Producers: Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan   Director: Christopher Nolan   Screenplay: Christopher Nolan   Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Martin Donovan, Fiona Dourif, Yuri Kolokonikov, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh   Distributor: Warner Bos. Pictures

Grade: C

If one were grading films solely on the basis of technical aplomb, Christopher Nolan’s  long-gestating time-bending project might rate high.  But as a whole it’s a flashy disappointment—intricate but not especially involving, clever but never captivating, “Tenet” is a sterile exercise in spy movie cliché, with a twist that allows for some striking effects but over the long, long haul (some two-and-a-half hours) proves far less engaging than Nolan thinks it is. 

The filmmaker has, of course, always been interested in plots that toy with time and perception.  When watching “Tenet,” you might be inclined to apply to Nolan a line that was uttered about a would-be time-traveler in a weird episode (“The Forms of Things Unknown”) of the old “Outer Limits” series: “My Mr. Hobart tinkers with time, just as time has tinkered with Mr. Hobart.”  In this case the writer-director’s obsession has led him to craft a narrative in which the chronological element—which, as the palindrome of the title indicates, involves a reversal of time—becomes so bewilderingly complex that a viewer is likely to throw up his hands in confused surrender if he tries to understand what precisely is happening temporally from moment to moment. And apart from that time-shifting aspect, the plot of “Tenet” is actually pretty standard espionage stuff about an operative who foils a megalomaniac’s plan to destroy the world.

The film begins with a typically explosive set-piece in which, after proving his mettle in a gun battle with terrorists at a Kiev opera house, a CIA agent called simply The Protagonist (John David Washington) is assigned by his boss (Martin Donovan) to investigate a potentially world-destroying technology.  The hero is shown an example of it by a pretty but poker-faced scientist (Clémence Poésy) in the form of bullets that move in reverse, returning to the gun from which they’ve been fired.  They represent a future technology that can, it’s speculated, annihilate the past entirely.

With advice from a snooty British agent (Michael Caine), our hero traces the ammunition to rich Indian arms dealer Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia), and gains access to her by mounting a skyscraper with  the help of a supremely knowledgeable sidekick named Neil (Robert Pattinson).  She points him in the direction of a Russian (or more properly Ukrainian) oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who has somehow acquired the technology, as well as the ability to employ it for his nefarious purposes. 

Sator is difficult to get to, however, so The Protagonist does so through his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art dealer whom her husband controls as a result of her complicity in selling him a forged drawing, as well as her concern for the wellbeing of their young son Max (Laurie Shepherd).  There follows a fierce struggle in a secret vault at the Oslo Airport, which serves as hiding place for precious artwork; in it the practical  ramifications of the reverse technology are revealed.

Kat agrees to assist the Protagonist in meeting Sator, who persuades him to help retrieve a case that the Russian claims contains a rare form of plutonium, but actually holds some sort of futuristic mechanism integral to his destructive plans.  The Protagonist and Neil stage a daring raid on a convoy transporting the case, but must turn it over to Sator when he threatens Kat, of whom The Protagonist has become uncommonly protective.

Now The Protagonist goes through the inversion process himself to confront Sator, who is planning to connect the recently-acquired mechanism with others to create a so-called algorithm that can reverse time and extinguish the past at the moment of his own impending demise.  The hero is joined by Kat, Neil and an army of troops including tough guy Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), some moving forward in time and others in reverse, to gain possession of the algorithm and prevent Sator from using it.

To answer the obvious question, they succeed, and the world does not end.  If you consider that a spoiler, you’ve never seen an action movie. 

“Tenet” is, of course, handsomely appointed, with some impressive set pieces.  The opening terrorist attack in Kiev is splashily choreographed, though never really explained except as a test for the hero; the scaling of the high-rise to get to the Singh penthouse offers some thrills; an Oslo plane hijacking is lovingly staged, and the fight in the airport it leads to is exciting if less eye-popping than the hallway battle in “Inception;” a sequence involving fast-moving catamarans is vividly shot; the highway theft sequence is a tour de force; and the big finale is expectedly energetic.  One can’t discount the expertise of craft contributors like cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Jennifer Lame and the effects teams led by Andrew Jackson and Scott Fisher in the staging of such sequences.  (Ludwig Goransson’s score, however, is mostly tedious.)

But frankly the whole time-reversal stuff seems little more than a unnecessary adjunct to the action rather than an integral part of it; one can imagine the basic plot working just fine without it.  In the end the algorithm is just a MacGuffin designed to allow Nolan to embellish what is a fairly conventional espionage scenario with some cool effects and pseudo-profundities about the nature of time.  The only real payoff comes toward the close, with a cute reversal of a famous line from “Casablanca.”  

An even worse problem with the movie, however, is the human element, or lack thereof.  The Protagonist is basically a dull character, and Washington plays him blandly.  Kat is no less forgettable; we’re told that she’s devoted to Max, but since the film never even introduces us to the boy beyond a few long shots, any emotional connection between them becomes an assumption rather than a felt reality.  Ives is an equally rote character.

And while Kapadia and Caine contribute some smart grace notes and Pattinson offers a master class in cheeky charm, the only character with any real heft is Branagh’s Sator, and he proves an almost schizophrenic type.  He’s all too realistically brutal, but at the same time comes across as almost a parody of criminal masterminds; can one really take seriously a villain who says, “If I can’t have you, no one else can!” and intends a plan that amounts to little more than “Après moi, le déluge”?  Yet on the other hand he’s provided with a grimly serious back story that might remind you of the effects of Chernobyl. 

One can admire the ambition behind “Tenet,” and appreciate the technique with which it’s been made.  If you’re a Nolan fan, you can also rejoice over the chance to savor another of his cinematic puzzles and look forward to watching it repeatedly to put every piece in its proper place, even if in the end the solution might not amount to much beyond an elaborate brain-teaser. 

But if you’re looking for a film that will move you in any significant way, except perhaps to check your watch as it passes the two-hour mark or sigh at the pretended wit of its postscript, search elsewhere.  “Tenet” aims to be mind-bending, but comes out more brain-numbing.