At The Movies: Tenet is a fun palindromic puzzle of a film that may hurt your brain

Christopher Nolan's Tenet stars John David Washington (left) Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki.
Christopher Nolan's Tenet stars John David Washington (left) Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki.PHOTO: WARNER BROTHERS

SINGAPORE - If you were to pick a movie to announce that after three parched months, the Hollywood spigot is finally turned on, it will be hard to find a more appropriate one than Tenet (PG13, 150 minutes, opens Aug 27, 3.5 stars).

This one has it all: a brand-name film-maker in Christopher Nolan, big names in the cast and, most importantly, big action.

In the science-fiction thriller, East European arms trader Andrei Sator considers buying football teams, elections or private islands to be old hat. As played by a scarily stone-faced Kenneth Branagh, super-villain Sator yearns for a resource only he can afford: time.

Few directors are as enamoured of a concept as Nolan is with time. From early feature Memento (2000), a crime thriller that unfolds backwards; to heist movie Inception (2010), which deals with how dreams seem to exist outside of time; to space adventure Interstellar (2014), which has time's arrow speed up or slow down depending on one's proximity to a black hole.

Like so much "hard" science fiction, those stories use a Big Idea to illustrate a human truth - in Interstellar and Inception, it is the yearning of fathers to be with their children.

In Tenet, the parental urge to reunite is found in Sator's wife Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki. Her path crosses with that of two mysterious men's, Neil (Robert Pattinson) and a nameless operative played by John David Washington.

As the trailer shows, things are berserk in their world - crashed cars right themselves and bullets are sucked into a gun rather than explode out of it. As one character says, someone is causing time inversion to happen - it is not changing speed, but direction.

Saying more about the plot would be unwise, not only because a description would spoil it, but because I would go beyond what I know. I watched the film, but I cannot say I understood it. Put it this way: Imagine a song with a standard 4/4 time signature. Now overlay a 3/4 beat and melody over that. Non-musicians would "get" it conceptually at first listen, but it would take a few more sessions to relax into the groove and simply enjoy the work.

One accusation made of Nolan is that he makes puzzle pieces rather than movies. With its palindromic structure - like its title, it can be read in either direction - this is his most ambitious head-scratcher yet.

It is at least fractal in nature, with different pleasures revealing themselves depending on the power of magnification one uses. At a distance, the idea of time inversion will occasionally create a satisfying mental click, while at a micro level, the visual audacity of the action setpieces - a raid at the airport, a military attack on an underground structure, both done largely without computer-generated effects - make one's brain buzz with joy.

The human factor of Nolan's previous films is missing, however. The aching of a parent to be with her child is shown on screen, but not felt by the viewer. Debicki, Pattinson and Washington are fine actors, but there is a lot going on. This includes the dialogue, of which there is plenty, but the audio mix, with background noises and music soundtrack intruding, caused it to be drowned out. This matters only slightly, as it is possible to understand the flow with a bare-bones grasp of the exposition, but the mumbling can frustrate.

If Interstellar could be said to have made quantum physics huggable and Inception is a bucket of Lego bricks that snap together beautifully, then Tenet is like a cold but complex architectural creation. It was designed to impress if one stands at the right distance from it, and on that score, it succeeds.

Other films opening this week but not reviewed include superhero title The New Mutants (M18, 94 minutes, opens Aug 27). The story takes place in the same universe as the Marvel Comic's X-Men film series (2000 to 2019). Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt and Henry Zaga play young persons with special powers who have to survive a spell in a secret prison.