Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Denzel Smith, Elizabeth Debicki
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Time zigzags at will in Christopher Nolan's Tenet. Such is its bewildering pliability that it ceases to be a mere accumulation of moments as we know them. It assumes the proportions of a permeable continuum that, at many crucial points of the plot, allows one character from many years ago to come face to face with another from some years hence. The key figures in the story, therefore, have 'forward' selves and 'inverted' selves while they retain their present selves.
Too baffling for words? To paraphrase a line that is spoken in the film: you don't have to understand, just feel. On the first viewing, Tenet is indeed all feeling. If you want to grasp fully what exactly the film is driving at, guess you'll have to give Nolan's characteristic mind-bender one more shot. It certainly won't be a wasted exercise because as a big-screen spectacle Tenet is a magnificent achievement. The writing is razor-sharp, the visuals stunning, and the drama never less than rousing.
The male Protagonist (John David Washington) - he is an unnamed member of an organization called Tenet - figures out that Time is more porous that he ever thought it was when he learns that somebody in the future has invented inverted guns that fire bullets backwards. "You are not firing a bullet, you are catching it," the scientist who gives him the information tells the Protagonist.
The two-and-a-half-hour film is liberally peppered with such teasing nuggets that underline time's reversibility as the Protagonist, with Neil (Robert Pattinson) by his side, fights to save the world. The duo zips from one picturesque location to another to crack the mystery behind the danger of extinction that lurks over humankind. Their work takes them to Tallinn, the Amalfi coast, Mumbai and Oslo. Like time, space is easily penetrable in Tenet.
Delightfully provocative in the way it steers clear of the crutches of over-articulation as it presents a world caught in a temporal cold war. We are under attack from the future, one character says. Another, in a different context, says explains why: the oceans have risen and the rivers have dried up. The future wants to punish the past - that is our present - for the mess that has been made of the environment.
Tenet could be seen as a simple enough 'superhero' movie in which one invincible man swings into action when an arch-villain - here the man is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch in cahoots with destructive forces that are bent on wiping out the world with the help of technology that can reverse the entropy of objects and people - decides to go down with the world. He is a man who has built his wealth by operating in and around his once secret hometown of Stalsk-12, an abandoned wasteland rendered worthless by a nuclear mishap. What he cannot have, Andrei Sator prefers to destroy.
But you cannot but dig deeper. Tenet is what it wants to be, no more, no less: a mighty drama crammed with befuddling concepts that are not limited to time travel alone. The film takes in its sweep matters of the human consciousness and multiple realities; the 'grandfather paradox' (if you were to go back in time and kill your grandfather, you wouldn't be born, Neil explains to The Protagonist); a nuclear device that has been split into nine algorithms to prevent it from being activated by unauthorized players; and the primacy of instinct and free will in a world in which both are under threat.
The curtain rises on Tenet with as grand an opening sequence as any we have seen lately - automatic weapons-wielding gunmen burst in on an opera house in Kiev, Ukraine as the audience settles down for a concert and the orchestra conductor takes his position. The film itself pans out in the manner of an all-out 'siege': it catches you with a robust grip, pins you back to your seat, and keeps you glued there over the next two hours and bit.
The propulsive background score and the dizzying action - in the very first shot, director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema's camera pulls back from the cavernous auditorium in one vertiginous sweep to reveal the equally massive corridors that skirt around the central space - set the tone for a heart-pounding film that gallops along relentlessly, moving back and forth in time without ever letting the shifts feel jarring.
This notion of time as an uninterrupted cycle is obviously very Indian, but it isn't directly posited as such in Tenet. The film's India link emerges rather early in the film but from a far less fancy source. The Protagonist traces the cartridge of an inverted bullet - the one he 'caught' in a scientist's lab - to Sanjay Singh (Denzel Smith) in Mumbai. When in the western Indian metropolis, the Protagonist and Neil avoid the city's roads - they leap from building to building in the line of duty.
It turns out that the man they are looking for is only a front for his wife Priya (Dimple Kapadia), who, like the Protagonist, is a member of Tenet and knows more than anyone else that the hero can turn to for help. The Protagonist is in India because the metallic alloy used for the cartridge is from the region. But the wily Priya's link with the Protagonist's mission to pre-empt attacks from the future isn't as superficial as the casing on a bullet.
Priya isn't the only woman that the Protagonist has to deal with. Arms dealer Sator's estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art appraiser trapped in a toxic marriage because of a fake Goya that she once tried to foist upon her husband, becomes one of the Protagonist's principal allies in a plan to keep Sator alive until his evil designs are scuttled.
Lead actor John David Washington carries the weight of the film on his shoulders without wilting. Robert Pattinson plays second fiddle without letting himself be put in the shade. Dimple Kapadia, who has far less footage, makes an impact that is just as strong. Kenneth Branagh articulates a mean streak with aplomb while the tall, statuesque Elizabeth Debicki does vulnerable and vixenish equally well.
Tenet is big, ballsy and bedazzling: it enraptures even when it flummoxes. Undeniably, a grand tour de force.