We are a scant few minutes into the film’s 2½-hour run time and it has already delivered: the sequence ends with interior and exterior shots of an explosion, which the editor Jennifer Lame transforms with as perfect an action cut as ever there was. In that microsecond, we’re reminded of something the last few months have conspired to make us forget: cinematic scale. “Tenet” operates on a physiological level, in the stomach-pit rumbles of Ludwig Goransson’s score, and the dilated-pupil responses to Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which delivers the same magnificence whether observing a narratively superfluous catamaran race, or the nap and weave of Jeffrey Kurland’s immaculately creaseless costumes. Seriously, the most mind-boggling aspect of “Tenet” might be the ironing budget.
Washington’s unnamed character is quickly inducted into the mysteries of “inversion,” a process by which an object — or a person — can have its entropy reversed, making it appear, to those of us moving lamely forward through time, as if it is spooling backward. His new inversion-related mission leads him first to a fixer, Neil (a delightful Robert Pattinson), useful for both his action chops and his master’s in physics, then to a Mumbai arms dealer (Dimple Kapadia), whose fortress apartment can only be accessed by bungee jump, and thence to the villainous Ukrainian squillionaire Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who can only be accessed via his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a miserable, imperiled art dealer who loathes him.
For once, spoiler sensitivity might be the reviewer’s luckiest break, absolving me of even attempting an explanation of a plot so contorted it’s best not to worry about it. Even the scientist played by Clémence Poésy, here exclusively to deliver exposition, eventually cops out. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it” is the best advice anyone offers. Suffice to say, the time-inversion idea is most impressive not in the film’s grander architecture, which, as widely surmised, loosely resembles a palindrome, but in single scenes in which some elements run forward while others reverse. Similar to “Inception,” which created an entire dream-world mythology only to have its revolving-hallway tussle become its most iconic sequence, in “Tenet,” time inversion poses a civilization-annihilating threat, but the killer scene is, again, a corridor fight. We see it twice, and each time, after your brain clicks to one of the combatants fighting forward in time while the other goes backward, the sheer how-did-they-do-that ingenuity is dazzling.
“Tenet” dazzles the senses, but it does not move the heart — a criticism common to all of Nolan’s original films. And other widely recognized Nolan blind spots are also in evidence: it’s depressing that as fine an actress as Debicki should be saddled with such a cipher role, given a son in lieu of a character and made responsible for the story’s only bad decisions. Everyone else performs to perfection, especially Washington’s history-less protagonist who proves that not all superheroes wear capes. Some wear the hell out of suits so dapper that one of the film’s biggest laughs comes when Nolan talisman Michael Caine glances at Washington, looking better, in his dark-blue ensemble, than possibly any human man has ever looked, and sneers Britishly, “Brooks Brothers is not going to cut it.”