Writer-director Christopher Nolan sends star John David Washington moving back and forth in every dimension in this sci-fi thriller costarring Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki.

Tenet is surely the most eagerly anticipated film to be released theatrically since the coronavirus pandemic began. That’s only partly because, in some places, it will be the only film to be released theatrically since the virus arrived.

As befits a blockbuster about nothing less than a few people trying to save the world from “something worse” than Armageddon, there is a lot riding on Tenet succeeding with its own set of missions. Mission one: get released in the first place so it can start recouping what must have been a massive production budget. Next mission: save theaters and exhibition chains on the brink of bankruptcy, and all the workers that depend on them. In fact, while it’s at it, the film may need to save the very future of venue-based cinema, those hallowed gathering places for “collective human engagement,” to quote its writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Washington Post opinion piece from the spring.

That’s a megaton of pressure for one sci-fi action film with a not-yet-A-list lead actor on the poster (John David Washington from BlacKkKlansman, dashing but a little dull).

Even some of us critics here in the U.K., among the first to see the film, are feeling the heat. There will be viewers scrutinizing every tweet, review and opinion aggregator as they weigh whether to leave their quarantine bubbles to see it when it opens August 26 in select, less virally-loaded territories.

By sheer coincidence, the press screenings in London took place during the same week as the Democratic National Convention in the U.S., where nearly every speaker urged American citizens to vote like the future of democracy is hanging in the balance. (Because it is.) With all that future to worry about, both political and cinematic, it’s enough to drive an expat to, well, Xanax.

Like Xanax, Tenet’s title is a palindrome, spelled the same way backward and forward. That’s fitting for a story about technology that can “invert” people and things, making them capable of going back in time. And like Xanax, Tenet makes you feel floaty, mesmerized and, to an extent, soothed by its spectacle — but also so cloudy in the head that the only option is to relax and let it blow your mind around like a balloon, buffeted by seaside breezes and hot air.

The idea is that this inversion tech was/will be invented by people in the future, but the material — bolts, gears, broken watches, assorted time-travel-controlling MacGuffins — keeps washing up in the present, the “detritus of a coming war.” The protagonist (Washington), a C.I.A. operative recruited to help the shadowy Tenet organization that’s trying to stop the aforementioned worse-than-Armageddon event, learns from lab-coated expert Barbara (Clémence Poésy) that an inverted bullet isn’t fired, for example, it’s caught in the gun. Likewise, an inverted car seems to drive solely in reverse, and a person who has gone through one of the “time stiles” that invert things appears to be moving, talking, even breathing backwards. That makes the hand-to-hand fight sequences especially snappy and unsettling to watch, filmed in claustrophobically tight shots that look like a cross between capoeira, boxing and avant-garde modern dance.

At one point, the protagonist — who, in an irritatingly meta screenwriting conceit, is literally called “the protagonist” in the end credits and is never named otherwise throughout the film — discusses the classic paradox of time travel with his colleague, Neil (Robert Pattinson). The protagonist asks, for example: If you went back in time and killed your grandfather before you were born, would you instantly disappear? There is no answer, Neil replies unhelpfully, because it’s a paradox. Or, as he circuitously declares later about another matter, “Whatever happened, happened.”

Apologies for making everything about the state of American politics these days, but the latter phrase, repeated a couple of times in the film, by sheer accident evokes Donald Trump’s indifferent shrug at 170,000 Americans dying by coronavirus that “it is what it is” — a line Michelle Obama slyly re-purposed for her convention speech earlier this week. And maybe it’s a side effect of the dreamy, bewitching spell the film casts to find echoes of it in the real world, but a similar kind of callous, fatalistic disregard for life runs through this fiction. There’s something a little bit retro, a bit alienating, about the way the protagonist, his colleagues and the bad guys blithely murder secondary characters and no one mourns, no one cares. As in the dreams in Inception, the Nolan film Tenet most closely resembles, each reverie within a nightmare is basically another movie with guns and car chases. Death not only has no dominion; it’s practically meaningless.

In the opening sequence of Tenet, beautifully executed though it is, a whole auditorium of classical-music concert goers are put at risk of being blown up by an explosive device, a fact the protagonist seems to sort of laugh off. “Only the people in the cheap seats” might get killed. Not so much sympathy there for people experiencing “collective human engagement” together.

If it seems like this review is shying away from describing the plot, that’s not just out of concern to avoid spoilers. I watched the movie twice for this review, and still feel very confused about what is supposed to be going on and why. Even more baffling than the why is the how, the fictional physics of inversion. All those outfits that make YouTube videos about movie plot holes and cinematic inconsistencies are going to implode with joy when they get a load of this.

Suffice it to say, the protagonist, Neil and their colleagues from the Tenet org — including Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a military type sporting an enormous hipster beard — are striving to collect, Pokemon-style, all the assorted chunky bits of hardware that will enable that worse-than-Armageddon event. To do this, they also need the help of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, Widows), the elegant English wife of a ruthless but also deeply damaged Russian oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh), not to be confused with shady Russia-born Trumpworld fixer Felix Sater.

This allows Nolan to delve into a whole realm of human experience — matrimony — that he usually shies away from, apart from the murderous imaginary wife Marion Cotillard played in Inception. Otherwise, wives in Nolan films are almost always saintly and/or dead except for in flashbacks. Here, Kat, sometimes impulsive and reckless, is almost but not entirely saintly (she is sacrificing everything for the sake of her child) and alive (although that life is at one point put in grave danger). Nevertheless, her female presence adds a color to Nolan’s palette, and Debicki has persuasive chemistry with Branagh in their joint portrait of a violent, dysfunctional love-hate relationship.

Unfortunately, it all too often feels like Kat’s function in the story is either to be endangered enough to push the plot forward or to be merely decorative, like so much of the lush, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-infamous production design by Nathan Crowley (a Nolan regular along with most of the top-credit crew). Crowley and DP Hoyte van Hoytema adhere to a stark palette of neutrals throughout, mostly the color of concrete, desert dust and rust. This is interleaved with bright but cold images of blue water and sky in the many boat-, shipping container- and aquatic-adjacent-set sequences.

Altogether, it makes for a chilly, cerebral film — easy to admire, especially since it’s so rich in audacity and originality, but almost impossible to love, lacking as it is in a certain humanity.

Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Syncopy production
Director/screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Martin Donovan, Fiona Dourif, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Himesh Patel, Clemence Poesy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh

Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Executive producer: Thomas Hayslip
Director of photography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Production designer: Nathan Crowley

Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Music: Ludwig Goransson
Visual effects supervisor: Andrew Jackson
Special effects supervisor: Scott Fisher
Stunt co-ordinator: George Cottle
Casting: John Papsidera

PG-13; 150 minutes