Stockwell: 'Tenet' dangles multitude of nonlinear puzzlers

In 1927, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “Metropolis” became the first feature film. Stanley Kubrick added his 1968 watershed “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Less than a decade later, George Lucas took us all to a galaxy far, far away. These films are part of the most ubiquitous genre of American cinema: science fiction.

Sci-fi is popular because of the flexibility and versatility it imparts to writers and filmmakers. They can do anything and everything because there are literally no limits when it comes to making these types of movies. Walt Disney may have coined the phrase: “If you can dream it, you can do it,” but sci-fi allows the most creative minds in the world to do what they do best.

And one of those minds belongs to Christopher Edward Nolan.

The British-American filmmaker who gave us trips to outer space, inner space, and Gotham takes us on another ride with his latest release, “Tenet.”

When a CIA operative finds himself in a strange set of circumstances surrounding the bombing of an opera house, he ends up being exposed to the concept of time travel (or more accurately, time movement). Drawn into a crisis of absolute destruction and devastation, he enters into a game with the highest stakes of all, elimination of life as we know it.

Stop me if you have heard this one before.

Actually, Nolan takes pages from a lot of films and pours them into a pressure cooker. As any chef will tell you, ingredients make or break the recipe, and this one is a combination that might leave the audience with one major question. "What?"

John David Washington is the CIA operative known only as “the protagonist.” Why he doesn’t have a name is unknown, but maybe it is because he contains so many parts of other protagonists. He’s part James Bond, Jason Bourne, Danny Ocean, Thomas Crown, Dominic Toretto and Marty McFly. He’s cool and suave, yet doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, but once he does, he tries to fix a situation that happened in the past, or the future, or both … maybe …

Confused yet?

Robert Pattinson is Neil, who helps Washington, but there is no connection between them, or is there? Pattinson comes across as a modern-day Q from the Bond films, but then becomes more like right-hand man Rusty Ryan from the "Oceans" trilogy. He seems to know more than we have been led to believe, so is he a good guy? Bad guy? Mole or figment?

As it turns out, Washington and Pattinson have to find some pieces of an ancient, wait, futuristic contraption that can destroy the world if put together. They aren’t the only ones looking for it; arms dealer Priya (Bollywood superstar Dimple Kapadia) and Russian warlord Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) are working together, or maybe not, to find and use it too.

Complicating matters is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who is the wife of Sator, and wants him dead, but is trapped because of her son, and expresses her feelings to Washington after she tried to have him killed.

So the intricate and convoluted plot is nothing new from Nolan. He loves to spin a yarn that is deeply cerebral and layered like a wedding cake. His nonlinear storytelling is his staple, which is designed to get the audience thinking and thinking, but this time he may have done too much of a flyby.

The concept of time travel and time movement is difficult to explain, mostly because – well, it is impossible. Time is a unit of measurement, not a destination, so we can’t travel to it. However, we can “pass” through it and Nolan explores the world of forward and backward time. He does give us a couple of rules (you can’t touch your “other” self and you can’t breathe like a normal human), but mostly leaves it up to the visuals to show what is going on.

And that is what makes the film so confusing. People are traveling forward and other people are traveling backwards, and some people are doing it at the same time. There is even a sequence where the spoken lines are backwards too, making it obvious that it is reversed time, but we have no idea what is being said because we can’t understand it because it is coming at us backwards.

“Tenet” is not without its strong points, however. The acting is very good. Washington shows his skills with grace and presence, much like his Oscar-winning father, Denzel. Pattinson is quite charming (no, I never did see “Twilight,” so I can’t reference Edward), and his subtle humor gives the film a bit of levity. Branagh, Debicki and Kapadia add a sense of believability to their respective characters, and what would a Nolan film be without Michael Caine? He makes a brief appearance as Crosby, but long enough to provide some information to Washington and the audience that helps for the middle of the film.

The action sequences are exciting, albeit confusing at the same time. They are shot with typical Nolan flair, and the forward, back, stop and pause effects are truly a work of art. The locations are breathtaking as we globe-trot with these characters highlighting some of the more beautiful places on our beautiful planet.

The two-and-a-half-hour film is directed by a master, but his story is so complex that multiple viewings are definitely necessary. This can be irritating for most viewers who just want to relax and enjoy a film on the big screen. Nolan does what has become his signature, allowing the audience to debate elements and themes, but he may have left a little too much out for us to feel a sense of understanding.

If time travel is what you are looking for, stay with Doc Brown and the flux capacitor, Bill and Ted and their phone booth, or even get into the hot tub. “Tenet,” with too many holes and not enough explanations, will leave you scratching your head.

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.

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