Tenet review – ambitious espionage thriller is Nolan-esque to a fault

Christopher Nolan's long-awaited time inversion blockbuster is intermittently thrilling but frustratingly hollow and hard to follow. Has he lost the plot?

Christopher Nolan has now given us what can only be described as the most “Nolan-esque” film of his career – a bold and hugely ambitious spy movie extravaganza whose scale, at times, is so huge that it seems to explode off the sides of even the biggest IMAX screen. But it's also, unfortunately, a picture that emphasises Nolan's biggest flaws as a filmmaker, resulting in his most narratively convoluted and emotionally hollow film in years.

Taking its cues from the altered realities and exposition-heavy delivery inherent to his landmark blockbuster Inception, the story behind Tenet begins with an all-too familiar conceit: the film's rich, Russian antagonist, Andrei Sator (a very serious, accented Kenneth Branagh), has got his hands on a super weapon with world-destroying implications. Spurred on to prevent a universe-sized disaster after proving his moral worth in the film's tense but confusing opener is our questionably-named “Protagonist.” He's played with muted dispostion by John David Washington – a cool-headed but empty shell of a character who we learn absolutely nothing about over the course of an excessive two and a half hour runtime (I'm not kidding: nothing).

Washington's character is quickly enlisted into a top secret organisation and tasked with making contact with Branagh's oligarch as to avert World War III. What follows is undeniably thrilling and inventive in places, as our hero – sorry, our “Protagonist” – sets out on a globe-trotting adventure – Tallinn, Mumbai, London, Pompei, Oslo – built in the James Bond movie mould. Along the way, he teams with Robert Pattinson's debonaire secret agent, and Sator's beautiful but icy wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a British art dealer who is estranged from her husband but who just might hold the key to the film's central puzzle. This is a Nolan film, and so there must be a puzzle.

Tenet is oddly blasé about the mysterious “time inversion” premise that has been at the core of the film's marketing campaign, though. It's introduced with little fanfare and indifference by Clémence Poésy, appearing in a small and thankless part, who seems bored when she explains the allegedly mind-blowing existence of parallel timelines that travel backwards and forwards, simultaneously, before converging at a central point, allowing for all kinds of cool chronological possibilities.

Nolan has also insisted that Tenet isn't a time travel movie, but his argument seems to fall flat as the film rumbles forwards and lots of familiar tropes are wheeled out in order to explain the logic of a very confusing first hour. But the problem with Tenet isn't really that the time inversion element is hard to follow; it's that the time inversion element fails to justify the excessive scope of the plot and the overwrought machinations leading us into every explosive set-piece.

At its best, Tenet feels like a bizarre cross between cult time travel movie Primer and a Michael Mann film; head-scratching scenes of chronological intrigue bashing heads with gritty car chases and people shooting each other with silenced pistols. At its worst, there's a sense of Nolan straining to come up with yet another idea that plays around with the concept of space and time because that's what people now expect of him. I'm not sure he's even fully convinced by the premise here – especially after we're told, explicitly, to not try and understand it a mere twenty minutes into the film.

Does Christopher Nolan actually want us to understand Tenet? I'm not sure. It's not just the time inversion elements that hurt to think about; it's difficult to understand why anything is happening at any point in the movie. Exposition is delivered at such a rapid pace that it's impossible to comprehend what you're being told before being thrown into yet another set-piece. But it's impossible to invest in a set-piece when you have no idea what the characters are trying to do or achieve. Unlike in the more recent and excellent Mission: Impossible entires, where the goal of every action sequence is made obvious to audiences right from the start, Tenet fails to give us anything to sink our teeth into for the length of the ride. It doesn't help that characters wear masks for approximately half the film, or that the bombastic score – Ludwig Göransson standing in for Nolan regular Hans Zimmer – makes it nearly impossible to understand what anyone is actually saying.

Mostly the performances are flat, the picture humourless, and only Robert Pattinson's handler, “Neil,” whose name reveal perhaps provides the film's biggest “what the hell?” moment (make of that what you will), seems to suggest the idea of a less serious and perhaps superior picture. Pattinson's louche performance – it is as though he has been transposed through time from a Graham Greene novel – is the only one that senses this might be more enjoyable had Nolan just embraced the ridiculousness of it all (ultimately what I suspect was an even more flamboyant performance from Pattinson on set feels neutered by the editing).

The added pressure to like Tenet, given that it seems to have been single-handily tasked with saving cinema, doesn't help matters. It is a grand spectacle in service of itself, with absolutely nothing to say about human beings, the world, or even our relationship with technology. That is not to say that watching it you won't experience moments of exhilaration. As the film that will provide so many with their first cinematic experience in months, it's hard to argue with the size of Nolan's vision – his belief that cinema is capable of doing anything is right up there on the screen.

But there's also an odd sense of been there, done that with Tenet. None of the scenes – many of which rely, once more, on Nolan's obsession with vehicular mayhem – have the staying power of Inception's dizzying hallway brawl, or the brilliant simplicity of the flipped truck in The Dark Knight. And while in his last two films, Interstellar and Dunkirk, Nolan seemed to address the criticism that his work was emotionally bankrupt, Tenet is without question his least involving picture to date.

Of course, we can – we must – awe, time and time again, at Nolan's attempts to “dream a little bigger” with each and every new project. But Tenet suggests that sometimes an unlimited budget and a desire to outdo one's self can be a hinderance to creativity. As grand and ambitious as Tenet is, I couldn't help but wonder what this filmmaker might do now with $20 million instead of $200 million.

Tenet is in cinemas across the UK now.

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