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Christopher Nolan's Time-Bending Thriller 'Tenet' Reviewed

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Hollywood has been saying for months that Christopher Nolan's time-bending thriller "Tenet" is the film that will bring audiences back to movie theaters. It has a title that's a palindrome, spelled the same in reverse, and a trailer suggesting the plot moves forward and backward, so the movie seems to provide a lot to think about. And critic Bob Mondello says now that most of the country can finally see "Tenet," they can argue about it, too.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I thought they said "Tenet" was going to be complicated. I mean, come on. I'm no genius, and within the first five minutes, I could tell you exactly what - I'm kidding, I'm kidding. "Tenet" is so complicated I couldn't spoil this movie even if I wanted to.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Andrei Sator) All I have for you is a word - tenet.

MONDELLO: Technically it's an old-fashioned spy flick with a new-fashioned gimmick, as the protagonist, who's called The Protagonist, discovers when he arrives at a headquarters he may or may not have been to before and meets a woman who explains that she can't explain anything, but she can show him something. They go to a firing range where there's a pockmarked concrete target and a gun with an empty magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

CLEMENCE POESY: (As Barbara) Aim it, and pull the trigger.

MONDELLO: One of the pockmarks on the target seems to heal itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) Why does it feel so strange?

POESY: (As Barbara) You're not shooting the bullet. You're catching it.

MONDELLO: He opens the empty magazine, and sure enough, there's a bullet inside. And there appear to be other objects that also move backwards through time while the rest of us are moving forward - lots of them, a whole warehouse full.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) What do you think we're seeing?

POESY: (As Barbara) The detritus of a coming war.

MONDELLO: Ah, the light glimmers. These objects have been sent back from the future, maybe. This occurs to someone else, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Neil) Time travel.

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) No - inversion.

MONDELLO: OK, back to square one. But remember I said "Tenet" was an old-fashioned spy flick? Well, that's something you can hang on to for dear life as the film globetrots...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) Well, try and keep up.

MONDELLO: ...To Mumbai and Russia, London and Ukraine for action sequences that are not, strictly speaking, sequential, but that are loud, pulse-pounding and thrill-packed, many of them involving what one character calls technology that can reverse an object's entropy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Don't try to understand it. Feel it.

MONDELLO: Good advice for The Protagonist and for the viewer as we watch him dodging cars that are un-crashing on freeways. Writer-director Christopher Nolan may be dealing with concepts...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) This reversing the flow of time...

MONDELLO: ...That are reality-shredding.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) ...Doesn't us being here now mean it never happened?

MONDELLO: But he's a big believer in reality on-screen - no computer effects if he can manage an effect in-camera. So protagonist John David Washington and his co-star Robert Pattinson learned to un-throw punches and even talk backwards. And when the film goes for a big set piece...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET'")

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) You want to crash a plane?

PATTINSON: (As Neil) Well, not from the air. Don't be so dramatic.

MONDELLO: ...The producers acquired an actual jet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) Well, how big a plane?

PATTINSON: (As Neil) That part is a little dramatic.

MONDELLO: A 747 - because if you're going to do something in a Christopher Nolan film, you do it big and loud and possibly, when it comes to dialogue, not entirely comprehensibly, with people getting drowned out by explosions or Ludwig Goransson's seat-rocking score.

Now, in fairness to the dialogue, I saw "Tenet" under unusual circumstances - socially distanced and wearing a mask, like everyone will, with just six other critics in an IMAX auditorium that can seat almost 500. That's great for safety during a pandemic but may have mucked with the acoustics a bit. Still, Nolan wants "Tenet" seen in theaters. And presumably, his fans will want to see it in theaters - easy to see why. It is huge. And even when it doesn't make a huge amount of sense, it's frenetically entertaining, not to mention challenging - a bit like solving a Rubik's Cube and a physics paradox while doing gymnastics. After six months in lockdown, that might be just the ticket.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "TENET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.