The expectations around Christopher Nolan's Tenet are staggering.
Any film by the Oscar-nominated director behind Inception and The Dark Knight comes heaped with such pressures. But in a blockbuster season shorn of movies, with cinemas shuttering due to the coronavirus, the pent-up desire for any form of big-screen spectacle has hit fever pitch.
Unsurprisingly, given the director's glittering track record, Tenet doesn't disappoint. Nolan's 11th film, one that remained determined to come out in the summer come hell or high water, is the grandest of grand designs. A spiritual cousin to Inception, which uses an industrial espionage plot to explore dream-logic, Tenet is a spy film like no other. Time travel comes into play, but not in a way you'd ordinarily expect. James Bond, this is not.
Shot across seven countries, a film of this scale is very likely to blow collective minds – especially given its cerebral concepts and how viewers have been starved of such experiences these past months. Unlike so many Hollywood blockbusters, derived from comics or video games, Tenet is wholly original; a puzzle-box picture that's sprung from the steep trap that is Nolan's mind.
John David Washington, who was so compelling in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, plays an unnamed agent, known only as the Protagonist in the credits. When we join him, he's infiltrated a Swat team trying to prevent a terrorist siege in a Ukrainian opera house. It leads, after a rather gruesome conclusion, to him being recruited by a shadowy agency – identified only by a hand gesture and the word 'Tenet'.
His mission – explains his handler, played by Martin Donovan, back with Nolan 18 years after Insomnia – involves a "Cold War, cold as ice". But this is no East versus West conflict. The Protagonist is sent on a journey to prevent a fate worse than a third world war – a conflict between the present and the future that pits him against an Anglo-Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh).
Violent, ruthless and obscenely wealthy – he sails around the Med' on a luxury mega-yacht – Sator has acquired technology from a far-off time that allows him to ‘invert’ the entropy of objects or even people, sending them literally backwards through time. The first we witness this is in the opera house – with a bullet reversing into a gun chamber.
Nolan's high concept gets more high-concept at every turn, naturally...
That's just the start of Nolan's high-concept, which gets more ambitious and more audacious with every turn. As the Protagonist aims to get closer to Sator – via his beaten-down wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), mother to the villain's young son Max – he gradually discovers Sator's use for this inversion technology. Perennial Nolan themes – notably the ecological disasters of his sci-fi Interstellar – chime like well-oiled grandfather clocks.
Shot in the glorious Imax format by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Tenet looks stunning. The set pieces, largely shot for real, are jaw-dropping. Early on, Washington and Robert Pattinson, who plays the Protagonist's contact Neil, infiltrate a highly secure tower belonging to a Mumbai arms dealer with a dramatic reverse bungee that pings them up the side of the building. It's the first of many dizzying moments.
The action is always in service of the story, though, and never overrides the performances. Washington is persuasive as the Protagonist and Pattinson spot-on as Neil, but it's Branagh who will leave you shaking. The affable British actor-director is terrifying as Sator, someone who thinks nothing of beating a man to death for stealing from him.
Alongside the main cast, Nolan's 'lucky charm' Michael Caine is back, effortlessly guiding the Protagonist in what could otherwise be a dry exposition scene. And Bollywood fans will get a thrill from seeing semi-retired star Dimple Kapadia, on screen as Priya, a mysterious Mumbai resident who, like so many in Tenet, is intricately bound up in this complex, globetrotting web.
Another impressive element comes with the complex score by Ludwig Goransson. The Swedish composer, who won an Oscar for his work on Black Panther, is new to Nolan's team, replacing his regular man, Hans Zimmer, who was otherwise engaged on the music for Denis Villeneuve's new film Dune. Truly capturing the 'ticking clock' element of the storyline, Goransson produces a throbbing, nervy suite of music.
Given the layers of dense plotting, sometimes made even more head-scratching by lines of dialogue lost in the sound mix, you’re reminded of Austin Powers, Mike Myers’s spoof spy, who starts to go cross-eyed when he considers his own time-travelling back and forth from the 1960s. “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself,” his boss Basil tells him, before winking at the audience. “That goes for you all, too.”
The same message applies to Tenet; the quantum physics paradoxes are there to unpick if you want, but that shouldn't override the cinematic experience Nolan conjures. Indeed, Tenet's greatest trick is to make its 151 minutes feel like 15. Such is the relentless nature of the story, one that refuses to pause for breath thanks to career-best work from incoming editor Jennifer Lame, it unfolds like an almost timeless experience.
A film that's destined to keep Nolan fanatics poring over every frame for years to come, Tenet is a huge achievement in any year. Arriving when it does, it feels like the salvation for beleaguered cinema chains. It's everything big-screen entertainment should be: bold, brave, exhilarating and executed with genuine panache.
'Tenet' is released in UAE cinemas on Thursday, August 27