There is an early scene where pseudoscience involving time inversion is being explained by a scientist to The Protagonist. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That’s probably also an advice for the audience who at that point is about to be thrown into the deep end of quantum physics and thermodynamics. You would wish you had paid more attention during your physics lessons, but then again you would probably need a master’s degree in theoretical physics to suss out all the multiple layers of meaning.

In a twilight world of international espionage, an unnamed CIA operative, known as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is recruited by a mysterious organization called Tenet to participate in a global assignment that unfolds beyond real time. The mission: prevent Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a renegade Russian oligarch with precognition abilities, from starting World War III. The Protagonist will soon master the art of “time inversion” as a way of countering the threat that is to come.

Christopher Nolan has been lobbying Tenet to be screened at the theatres and really, there is no other way you should see this than on the biggest screen possible. If you are fortunate enough in your part of the world where the theatres are opened, it’s worth a risk to step back inside the hallowed darkened cinema halls and be bombarded by a mind-bender of a narrative.

[there are going to be some very light spoilers from this point onwards. Read no further if you want a full-on head trip experience with zilch prior knowledge.]

Tenet is one of those films whose authority is established from its opening moments. The opening scene at a symphony performance in Kiev cracks like a whip. Driven by an incredibly effective soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, captivating cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, the narrative grabs your senses and mind with a head-scratcher of a story with nary a dull moment.

Tenet is Nolan’s calling card to become the next director to helm a James Bond movie because once all the bombardment on your senses dulls down to a lull you would realise Tenet is a glorified James Bond movie (with some generous splashes of Mission Impossible thrown in for good measure), complete with a M, a Q, a femme fatale, a sidekick and a megalomaniac out to end the world. This isn’t a complaint; it’s just an observation.

Tenet is strongest in its action spectacles that we have come to expect from the Nolan brand – stupendously orchestrated and meticulously constructed, like something you have never seen before. There is no cheating here because no green screens were used, so the scene of a Boeing crashing into a building is a real plane. Coupled with Nolan-esque high concepts, Tenet lives up to its namesake.

Where Tenet flounders is in the spaces between the action sequences. It was so busy laying on the what, where, when, who and how, with little breathing space for one to unpack. Sometimes, I wonder if it would be better to not explain everything and let us connect the dots on our own. For such a heavily expositional movie, dialogue is crucial and for this reviewer it felt like the dialogue was competing with the bombastic soundtrack. There is a scene of the principals speaking through masks and I did something I have never done – I was reading the Chinese subtitles furiously.

The stakes don’t hit the highs because the emotional tether to the characters is flimsy. Unlike Inception, there isn’t any backstory to The Protagonist. We are not privy to his motivation in wanting to save the world and dammit… we need a good one if we are to be emotionally vested in the end-of-the-world proceedings. However, I am not taking away anything from the cast’s acting which ranges from good to great, especially Robbert Pattinson who turned in yet another charismatic performance.

I have seen my fair share of confusing movies and the great ones like Donnie Darko (2001), Eraserhead (1977) or even Nolan’s very own Inception (2010), know how to make it a remarkable mind-melting experience. They don’t try to explain everything to a T and trust the audience to understand the mechanics in their own unique ways. Tenet just tries too hard to be idiot proof and landed up as anything but. I have no doubt the big picture is simple enough but getting the finer machinations behind it is a frustrating experience. Like I mentioned earlier… don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Tenet is probably the first water-cooler movie of the year, but I doubt initial conversations will go beyond “WTF is it about?” That said, one would be hard pressed to say the movie is a terrible one. You will know in your bones that buried somewhere beneath the confounding discombobulation is a good movie that wants to be great with ambition that reaches for the highest heights. With multiple viewings, the story and plot will become clearer, but whether Tenet will compel you to do that is another story. What a spectacular, staggering and stupendous mess, emphasis on all the adjectives.

3.5 / 5