Forgive me if start talking about Tenet, the eleventh feature directed by Christopher Nolan (and, I am tempted to say, the most Nolan-ish of them all), by simply quoting what I had to say ten years ago about Inception, the seventh Nolan feature:

"What some critics have praise/assailed as 'confusing' in [Tenet] is really just a sign that you need to pay attention. There's not one moment in the film... that Nolan is deliberately obfuscating the narrative... The story is blissfully straightforward: first, the rules are clearly laid out, then we see examples proving rules, then we are given a test run of the rules at their most absurdly convoluted. But if you don't leave the theater to pee or buy fresh popcorn, it's unimaginable that you can't follow along, if you're willing to try."

I say none of this to be a jackass, but to offer a comforting pat on the shoulder to those spooked by the film's emerging reputation as the most opaque movie you could even imagine sitting down to watch. There's nothing to be scared about. It's completely possible to understand Tenet just by watching it. Really, Nolan's thing is, as it was in Inception, almost a bit boring in its mechanical approach to storytelling: he lets us know early on what he's going to do, then he does it. He even does all the things Hollywood movies do, using close-ups and insert shots to smack us on the face and say "see that? That thing matters. Remember that you saw that". If there's anything especially challenging about the storytelling here, I think it's that Nolan's script doesn't tend to repeat itself, so if you missed an explanation the first time, the film isn't going to help you out.

The difference between Tenet and Inception, so far as that goes, is that I do think Inception was mostly about explaining ideas and trying to blow our minds, and its cool visuals are somewhat secondary to that, while Tenet mostly has cool visual ideas and the ideas are largely secondary to its popcorn movie spectacle. This is also the reason that I think Tenet is the better of the two films, or at least the more enjoyable (and, I suspect, the more rewatchable: Inception is, I think, the Nolan film to suffer the most on subsequent viewings, with its endless acres of exposition in the first half). Basically, it's a James Bond film with a bachelor's degree in physics, and it has the decency to be an extremely good James Bond film, on top of it.

There's absolutely no way to talk about what works and doesn't in Tenet, or pretty much anything else, without going into things that happen in the film's second half, so I regret to say that the rest of the review is going to be full of SPOILERS, though more at the level of scenario than detail. Still, if you want to go into it ice cold, now's the time to say goodbye. Still here? Okay, so the first thing we should think about with Tenet is that it's a story about storytelling mechanics. Formally speaking, the film's lead character (played by John David Washington), a deep cover CIA operative whom the world supposes to be dead, has no name, but he's credited as "The Protagonist". This is a reference to an ongoing series of conversations with one of the film's various People Who Knows More Than She Shows, a shadowy arms dealer named Priya (Dimple Kapadia), who shakes things up by using literary theory rather than pseudoscience to explain what the hell is going on, and these conversations are also where Nolan pretty much gives the game away. The characters within the film don't even talk like they exist in a world: they talk like they're cogs in a narrative. That may or may not be obnoxious to any given viewer and I don't begrudged that response, but it is what the film wants to do, and I for one find it very gratifying that Nolan has decided to stop pretending that he wants to make movies about psychological figures with distinct personalities, and has (as he did in Dunkirk) embraced the fact that his best strength is in making movies about the little humanoid objects who make the plot go.

With that in mind, Tenet is largely interested how time works in narrative. The basic "thing" in the film is that there is a pseudo-magic technology from the distant future that allows individual physical objects - this includes people - to reverse the direction they're moving in time. It's not time travel per se: there are only two options, backwards or forwards. The object that has been reversed experience the flow of time normally: a second is still a second, even if it's a second going backwards. And this is basically the game: over the course of 150 minutes (the running time is by far the biggest problem with the movie), the protagonist launches forward through what feels, to us and him, like a wearying non-stop chase after the bad guy with a doomsday weapon - the film makes a bit of a joke out of refusing to specify at first what the weapon is, and I absolutely do not think it's to the film's credit that it eventually explains it - but is, objectively and from the perspective of the world, a whole lot of looping back and forth in time over the course of not much more than a week. Insofar as the movie has a real philosophical angle, I think it has more to do with that, and less to do with theoretical physics: playing around with subjectivity and objectivity in how we experience the flow of time.

The film wants us to notice the inherent weirdness of its concept, and the fact that this feels simultaneously like a pretty by-the-books thriller, while also completely up-ending the basic cause-and-effect flow of plot events (we see, numerous times, an event in the film's first half that will later be caused by the protagonist's actions in the  the second half - I want to go so far as to say that every plot event of consequence in the first half is the effect of a cause we see in the second half, but that would of course be hyperbole of the rottenest sort). The result is is basically a completely normal spy thriller, in which a car chase leads to the villain's first base which leads to the heroes' first setback which leads to a new plan, etc., but made weird by laying bare the chain of narrative causality. And all it takes to do that is for the film to announce, over and over again, "right now you don't know what's going on, but later on you will, so remember that this is happening".

This doesn't make it a puzzle, exactly; the feeling specifically not "here are the pieces, assemble them", as in e.g. Primer, or even Nolan's own Memento (which is, after Inception, this films' most obvious parent), but "here are the gaps, and you just have to trust that the pieces will fit in when I hand them to you". For the other thing about Tenet is that, despite everything I've said about it so far, it's really not a very thinking-heavy movie at all: this is, in fact, the closest thing Nolan has yet made to a flat-out thrill ride, hurtling us through the film at top speed - editor Jennifer Lame, a newcomer to Nolan's sphere of collaborators, does some tremendously exciting and shocking things in tightening up individual cuts so much that it's slightly uncomfortable, especially during scene transitions, and this give the whole movie the feeling that it's running - and using his convoluted time-loop concept mostly as an excuse to stage some very cool-looking setpieces. If this is shallow, then it is shallow; it's also the most fun that any of this largely dour director's films have been in a great many years. For one thing, it has the goods as a visual spectacle: using one of the most ancient tools in the special effects artist's toolkit, Running The Film Backwards, Nolan and company have made one of the only popcorn movies in recent years that actually feels like it's doing something new. Backwards movment is strange, and that's all there is to it; backwards movement of events that cost tens of thousands of dollars to stage, and have been captured in gorgeously glassy clarity by the great cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema on top-of-the-line digital IMAX camera, now that's just silly, wonderful nonsense. Especially when forward movement is composited in with the backwards footage creating a small little uncanny effect that doesn't even necessarily  leap up and say "hey, I'm fucking with your head!", but it fucks with your head nonetheless. This isn't the only way in which the visuals take over the narrative conceit, though it is the most aggressive and obvious. The compositions are doing a lot of it too, as they are often staged with back-and-forth elements in them, such as two trains going opposite directions on opposite sides of the frame, in a few early scenes. Or the way that the A version of a scene will favor compositions weighted on one side of the frame, while the B version of that scene (that is, when we see it again in reverse) favors compositions weighted on the other side.

That the film is well-crafted comes as no surprise, but even so, the craft is particularly elegant. In addition to the cinematography, we get some clever use of backwards-and-forwards movement in the score by Ludwig Göransson, in what is certainly my favorite work of his to date: by simply using backmasking as one of several layers in the music, he creates an audio analogue to the backwards footage, helping to guide our attention to where, exactly the world is running in two directions. I might even be willing to say that the music, more than visuals, is what primarily serves as a cue to unlocking which direction the film's momentum is moving (another trick the film borrows from Inception).

It's all very beautiful and exciting and kinetic; the human element is absolutely an afterthought, though again, given that Nolan isn't very good at the human element, I'm not complaining. Anyway, the film has a cast who end up being very good for it, anyway; Washington is a great lead actor for this approach to the material, doing the apparently simple work of simply standing around and watching everything happen (for someone identified as "the protagonist", the protagonist isn't very active), and letting us watch him watch - but how many effects-heavy films have foundered on a bad version of this performance? Movies like this desperately need somebody who can seem like a solid human core to the drama without getting anything to actually do, and I am honestly a little awestruck by how good Washington is at showing his character's moods and feelings, thereby creating space for the audience to have feelings of our own, despite being given literally not one moment of interiority in the whole script. It's easy to overlook, given how much more overt the rest of the main cast is: Robert Pattinson as the colorfully smarmy, morally-grey sidekick who may be a villain, Elizabeth Debicki (who gets the most fully-developed female role in any Nolan film ever, an inordinately low bar to clear) as the anguished and pissed-off wife of the main villain, played by Kenneth Branagh in full Respectable British Ham mode, and with a Russian accent almost as ludicrous a the one he barfed up in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. They're all great Debicki and Pattinson are both really great, pouring personalities and specificity into Nolan's stock figures, but it also kind of feels like the film wants to make sure we notice they're great; it feels like it wants us to not think about how much work Washington is doing, especially since he's doing it so invisibly.

At any rate, the cast is enough to keep the film from becoming a completely hollow exercise, giving the film stakes, humor, and a human-sized perspective on its convoluted shenanigans. The shenanigans are definitely the draw, though, and they're generally pretty great: the sight of explosions and other popcorn movie commonplaces moving in reverse never gets old, and Göransson's score successfully argues that they are especially exciting and stunning explosions, at that. Again, it is first and above all a spy thriller: a spy thriller with a lot of fancy-ass window dressing, but ultimately its pleasures are the pleasures of the chase followed by the fistfight, interspersed with scenes of craftily sneaking into secure locations. And even without ironing out its back-and-forth spiraling, those pleasures are pretty robust.