TENET: 10 Best Quotes

Svetlana Sterlin
6 min readAug 6, 2021

[Originally published with Vocal.]

Christopher Nolan’s recent sci-fi action movie isn’t short on thrills or big ideas, though it received mixed reviews from critics. Here are ten of the best quotes from the film.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2020, and one of the only films to actually hit cinemas. Given the circumstances, the film did reasonably well at the box office, though probably not as well as it might have in regular conditions.

The sci-fi action movie stars John David Washington as the nameless protagonist, a CIA agent. He later becomes employed by an organization named Tenet. Once he enters the world of Tenet, he discovers a whole new plane of existence: that which is inverted. Objects and even people can travel through time in a different way (i.e. backward, “inverted”), which makes the plot confusing to follow and is one of the main criticisms of the story.

The Protagonist is assisted by Neil (Robert Pattinson), who later reveals that he’s also part of Tenet, as they fight to prevent a future world war from destroying the world and erasing the past.

10. “There’s a cold war. Cold as ice.”

After the Protagonist is rescued from Ukraine, he meets with Fay, who explains the situation to him and introduces him to Tenet. The mood of the scene is chill and tense, on the cusp of something great and disastrous. This is also the scene in which he reveals that the death pill was a fake to test the Protagonist’s loyalty. “The test you passed? Not everyone does.”

9. “As I understand it, we’re trying to prevent World War Three.”

The Protagonist first learns the basics of Tenet from Laura (Clémence Poésy), who shows him how the inverted bullets work. Understandably, he’s confused and isn’t able to “catch” the bullet on his first try. “Don’t try to understand it,” Laura says. “Feel it.” She reveals a number of other artifacts, bits of weapons, metal trinkets, pieces of glass, and he asks her what they’re seeing. “The detritus of a coming war.” This is where the Protagonist begins to realize the scope of this operation. He must help stop World War Three from happening.

8. “Credit cards, email, text — anything that goes into the record speaks directly to the future. The question is, can the future speak back?”

Priya becomes something like a mentor to the Protagonist, explaining the rules of the inverted world to him. She explains that anything that becomes recorded in history, including banal everyday natter, is then available to the future. Obviously, objects can be sent backwards through time, like the inverted weapons, but those who are privy to Tenet’s existence wonder if people and messages could also be sent back in a timely manner.

7. “Well, that part is a little dramatic.”

The Protagonist learns that he must acquire a painting in order to get close to Kat, in order to get to Sator. Said painting is located in a secure airport facility, so he asks Neil for his help. Neil comes up with a plan to crash a plane. When the Protagonist asks if he means from the air, Neil brushes him off, “Don’t be so dramatic.” But when he asks, “How big a plane?” Neil acquiesces. “Well, that part is a little dramatic.”

6. “It hasn’t happened, yet.”

When the Protagonist and Neil finally enter the Rotas Vault, they discover a crime scene — or rather, the remnants of a violent battle. Neil wonders what happened there, but the Protagonist realizes that it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, it’s going to happen twice: the Protagonist is about to fight his inverted self, and later, his inverted self will return to this spot to “fight” himself — only, in the future, he will have a greater understanding of what’s going on and what’s at stake.

5. “We’re being attacked by the future. And we’re fighting over time.”

The Protagonist asks Priya for more information on Tenet and what’s really at stake if they lose this war. He doesn’t yet understand Sator’s plans or desires. At the moment, he believes the cold war they’re fighting is against terrorists or governments, but Priya warns him that it’s something much more dangerous; they’re fighting against time itself. Even worse, it’s the future, which is an unknown.

4. “What’s happened’s happened.”

Neil knows a lot more about Tenet than the Protagonist does, but he won’t reveal why. The Protagonist isn’t sure he should even trust him or who he really works for, but he has no other choice for the moment. Neil constantly reminds the Protagonist to just go with it, to accept what has happened, and that he can’t change what’s already happened. The Protagonist struggles with this because he’s new to the world of Tenet, but it’s an important lesson for him to learn. Neil repeats it at the end, insisting that it’s “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, not an excuse to do nothing.”

3. “… we’re their ancestors. If they destroy us, won’t that destroy them?”

After Kat is shot by Sator, the Protagonist and Neil take her through the turnstile in an effort to save her from the injury caused by an inverted bullet. They travel back through time in a shipping container when the Protagonist begins to notice his own injury. He also uses the time to consider the effects this coming war could have. He doesn’t understand why the future wants to annihilate the past, because in doing so, that will also destroy them. As Neil points out, this is where the grandfather paradox comes into play.

2. “For me, I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship.”

After the group saves the world from annihilation by retrieving the algorithm, Neil realizes he has to go back in. He explains that they can’t leave anything up to chance, knowing that for him, this is the end. The Protagonist can’t bear to watch him leave, but Neil reassures him that it’s just the beginning for him. They’ve known each other for years, though the beginning of the Protagonist’s journey is still years away, while for Neil, it’s already happened. “I’ll see you at the beginning, friend.”

  1. “I realized I wasn’t working for you. We’ve both been working for me. I’m the protagonist.”

Early in the film, the Protagonist is under the belief that he’s working for Priya. She’s tight-lipped about the whole operation and Tenet’s origins, but later he learns that he’s the founder, and it’s all one giant temporal pincer movement. The Protagonist meets with Priya at regular intervals throughout the film, but it’s their final meeting that counts the most. He meets her just as she’s about to have Kat assassinated, but he kills her before the deed can be done. He also reveals that he knows the truth now.

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Svetlana Sterlin

Svetlana Sterlin lives and writes in Brisbane, Australia, where she completed a BFA. Her work appears in several online and print publications.