★★☆☆☆

Christopher Nolan’s films are so big, so hotly anticipated, that they form their own sort of gravitational pull, and cinema chains are hoping that the draw of Tenet will irresistibly compel viewers back into theatres. For all of Tenet’s innovative, ideas-led structure, however, it lacks the sort of emotional core that elevates such films into the status of a genuine classic.

At some point, some enterprising wag will develop a Tenet-ification app. By removing every pause for breath between lines of dialogue, and running the video at x1.5 speed, any film can be made to feel as restless and infuriating as the first hour of Nolan’s latest blockbuster. The master of cerebral action cinema is back, and whatever lessons were learnt about the triumph of the human spirit during the making of Dunkirk, they were swiftly forgotten for this new piece of filmic flimflammery.

The story follows (or is that…un-follows?) a CIA agent played by John David Washington. (The agent doesn’t have a name because, obviously, names are a bit old-fashioned and boring). The CIA agent played by John David Washington is alerted to a plot whereby a Russian oligarch is using plutonium to invert time. (Don’t ask how – it’s not worth worrying about). Naturally, if he inverts enough of time, then nothing will have ever happened, ever, which is a real blow for people who like things that have, at some stage, happened. Thus, he must be stopped, or is that…un-stopped?

If Nolan’s films have tended to trade in delightful cinematography and mind-bending action sequences at the expense of good writing and strong acting – and it’s not the case in all his films – then Tenet is really the apotheosis of style over substance. Obsessed with reverse chronology, temporal schemata, free ports, grandfather paradoxes and basically anything but the tiresome business of creating characters an audience vaguely cares about. The script is so desperate to prove how clever it is, so determined to force re-watches through its incomprehensibility, that it becomes deadened by a crushing weight of self-importance.

Filmmakers should want to mystify. They should want to break your heart, leave you speechless or have you desperate to discuss what just unfolded in the pub down the street. They shouldn’t want to convince you of how smart and daring they are. Tenet is a bit like the myth whereby NASA spent millions of dollars on a pen that could work in zero gravity when the Soviets just used a pencil. Nolan should re-learn how to use a pencil.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom