By Nicholas Fonseca
August 23, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Somewhere in the bowels of a Kiev opera house packed with an audience about to be unwittingly gassed and blown to smithereens, a man snarls a phrase that gets repeated throughout the course of Tenet: “We live in a twilight world.”

It might just be the motto for these weary times, not to mention the moviegoing experience itself, which is counting on Christopher Nolan’s mysterious new film to revive the cinema in the midst of a pandemic that threatens to kill it off, once and for all. Tenet was always going to arrive on a surge of expectation and excitement, Nolan having long ago entered the pantheon of brand-name directors who can draw people out of their homes and into the theater. After several delays, that process has started, gingerly, as the film releases in some smaller U.S. markets and a handful of countries around the world.

The plot centers on a mission handed down to The Protagonist (John David Washington), a secret agent tasked with hunting down Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), whose shady dealings form the crux of the film’s premise: the Protagonist, aided by Robert Pattinson’s elegant English spy Neil, must travel through and invert time to stop Sator, who is effectively working to start World War III — and initiate Armageddon.

It’s a mission stuffed to the gills with detours and distractions, a run of thrilling and accomplished set pieces that bolster Nolan’s months-long argument in favor of audiences seeing Tenet on a big screen: A clever tarmac heist elicits pangs for the days of airplane flights (remember those?). A freeway car chase wickedly toys with velocity and motion. The Protagonist goes mano a mano in a hallway fight that evokes Inception’s fabled corridor sequence by way of its head-spinning choreography. And an extended spectacle finds him attempting to right past wrongs by entering a dimension where fire feels like ice; the wind is at his back as he runs; gravity is reversed.

Yes, this stuff is cool. It is also massively complex, presented with a straight face via a script that nevertheless winks at The Protagonist’s — and our — utter confusion as Tenet's byzantine plot unfolds. “Try and keep up,” someone says at one point. “Don’t try to understand it,” says another. Which one is it? Tenet cuts both ways, welcoming us into Nolan’s time-bending world of wonder while also practically daring us to come out the other end without a headache.

Because as much as Tenet succeeds at being visually and technologically dazzling, it is more often than not almost unbearably draining. Like most Nolan movies, it refuses to come up for air; even as the camera glides smoothly across the cliffs of Italy’s Amalfi Coast or the spare Nysted Wind Farm in Denmark, there’s a stressful tinge to the proceedings — and not just because ticking spots like these off your overseas vacation bucket list feels like it may now never happen.

In the past, Nolan has worked audience anxiety to great advantage with films like his 2001 breakthrough Memento or the 2017 war masterwork Dunkirk — precisely owing to the fact those films had running-out-the-clock baked into their DNA. Tenet, on the other hand, tries to run out so many at once that it risks audience disengagement. Even its least propulsive segments are jam-packed with a wearying amount of exposition, reams of hints and clues delivered by the likes of Nolan mainstay Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, and Hindi cinema legend Dimple Kapadia. (In one monologue, Kapadia discusses algorithms, rehashes the Manhattan Project, and explains the grandfather paradox — making her character feel more like a university lecturer than the moneyed wife of a Mumbai-based arms dealer.)

The most effective messenger is Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, The Great Gatsby). Ice pick-sharp, she swans and seethes as Sator’s estranged and emotionally abused wife Kat. For Nolan, long accused of “fridging” his female characters, Kat is a step in the right direction, though she still gets bullied and banged around; Debicki elevates the role with her steely performance.

The enormously likable Washington again proves he can create chemistry with any co-star; particularly with Pattinson, you see the promise of a future buddy-comedy that doesn’t have to be dragged down by the weight of so much Lofty Ambition. The Protagonist is more thinly written than an actor of his talent deserves, but as the audience’s proxy, he at least strikes the right notes: dizzy, determined to understand, and plagued by a case of the WTFs.

There is a gambit in Tenet that can’t help evoking The Matrix, which continues to loom large over this corner of the cinematic universe two decades after its release. When The Protagonist first becomes initiated into the mechanics of what Sator is trying to exploit — technology that can invert an object’s entropy and ultimately time itself — Nolan introduces the colors red and blue to indicate which direction the minutes are moving: forward or backward. Tenet is red pill versus blue pill all over again — but it is hard to locate a larger philosophical story or message to back it up. B-

Tenet releases in theaters in select U.S. cities on Sept. 3.

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