On the surface, time might seem a beguilingly simple concept.
There is a past, a present and future and all things being equal, and an enormously talented and imaginative British-American film director not being involved, time moves forward, quickly and smartly, one event leading reasonably sequentially to another.
Nice and simple; time for a soothing cup of tea and a warmly contented feeling that is all right with the world (pandemics notwithstanding).
Not so fast my friend, for in Tenet, the very title of which is eternally heading forwards and backwards and forwards and backwards and on and on we go until our brain explode, time becomes so twisted and loopy and wound back on itself (when it isn’t moving forwards, of course) that there is no time for tea and soothing crumpets, with the only option being to hold on and hope it all makes sense at the end.
Spoiler alert: It will not.
What it will do is leave you feeling is like you have been clubbed around the head multiple times with concepts that are so profuse and so garbled in their delivery that were you line them all up between here and the moon, they still wouldn’t all make sense.
The thing with Tenet is that for all its bewildering complexity (and poor scene-to-scene jumps which are bewildering at best), it is, in a lots of ways, a fantastically imaginative, clever and epically constructed film.
The Nolan we have come to know and love through Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, is very much on display, all astoundingly big, bold and brassy ideas that sparkle with delicious, brain overwhelming and yet delighting possibility and which are executed in ways so pleasingly bombastic that it’s hard not to get swept up in the visually richness which overwhelms at all times.
Perhaps the best advice with a film so massively, hugely, gigantically BIG, with music that assaults the senses with a heaviness and weight all its won and a narrative so fiendishly consumed with every idea about time, love and saving the world under the sun stuffed into 150-minute running time, is just to go with the impossible-to-resist flow.
No one in the film is doing that, of course with linear time and inverted time battling for dominance over our reality in ways so full on that Tenet is home to some of the most spectacular action set pieces in any film you’ve ever seen.
The reason for all this intensity, and rest assured Tenet is not remotely a stroll through the park, heavy with consequence and dire, nightmarish possibility, is that CIA agent, the Protagonist (John David Washington who is all lavishly-styled, Bond glamour and can-do spirit) and his handler, Neil (Robert Pattinson) are battling to stop a temporal cold war, the end game of which hinges on the action of one coldly cruel man, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), from ending all life as we know it.
Those are some pretty big, life-annihilating stakes there so you can well understand why Nolan goes BIG, visually, musically and narratively, turning Tenet into the temporal equivalent of a globe-trotting Bond or Bourne film where there is not a second to spare and everything MATTERS.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There is something enthrallingly escapist about falling into those kind of intense, everything’s-on-the-line global action extravaganzas, and allowing yourself to be swept up in a narrative that consumes everything in its path and then some.
Tenet is very much that kind of film, and in that respect, is an absolute treat to watch, all desperate urgency, malicious smouldering intent and high-stakes vibrancy, all of which exists on a template which is not just visually dazzling but intellectually dense.
It is gripping and brash and enrapturngly enormous and as far as that goes, Tenet is exactly the kind of blockbuster that our COVID-twisted times are crying out for.
Unfortunately, so stuffed with jaw-droppingly immense ideas and narrative twists and turns and awe-inspiringly good visual execution is it, that Tenet ends up being, to quote a man from the 16th century who knew a thing or two about massive spectacle, a whole lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Well, not quite nothing because there’s a lot of clever thinking going on and there are times when you gasp with pleasure at the thrilling audacity of it all and wonder who such brilliance came to be profoundly distilled.
But, and it is a cavernous “but” so big that it could well stop time in its confusing tracks, all that winding in on itself cleverness comes at the cost of any sense of emotional resonance or a feeling that it all means something.
For all its bombastic, hard-to-miss presence, which comes with sound so stupendously badly mixed that you will struggle to hear a good portion of the dialogue (all the more a problem when everything is increasingly making very little sense), Tenet is, in the end, all hollow flim-flam.
Even the next-to-final-scene when Things Have Happened and Revelations Are Made with Huge Emotional Impact, it all feels curiously empty and uninvolving.
It’s like when you walk up to a building front that is grand and with dipping with style and a sense of historical importance and you conclude it must be a very grand and important building, only to discover it’s a front for a movie set with nothing behind but space and imaginative intentions.
It’s an illusion that is most fitting for a film that encompasses the very best and worst of modern blockbuster cinema.
The tricky thing with Tenet is that isn’t a bad film; there’s a great deal to enjoy about it from the pounding, heavy, atmosphere-creating music (shame about large slabs of the dialogue though) to the twisty, windy, inventive narrative and fine performances from Washington and Pattinson, but when all the dust settles, or you know rises into the air because #inversion, the sad reality is that what could have been a classic is simply a very clever premise somewhat delivered on which could have been so much more if it hadn’t disappeared up its own time-clogged proverbial.