Tenet the palindrome
The title of the movie is of course also a palindrome. It reads the same backwards as it does forwards, so, just like the movie, it makes sense from either direction.
With this particular palindrome though, there’s more. The word Tenet is the centerpiece of something called the Sator square – see below.
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
It’s a square of letters, 5 x 5 which can be read top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, left-to-right, or right-to-left.
Nolan, the sneaky so and so, is very clearly referencing this. Branagh’s super villain is named Sator, Arepo is the name of the man who faked the Goya painting and the opening siege takes place at the opera. We’re pretty sure there’ll be a Rotas reference in there somewhere too (answers in the comments please!).