Time is a fluid construct in Tenet, trickling backwards and forwards and occasionally eddying into rippling pools of possible pasts, presents and futures.
Actions can be subtly recalibrated with foresight of the consequences and two iterations of a person might glide along a single timeline with meticulous, split-second planning to avoid catastrophic direct contact.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s espionage thriller is a rush of blood to the head that demands to be unscrambled on a big screen.
Shot on 65mm and large-format Imax cameras, Tenet is neither a sequel nor prequel to the 2010 dreamscape Inception but a standalone, intricately assembled puzzle box inlaid with outlandish action set-pieces and eye-popping special effects.
To visualise pivotal moments when time flows simultaneously in opposite directions, Nolan repeatedly performs a simple sleight of hand: reversing chronology to seemingly pull a rabbit out of a hat, which he placed in plain sight earlier in the story.
Sometimes, magicians show you how the trick is done, or fool you into believing that’s what you’re seeing.
Discordant rumbles in the score of Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson, an Academy Award winner for Black Panther, replicate the sweep of Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, who was otherwise engaged on the sci-fi opus Dune.
While music quickens the pace, ponderous dialogue about cause and effect, entropy and the grandfather paradox accounts for unnecessary bloating to the running time.
Curiously, the stakes don’t feel perilously high given one character’s pithy summation of the situation: “As I understand it, we’re trying to prevent World War Three.”
Opening salvos are exchanged when an American operative known as the Protagonist (John David Washington) accepts a new assignment with cryptic instructions to perform a secret hand gesture (interlaced fingers) in conjunction with a palindromic code word: Tenet.
“It’ll open the right doors. Some of the wrong ones too,” teasingly explains his handler (Martin Donovan).
A Mobius strip of evidence leads the Protagonist and mission partner Neil (Robert Pattinson) down the rabbit hole of bullying Russian billionaire Andrei Sator (Sir Kenneth Branagh) and his wife (Elizabeth Debicki).
Tenet bears Nolan’s fingerprints with its ambitious blend of high-concept storytelling and in-camera stunt work including a daring heist on a busy six-lane motorway that necessitates multiple vehicles screeching forwards and in reverse at dizzying speed.
The technical virtuosity required to realise his elaborate vision with minimum digital effects boggles the mind more than the symmetrical plotting or interplay between characters.
By design, they are stripped of back stories including Washington’s enigmatic hero.
Only Debicki’s emotionally brittle spouse resonates on a satisfying emotional level, although she suffers grievously like many of Nolan’s female characters.
The writer-director’s on-screen talisman, Sir Michael Caine, savours a throwaway role as an aristocrat with a trembling finger on the pulse of impending doom.
For all the smoke and mirrors, it’s possible to remain one step ahead of Nolan’s script, anticipating junctures when characters will glance off each other without fully understanding the implications until much later. Or much earlier. No, both.
Pass the paracetamol and popcorn.
Tenet is released in UK and Irish cinemas on August 26.