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Time-warp sci-fi: ‘Tenet’ a mind-blowing, breathtaking cinematic experience

Robert Pattinson, left, and John David Washington in a scene from “Tenet.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Characters often have to wear masks in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending and time-warping sci-fi thriller “Tenet,” and I was wearing a mask while screening the film, and you’ll be wearing a mask if you decide to see it in theaters, and what an upside-down world we live in – and yet, not even the real-world craziness permeating the globe in 2020 can match the blow-your-mind insanity of the “Tenet” universe.

This is a visually breathtaking cinematic experience that deserves to be seen (in the safest possible environment, of course) on the biggest screen you can find, as Nolan has so famously fought for during the pandemic and multiple delayed release dates.

It’s also a little bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while listening to “Stairway to Heaven” backward in search of hidden messages.

“Tenet” plays like a James Bond movie crossed with elements from Nolan films from “Memento” to “Inception” to “Interstellar” with even a bit of “Dunkirk.”

Nolan has long been fascinated with playing elaborate games with the concepts of time and memories and shifting perspectives, and he takes it to the next level in this globe-trotting epic, which features some of the most incredible location set pieces in recent memory, from Estonia to the Amalfi Coast of Italy, from Mumbai to the Nysted Wind Farm of Denmark, from Oslo to London.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in a scene from “Tenet.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment)

John David Washington, who continues to solidify his movie-star status after “BlacKkKlansman,” plays the protagonist, who actually calls himself The Protagonist. This unflappable, coolly efficient but basically humane guy is your obligatory highly trained, off-the-grid American special ops/secret agent/antihero type, who barely survives a thrilling, pre-credits terrorist attack at the National Opera House in Ukraine before he’s given an even more dangerous assignment: Save the world from an imminent existential threat.

And just what exactly is that threat? Clues and reveals are doled out sparingly and cryptically in “Tenet.” Most of the time, we’re right there in the dark with The Protagonist. What we DO know early on is there’s a whole underground world of deep-cover operatives who have a kind of “Eyes Wide Shut” code in order to recognize one another. If you say, “We live in a twilight world,” and the response is, “And there are no friends at dusk,” you know they know YOU know … something.

As a scientist played by Clemence Poesy explains in a fascinating and CGI-cool sequence, time can now be inverted, and events from the future can be changed. Bullets return to guns from which they’ve been fired. Cars race in reverse, humans walk backward, wounds can disappear. (But in keeping with the “Back to the Future” rule, you’ll get into big trouble if you interact with yourself along the timeline.) The Protagonist’s mission, should he choose to accept it, will be to track down the maniacal Russian oligarch/arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, giving it the full Shakespearean effort), who is exploiting time inversion to assemble, you guessed it, a weapon that will destroy the world. (Andrei has his reasons, which KIND of make sense, at least from his twisted perspective.)

This leads to many exchanges like this:

“What the hell happened here?”

“It hasn’t happened yet.”

Oh. OK. Got it. I think.

Michael Caine has a wondrous, one-scene appearance as Sir Michael Crosby, a legendary British operative who meets with The Protagonist and provides some clues about his mission. Legendary Hindi star Dimple Kapadia quietly steals every scene she’s in as Priya, an arms dealer who sounds like the host of a History channel special as she tries to explain time inversion to The Protagonist. Robert Pattinson, who once lived in a different kind of “Twilight” world but long has established himself as a first-rate actor, is terrific as Neil, a British operative with a fabulous fashion sense even during the most daring escapades.

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in a scene from “Tenet.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros/ Entertainment)

And then there’s the invaluable Elizabeth Debicki, who was so strong as the abused partner of an arms dealer in “The Night Manager” miniseries and is great once again in a very similar role here as Kat, who is trapped in a horrific marriage to Andrei and will do anything to save her son and escape this monster. Debicki is mesmerizing playing a character who refuses to be a victim and becomes a partner in anti-crime with The Protagonist and Neil.

Working from his own labyrinthine screenplay, Nolan (along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and the special effects crew) has great fun with elaborate set pieces in which buildings explode, then become whole again, then implode, while birds fly backward and soldiers look like they’re moonwalking and characters occasionally catch glimpses of themselves as they skip through time like a stone skimming along a shimmering pond. (When you experience time inversion, you have to wear a special mask because your system is so screwed up that “normal” air will do you in.)

“Tenet” is a movie filled with nods to other movies, from a certain color-coded element reminiscent of “The Matrix” to a late scene with an obvious nod to “Casablanca.” Mostly, though, it’s a Christopher Nolan film built on the foundations of previous (and in some cases much better) Christopher Nolan films. “Tenet” reaches for cinematic greatness and, though it doesn’t quite reach that lofty goal, it’s the kind of film that reminds us of the magic of the moviegoing experience.

Here’s hoping that experience becomes commonplace once again and 100% free of any risk in the near future.

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