Temporal pincer what? Turnstiles who? We attempt to explain the concepts baked into Christopher Nolan’s mind-warping blockbuster, Tenet, and hopefully, no brains are fatally wounded along the way.
So you have contracted a severe migraine from Tenet, and now you are moving across the internet in search for answers, demystification and help. I can assure you, that you are not alone, and all is not lost. Help is near, and this is not a marketing campaign run by a hospital next to where you stay.
Tenet could easily be Nolan’s craziest and scariest offering to date, and it is not difficult to see why. Nolan has added yet another dimension into his usual time-obsessed approach in story-telling, and it will take more than a healthy, sane brain to absorb everything that he has to offer in two and a half hours. I can now start to see how the plot is backed up by years of Nolan’s sleepless nights, and question if he is still sane after coming up with a film of such complexity. Let’s have an in-depth look into the explanation of concepts and possible theories that have engineered the world of Tenet.
But before that, I only have one word for you. Nope, three. Massive. Spoilers. Ahead. It will open up a lot of doors towards clarity, but it’s definitely not one that you should open before seeing Tenet for yourselves. Without further due, I will let the spoiler-warning roll and dive right in.
Warning! Major spoilers for Tenet ahead.
First, let’s talk about the basics that became the foundation of the revolving world of Tenet: time inversion. Unlike other time travel flicks, Tenet’s time travel does not permit you to ‘jump’ or ‘warp’ into any specific time in history (or the future). Just treat it like the occasion where you float downstream in a river; the flow of the river represents time moving forward (like it should). Now, to go back to the hills where the stream begins (past), or to the ocean (future), you need to swim upstream, or continue floating, which, takes time. You can’t just ‘teleport’ to either of those locations instantly.
Easy, peasy, right? Now let’s examine the machines that cause time inversions: the ‘temporal turnstiles’
These usually take the form of a high-tech, steel chamber that works like revolving doors; you really can’t miss them. The first one appeared mysteriously during the heist at a vault in Oslo airport, and the second one made its appearance when the Protagonist was held hostage by Sator’s men in a warehouse, where he was threatened to spit out info by an inverted Sator (Kenneth Branagh).
The chambers’ openings were often split by a glass pane, and if you have observed carefully, the right section represents the ‘forward’ timeline, which means everyone (and thing) that is going inside or comes out from the right opening is on the ‘forward’ timeline. The opposite applies for the left opening.
Why does the temporal turnstiles spawn 2 copies of the exact same person at a single time?
In order to get a good grip on that, you have to remember one thing: those turnstiles are U-turn points for time. Let’s put up an example, and assume that you will find a temporal turnstile tonight, and walk into it at 10.00pm sharp. After 10.00pm, you will cease to exist in the future. To a spectator’s perspective, he will see two copies of you at 9.59pm, one walking into the chamber, and the other ‘reversing’ into the chamber. The latter will be you, ‘reflected’ by the temporal turnstile towards the past. At 10.01pm, he will see nobody walking in or out from the chamber.
Now, if you would to apply this towards the scene when the Protagonist returned to the Oslo vault in the form of a masked gunman, you can clearly see why ‘two gunmen’ charged out from that chamber at the same time. The masked Protagonist, who was traveling backwards against time, was ‘reflected’ by the temporal turnstile, and ceased to exist in the past beyond that point.
Brain squeezing? Alright, let’s look into something more straightforward: Red versus Blue, masked versus unmasked
In Nolan’s two-and-a-half-hour course towards insanity, it is good to see that he had introduced some clearly visible tags to aid the audience in making sense of what they are seeing on screen. The first one is the color code, and this was established by the distinctive lighting during the scene when the Protagonist was held hostage in Sator’s warehouse. The Protagonist’s side of the room was brightly lit in red, whereas on the opposite side where an inverted Sator appeared, it was clearly lit with blue lights. This color code continued to stay true until the final battle, where team Red progresses forward with time, and team Blue travelling backwards against time from a future point.
The film mentioned that “regular air won’t pass through inverted lungs”, so in order for your inverted self to survive in the backwards-going world, you need to put on an oxygen mask in broad daylight and risk looking like you have just escaped hospital. So, it’s easy, oxygen masks equal to inverted individuals, and no mask equals individuals going through the normal flow of time. Though if I was in that world, I would purposely wear a mask and walk backwards to confuse the baddies.
What’s that Algorithm thing?
The full form of the Algorithm can be seen after the battle in Stalsk-12, you could see Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) carrying it around like some wicked bazooka from the future. If the Algorithm triggers, the whole entropy of earth reverses, and bam, doomsday. The device was presumably separated into nine components and scattered through history by individuals from the future.
Then what’s wrong with the people of the future? They wish to reverse global time-entropy and yet they hide the components of the Algorithm?
Well, not all of them. That part, is a little dramatic. It is presumed that in the future, a scientist regretted inventing the Algorithm, and to reverse the impending catastrophe, she streamed parts of the Algorithm to the past, separated from each other. Still, other individuals of the future insist on activating the Algorithm and risk killing themselves in the process, because they are essentially wiping out their own ancestors. According to Sator who communicates with them, their “ocean levels are rising” and the “rivers are drying up”. The Algorithm is their last resort.
Why did Sator always check on his fitness band? Was he an athlete?
From the way he swims after he got cut loose by Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) you could clearly deduce whether he was an athlete or not. His ‘wristband’ is a dead-man switch, and it is assumed that when it no longer detects that Sator is alive, it will automatically set-off the Algorithm. The reasons why the organization of Tenet did not capture Sator and disable him to prevent his suicide, and instead, let him cruise in his cozy ship while enjoying a nice sunset still remains as a mystery.
Temporal pincer movement? Is that a time-travelling crab (or crap)?
We were first taught about the ‘temporal pincer movement’ when it was stated that “half of Sator’s men travel backwards through time”, and presumably another half of his men advanced forward through time normally, and these two teams work in tandem to achieve their desired outcomes. The idea is that at any given point of time, the target is ‘attacked’ by two groups of people, one experiencing forward and the other, inverted time, so that the attackers can somewhat share the intel of the battle between the two groups to ensure victory.
The first example of temporal pincer movement was (loosely) demonstrated by Sator himself, when he caught up with the Protagonist, Neil and the freshly-stolen ‘Plutonium’, in an inverted car. Clearly, he was armed with certain info which he had not yet obtained at that time. I mentioned ‘loosely’ because the attack carried out towards that BMW driven by Neil was mainly operated by inverted individuals, and Sator himself (perhaps due to desperation) went through the temporal turnstiles and risked bumping into his past self. Although we know that interacting with your past self is perfectly fine provided that you are protected in a ‘gunman suit’ like the one happened to the Protagonist, we were also programmed to believe that any further interaction, like kissing your past self will definitely guarantee ‘annihilation’.
Of course, the operation carried out by the organization of Tenet towards Stalsk-12 was in many ways a better and more perfect form of the temporal pincer movement. For one, the distribution was clearly more balanced and exhibited better clarity (Red and Blue team, remember?). The movement was also far more symmetrical compared to Sator’s, with both teams ‘arriving’ simultaneously (the Blue ones were clearly leaving, just inverted), with the peak of the operation intersecting at the 5-minute mark (blowing up the tower) for both teams. Hence, the term ‘pincer’ in its name.
What’s with that hanging red-string from Neil’s backpack that almost made the Protagonist cry?
Remember the moment the Protagonist encountered the locked gate in Stalsk-12? There was a masked-gunman corpse laying down on the opposite side of the gate, with a similar string tied towards his backpack. When the Protagonist was about to get shot by a villain, the corpse sprung back to life to take the bullet, unlocked the gate and reversed back into the field. This just proved that the gunman was in fact an inverted person from the future, who came backwards from the future, unlocked the gate, took the bullet, and met his end there, in Stalsk-12.
Needless to say, the Protagonists instantly recognized Neil’s looming fate from catching a glimpse of that red string. To make it even more poignant, he learned that from Neil’s perspective, he was already a good friend of his for many years, because he would be the one to recruit Neil in the future. This also explains why Neil knew from the very beginning that the Protagonist does not drink during an assignment.
And as a bonus, do recall the events that had happened during the siege of an opera in Kiev. Remember the moments when the Protagonist was almost hit by an inverted bullet? He was saved by a similar masked gunman, and the latter was carrying a similar backpack with a hanging red-string.
How old will Neil be when the Protagonist recruits him?
Here comes the interesting part. By the time both of them parted ways after the battle of Stalsk-12, Neil and the Protagonists looked just about the same age. Now, considering that you have to live through the years heading towards the past after hopping into the temporal turnstiles, the age correlation between them is starting to take the shape of a mathematical equation, isn’t it? If the Protagonist is to recruit Neil, 5 years after the events of Tenet, then Neil would have been 10 years younger than him. What if the Protagonist recruits Neil, say, 12 years after Stalsk-12? That puts Neil at 24 years younger than the Protagonist, or, just about the age of a secondary school student.
Really, the only school student worthy of mentioning in Tenet, is none other than Kat and Sator’s son. Considering Neil’s hair color, and the fact that he rocks a pretty significant British accent in his speeches, to suggest that Neil was Kat’s son all along is not that far-fetched of an idea anymore. Is ‘Stalsk-12’ one of Nolan’s many clues, hinting that the Protagonist will finally recruit Neil and officially establish Tenet, 12 years into the future?
Now, if you would excuse me, I have some migraine-relieving medication to take.
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