Is There Gold in the Hole? (I just watched Tenet.)

I watched Tenet twice. I think I get it. And oh, by the way, this post contains spoilers for Tenet. I apologize up-front for how confusing it all might be to follow.

A lot of people find Tenet inscrutable. I didn’t find it inscrutable, but as mentioned, I did have to watch it twice. My first view gave me enough context to understand what I was seeing the second time, which is pretty standard for a good meaty time travel movie. (Primer was more like four times, heh heh.) And while I enjoyed the movie well enough, I find myself a little chuffed at the plot holes. I’m not used to Nolan films having them.

(There’s a long conversation to be had here over whether plot holes are really “that bad”, or not, that is a topic for another time. I think they’re more forgivable in some movies than others, and Tenet is the kind of movie where they’re less forgivable by a mile. Nolan is not a director I typically associate with “plot spackle”.)

Time travel stories are hard, because it’s a thing we can’t observe, because it doesn’t exist. Unlike other things that don’t exist, though, moving the wrong way through time creates weird and tantalizing situations when you start following the logic up. It’s not like when Gandalf makes a dragon out of fireworks, that’s just magic and you go “oh, right, magic.” You don’t have to justify breaking the laws of physics if you’re okay with appealing to magic or ghosts or god or nanomachines.

But breaking causality is a very different beast. The logic fails immediately and so as part of your story you have to construct new logic, and this new logic is now the scaffolding that holds up the rest of the story. There’s a reason every time travel movie ever made, Tenet included, has a scene where a character just stands there explicitly explaining the rules.

My gold standard for a truly great time travel story hinges on these two points:

  • Did the story explain the rules and do I understand them correctly?
  • Does the story follow its own rules once they’ve been established?

It’s very common for time travel stories to succeed at the first point, then fail at the second. That’s the category Tenet falls into, and it fails pretty badly.


Tenet is a very dense movie. Its time travel mechanics are fairly simple but the resulting logic gets very complicated very quickly. I’m a pretty smart guy (my mom thinks so anyway) but it’s possible I’m missing something important about how the mechanics work that would invalidate this post. I don’t think that’s the case, and I’ve confirmed that a lot of people are confused in the same way I am (beyond the typical “it’s time travel so I don’t get it” responses, I mean).

Before we get started, I just wanted to make sure “whoops turns out I’m dumb” is on the table as a possibility.

Temporal Polarity

What are the rules for time travel in Tenet? What we’re told, and what we’re shown in every character interaction in the film, is that history is immutable. “Immutable” is a big important word we’ll come back to later. It means you can’t go back in time and change anything. The reason you can’t, in the Tenet universe, is the same reason you can’t go forward in time and change anything. That statement sounds like nonsense, and it would be under different rules, but it’s the feature that makes Tenet stand out in its genre.

We think of the past as stuff that’s already happened, and the future as stuff that hasn’t happened yet, because that’s the direction our arrow of time points. To a person facing the other direction, the future is the stuff that’s already happened and the past is the stuff that hasn’t happened yet. If we were to meet such a person, we would disagree on what was “past” and what was “future”, for the same reason two cars facing each other at a red light would disagree on what is “ahead” and what is “behind”. In that situation my “behind” is your “ahead” and vice-versa. When the light turns green, we pass each other, then move away from each other, even though we’re both driving “ahead”.

Objects and people in Tenet have a temporal polarity. If it was 9:59 one minute ago, what time is it now? If your polarity is normal, the answer is 10:00. A normal clock on the wall moves forward at the rate of one second per second. But if your polarity is inverted, the answer is 9:58. That same clock appears to be moving backward, at the rate of one second per second. And, of course, we could also invert the clock too, so it appears “normal” for you and “inverted” for me. A clock (or a person, or a car) of the opposite polarity appears to be moving backward because their arrow of time is pointing the opposite direction.

If you want to travel back in time one week, you have to invert your polarity and then live out the whole week in real time. You will be one week older when you arrive at your target time, and there will be another you there, two weeks younger, doing whatever you were doing one week ago.

The temporal polarity of the world itself is normal in Tenet. That the world itself has a particular bias for which way it moves on the arrow of time is one of the film’s main conflicts. This means that during your one-week journey into the past, you will watch the sun rise at dusk and set at dawn. You will experience reversed laws of physics. You will be unable to breathe normal air. And everyone else will be walking around backwards, giving you funny looks before not noticing you at all.

Whatever Happened, Happened

Whether the timeline is mutable or immutable is probably the most obvious concern in any time travel story. Can you change the past? If so, history is mutable in this world. If not, history is immutable. There are lots of examples of both in time travel fiction, and protagonists thinking they’re in one type of world only to discover they’re in the other is a common time travel twist. Every time you’ve seen a movie where a guy went back in time to save Someone, only to accidentally cause the thing that killed Someone in the first place, you’re seeing the “time is immutable after all!” twist at work.

Lost was the first story I’m aware of that stated its immutability clearly and concisely: “Whatever happened, happened.” You can’t travel to the past and cause an event that didn’t happen. The reference is apt here because Tenet uses the exact same phrase to describe the same thing. It’s reinforced every time the protagonist interacts with his own past; we see the same events playing out in reverse. You can’t change these events, but you can witness them from a different perspective.

(I replayed Final Fantasy VIII recently, and it’s the same rules there. The quote is, “You’re the one that changes, not the past.” And that’s applicable to Tenet too.)

Whether history is actually immutable, as a universal axiom, is a question of some debate between characters in Tenet. There are clearly some characters who believe otherwise, including the protagonist at certain points, and that belief makes them dangerous. But the evidence we’re shown on-screen always points to immutability. There are no scenes in the movie where we see an event occur on one pass, and then later see that event occur differently on the next pass.

Or Are There?

And this brings us to the gold in the plot hole. And also in the literal hole. In this case the plot hole involves a real hole, which may or may not contain gold.

We know two rules about gold bars in Tenet. The first is, the bar has temporal polarity; it’s moving either forwards or backwards in time. It can be doing either, but it can’t be doing both at once, and it can’t change spontaneously. The second is, whatever happens to that gold bar is the thing that happened to it. Whether it’s normal or inverted, and whether acted upon by a normal or inverted force, the state of the bar at a particular moment in time is always that state, immutably.

The villain in Tenet is working with people in the future, who need the villain to perform a set of tasks in his-present-their-past. In return, they give him boxes of gold. Let’s run through how it works from each perspective.

From the villain’s perspective, he travels to a pre-arranged location and buries a normal, non-inverted, empty box. Then he waits fifteen minutes. Then he digs the box back up, except now it’s inverted and filled with inverted gold bars. He takes the bars and uses them to fund his criminal empire. The process is nearly instantaneous.

From the future peoples’ perspective, they travel to a pre-arranged location and dig up a normal, non-inverted, empty box. They fill the box with non-inverted gold bars, then send the whole package through their inversion machine. Then they bury the inverted box, happy to fund the villain’s criminal empire in the past. The gold simply vanishes; it doesn’t exist anymore beyond when it emerges from the inversion machine.

From the box’s perspective, it is buried by the villain in a pre-arranged location. There it sits for 300 years, moving forward in time, one second per second. At that time the future people dig it up, fill it with gold bars, and send it through their inversion machine. The now-inverted gold is buried in the same location, and sits for another 300 years, moving backwards, one second per second. When the villain digs the box back up, 600 years will have passed for the box, though it will not have moved an inch.

Which Rule is Broken?

Say the villain buries the empty box at 9:50 and digs it back up at 10:00, finding it full of inverted gold. Let’s take one of those inverted gold bars and ask this question: what is the gold bar’s state at 10:10?

The obvious answer is, the villain has it. It’s in a duffel bag or loaded onto a truck en route to the villain’s bank or money bin or whatever. This is the point of sending the gold back in the first place: the future people are paying him for services rendered.

But wait — the only reason the box had any gold in it is because the gold was inverted 300 years from now. At 10:10 it was sitting in the buried box just as it had for 300 years, and it won’t be dug up for another ten minutes. The gold bar can be in two places at once near the point in time when it’s inverted. But there can never be two gold bars.

In fact, if the gold bar is in a duffel bag, the implication is that it had never been placed into an empty box and buried for 300 years. A normal person carrying an inverted object is, by definition, carrying that object to its point of origin. This wouldn’t be a problem if the bars are inverted again (de-inverted?) after being removed from the box, but they aren’t. They paradoxically originate in the villain’s money bin and 300 years in the future.

Let’s illustrate it this way. An observer monitoring an object that has been inverted at least once could describe that object in terms of whether it’s moving towards or away from its inversion point. As long as the gold is in the hole, this works fine. A normal observer would say “towards”, because they could watch for 300 years as the gold bar sits there doing nothing, then gets dug up, then gets carried backwards into the machine. But what about once the gold is in a duffel bag? A normal observer would have to conclude “towards”, but they’d be wrong, because no matter how long they watch the gold will never be buried for 300 years, nor dug up, nor carried into the machine.

It’s even stranger for inverted observers. One watches the gold as it emerges from the machine and is buried, then quietly monitors it for 300 years while it does nothing, and then it just… vanishes. As soon as the villain puts his hands on it, the gold no longer exists. Meanwhile, another inverted observer watches as gold which has never emerged from an inversion machine gets placed into a duffel bag, is placed into a hole, and then vanishes. Both of these observers would agree the inverted gold is moving “away” from its inversion point, but one of them would be confused as to when that happened (because it never did), and then they would both lose the gold entirely as soon as the villain interacts with it.

It’s almost like the villain touching the gold acts just like an inversion machine. Could this be what’s happening? In the film we see inverted bullets leaving holes in glass. (And we see this in both directions.) But wait, no, we’re also explicitly shown in the first polarity exposition scene that inverted objects behave strangely, but consinstently. “Dropped” objects magically jump up into your hand. Bullets shoot out of walls and into your gun. Piles of rubble form up into buildings and structures. Manipulating an inverted object doesn’t change its polarity at all. From the object’s point of view, your handling it is just one of many events that happens to it in between its emergence from an inversion machine and its eventual final resting place. But our gold has no final resting place. It originates at two different points (one of which is unknown) and then vanishes entirely when the villain touches it.

That just leaves immutability. In fact, a surface read of the event has us throwing immutability out the window immediately! The future people saw that there was an empty box in the past, and decided to change the past, and fill that box with gold. For them to dig up an empty box, it must have traveled there, sitting empty, for 300 years. And for the villain to receive the gold at his end of the trip, the box must sit there again, for 300 years, in the same spot. Pick any point on that 300 year timeline and ask: what does that space contain? An empty box? Or a full one?

The answer must be the box is empty in one timeline, and full in another, but the whole point of immutability is we’re not supposed to have timelines. If that’s possible, then the protagonist’s original idea that he can change the past is correct and we should have gotten a very different movie.

To make this gold work, we have to either throw out our understanding of temporal polarity, or throw out immutability, and doing either wrecks the rest of the events of the film. Argh!


There’s always room to hand-wave stuff like this aside in any time travel story. Again, one of Tenet’s main plot points is that the antagonists believe the timeline is mutable, and are actively trying to change the past. The movie fudges hard-to-explain interactions between normal and inverted matter by going “something something radiation” and then not looking at it too closely in most scenes. That’s well enough, and maybe about as good as anyone could expect of a writer, and if that were the end of my gripe I wouldn’t worry so much about this gold.

But I just can’t shake it. The antagonists in the film are wrong about changing the past, and so is the protagonist each and every time he attempts it. Indeed, it’s only after he accepts the immutability of the timeline that things start going right for him. (His quote is, “Whatever happened, happened. I get that now.”) Time travel stories that embrace immutability have a certain beauty to them, a sort of all-wrapped-up elegance that I really appreciate. Unfortunately, Tenet doesn’t.

The gold bars aren’t the only objects in the story that seem to break when you start considering them carefully. But they are one of the objects that do need to be considered carefully, if the villain’s motivation is to make any sense. Either they’re stupid, or I am.

Thanks for reading!

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