Tenet Explained- Inception, Infinity, Entropy, and Fatalism
Tenet is everything you would expect from a Christopher Nolan film. It is gorgeous, action-packed, and stuffed with mind-bending concepts designed for the internet age.
The highly anticipated Tenet is a high octane thrill ride that is, at times, overly complicated and underexplained. Christopher Nolan’s most inception-y film since Inception is full of the high-level concepts and time ripping madness as The Prestige and Interstellar. Between the brief physics lessons and endless thought experiments flung at viewers as if they were all Mensa members at Happy Hour, there was enough to make the average viewer feel a little lost. As with most Nolan films, it isn’t vital to understand the brainy mumbo jumbo to enjoy the movie, but it sure helps. Here’s everything you need to know about all those physics terms, philosophy, and whether any of it is related to Inception.
Entropy And The Second Law Of Thermodynamics
The First Law is pretty straightforward. It’s all about quantity instead of quality. Essentially, the same amount of energy will always exist. You can not create or destroy energy, just change it. When something decays or transfers, it becomes another form of energy, thus making the amount of energy constant. Easy peasy.
The Second Law is far harder to explain. It deals with the quality of that energy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states each time energy is transformed or transferred, more and more of it is wasted. It also says there is a natural tendency for isolated systems to become disordered. Basically, in completely Bill and Ted terms, if left alone, everything would become lazy and chaotic. Like a teenage boy’s room. For example, salt crystals would appear to be more orderly than saltwater. However, the vaporized water is more disorderly than crystals, so the net entropy is increased by the creation of crystals.
Entropy is a way to measure the orderliness of something. How much entropy something has dictates how ordered it is. For example, water in an ice tray is disordered with water molecules spread out free to move. While ice is seemingly more ordered because it is stuck in place, however, the energy needed to run the freezer caused increased disorderliness overall. Therefore even though ice should have more order, it has a net result of less. The Second Law also interesting states nothing can go from a colder state to a warm one without an expenditure of energy.
The Protagonist is told somewhere in the future; they have developed a way to “invert” entropy. What he means is reverse it. If you were watching from a vacuum chamber, inverted entropy would look like a shattered glass spontaneously reassembled itself. It is all a little bubble gum logic, but it allows for the time travel and endless time looping our heroes do. The only catch is, time travel itself isn’t possible only time returning with turnstile utilization. If you wanted to go back one week and stop your friend from swiping right on the serial cheater, you would need to live inverted for one week and then enter the stile moving forward again directly before they unlocked their phone. That’s what all the backward and forwards with and without masks on was all about.
Maxwell’s Demon Door Thought Experiment
Mathematician James Clerk Maxwell imagined a tiny nimble-fingered demon who lived inside a closed box. The box was divided into two sides with a partition. In that partition, there was a molecule-sized door, and the demon could choose to open or close the door letting molecules from one side to the other. The door would have no mass or gravity exerted on it and would use no energy to open and close it. The demon would next decide to let all the faster moving particles through to one side and all the slower to the other side.
Maxwell posited that by releasing all similar molecules to one side or the other without requiring anything but thought, he would violate the Second Law Of Thermodynamics and create a heat engine. If that were possible, entropy could be reversed, and time travel possible. This has since been widely debunked as no such door exists, and even the process of thought requires energy.
It is clearly something that was on Nolan’s mind, however, as the experiment is always depicted in a red and blue side of the box. Color is used overtly in Tenet. Frequent uses of red and blue color washes, lights, and clothing are all used. In one of the time inversions, both red and blue soldiers co-mingle in battle. The stiles everyone goes through are demon doors. There is even an illustration of the experiment behind The Protagonist during an early scene. It also explains the mask use. If you are in the blue chamber but belong to the red, you need a mask to breathe.
Infinity And Closed Time Loops
In Tenet, what happens in time never changes, except it does. The Protagonist must keep going through the stiles, learning, and adjusting until he gets it right. How is that possible in a closed-loop? Here’s where things require you to squint a little. Tenet needs everything to stay the same, or it wouldn’t look the same moving forward or backward. By using the stiles, Tenet circumvents any change by creating branching timelines. It requires endless multiple timelines; however, as each time a door slides open for a new possibility, a new ending and beginning are created.
That makes for a lot of possibilities to keep track of. Tenet itself, which means central beliefs or rules, is a palindrome. It is the same coming and going. That isn’t necessarily true always though. As in the title of a movie or the first line in a sentence, Tenet would be teneT if reversed. It’s a slight difference, but it explains how things are slightly different while simultaneously constant.
The Red String
Oh, that famous red string that Robert Pattison’s character Neill wore on his backpack so conveniently was there for more than just identification. In the scene where a masked man saves The Protagonist’s life, he has the red string that Neill sports in the rest of the movie. Neill saved his life. He could have had anything to mark his identity, but Nolan chose a red string. By keeping his life, he allowed The Protagonist’s escape. In Inception, the architect of Leonardo DiCaprio’s team is named Ariadne. She is the maker of the maze necessary to pull off the inception.
In Greek mythology, she is lives in the maze with a minotaur and helps Theseus, who she falls in love with escape by giving him a sword and red string. Time inversion, although cool, is basically a maze you can’t ever escape from once you enter. The ever-changing beginning and ending branches would mean you could never put things back precisely as they were, thus ensuring you could never leave. The future in Tenet sucks, though, so that’s not such a bad thing.
The Symbology Of The Number 9
It wasn’t by accident; the device/algorithm was divided into nine parts. The number nine is a “magic” number. The division and subtraction of any natural number will always result in a multiple of nine. For example, 666 added would be 18 and 666-18= 648, which is a multiple of nine. Multiplication and division of natural numbers by nine also yield exciting patterns. In our ten number set based system, 9 reigns supreme.
If all of that wasn’t enough, here’s one more weird little thought to ponder. Dirty blond haired Neil is probably Kat’s child grown up. His name as a child is Max short, presumably for Maximillien. Invert that, and you get Neill. Pretty nifty, right?
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.