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Tenet on HBO Max: Christopher Nolan time-twister isn't as clever as it thinks

Spoiler-free: Nolan's latest movie is streaming now for no extra fee.

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John David Washington's word is bond in Tenet.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures

It's fitting that Christopher Nolan's stylish action movie Tenet is on HBO Max, because it's a story about time rewinding -- and now that it's streaming you can rewind the action to see what the heck is going on.

Tenet is available to subscribers of the HBO streaming service with no extra fee. The film is as well known for its off-screen drama, having been a test case for the cinema industry during the Coronavirus pandemic. A muted theatrical run last summer brought in about $130 million internationally and around $20 million from Labor Day weekend in the US. And Nolan was one of the vocal critics of the decision by film studio Warner Bros to quickly drop blockbusters like Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984 and more for online streaming

Ironically, Tenet begins in a crowded theater, an incongruous sight in these strange times. Characters also spend a lot of time in face-obscuring masks, which feels very in tune with the times -- except covering the faces of the stars doesn't exactly help you follow the complex plot. 

The good news is the movie is machine-crafted for watching in different formats. Seeing it on the big screen gave you an eyeful of the inventively effects-driven spectacle. And streaming means you can enjoy it with the aid of the rewind button. And subtitles. And a notebook. And several lengthy Reddit threads.

Playing a nameless super-spy, John David Washington is insanely watchable as he swaggers from one fight to the next, doing chin-ups dangling over sheer drops and going through more outfits than an issue of Esquire. He's the Black James Bond of this shadowy world, barely wrinkling his three-piece suit while taking out bullet-headed Russian mercs with whatever kitchen implements come to hand. He's not the guy they send to negotiate, but he is the guy they send to get things done and look good doing it.

Speaking of 007, the shadow of other superspies inevitably hangs over Tenet. A globetrotting adventure full of beautiful people doing ugly things, Tenet's plot is built on the classic Bond film formula with a dash of Thunderball, a pinch of The Man With the Golden Gun, a garnish of Skyfall. But Nolan carries it off with such verve, the real James Bond has a fight on his hands when he returns in November's No Time to Die.

For any other director, Tenet might feel like an audition for the famous spy franchise, but Dr. No-Lan doesn't need to prove he can make a Bond film. Instead, he's proven there's nothing like a Christopher Nolan film. When it comes to smart and spectacular blockbusters with a sci-fi twist, nobody does it better. Which does mean Nolan has set a high bar for himself, and Tenet has to stretch to better the very similar Inception.

Yes, Tenet is pretty complicated. Even before things get all timey-wimey, you need to make an effort to keep track of what's going on (check out our spoiler-heavy guide to the ending and answers to all your WTF questions). The mission begins with a subplot about art forgery that mostly involves people sitting in dimly lit dining rooms reeling off endless names and geopolitical complexities over their Michelin-starred meals. Call it lunchsposition. We never find out exactly what Michael Caine has ordered during his restaurant-based cameo, but as he chews over a barely comprehensible speech about secret Soviet cities, you realize it was probably the word salad.

Don't worry if you don't remember all the details, however. There's a good guy and a bad guy and a woman caught between them, and a thing everyone wants to get before it destroys the world. The rest is just nice to look at. That's kind of all it is, though. 

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Playing a brittle abused wife in globetrotting adventure Tenet, Elizabeth Debicki gives a glimpse of what's in store when she plays Princess Diana in the next season of The Crown. 

Warner Bros

The handsome cast may singe the screen with their star presence, but they don't have much else to work with. The finely tailored outfits and gnomic one-liners don't hide much depth, which is a problem as the run time ticks by and you're stuck without much emotional connection to these people for a bum-numbing two and a half hours. 

It's a bit redundant at this point to point out Nolan's lack of interest in depicting three-dimensional people when he can play around with flashy time changes instead, but that is Tenet's biggest problem. Nolan's tendency to create cinematic cyphers instead of characters came to a head in Dunkirk, in which he deliberately told us nothing about the characters and instead used his filmmaking skill to place you next to them in their horrifying situation. Those blank characters gave Dunkirk an element of "what would you do?" but that was a real-life war story; you don't get that same viewer identification with a flashy action movie about tailored time travelers. 

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Robert Pattinson drifts through the world of the carelessly wealthy with a panache that bodes well for his upcoming turn as Bruce Wayne in The Batman. 

Melinda Sue Gordon

That means the effects-based time-twisting gimmick has to do all the heavy lifting. And the fact is, Tenet's time-bending conceit just isn't as gripping as the retina-popping gimmick of Nolan's earlier brainy blockbuster Inception.

Sadly, similarities to Inception come with diminishing returns. If the Dark Knight Rises was The Dark Knight only not as good, Tenet is basically Inception only not as good. The dreamscapes of that 2010 blockbuster had layers and rules that built nerve-shredding suspense and allowed for jaw-dropping innovation, like the famous scene where a hotel goes into free fall and a fight sequence literally climbs the walls. 

Tenet doesn't hit that wow factor, perhaps because the gimmick's rules and restrictions aren't as clearly drawn. For example, the first time-based fight scene is exciting, but it's not entirely clear who's doing what or how the fighters can use this world's different rules to do cool stuff you won't see anywhere else. And without giving too much away, the time-bending gimmick spikes the tension at crucial moments. It might make for a chin-stroking discussion about inevitability and free will, but you don't want to feel like the characters are going through the motions.

John David Washington is the man of the hour and Nolan has constructed another thriller with the precision of a Swiss watch. But if you're not ready to clock back into theaters yet, you've got all the time in the world to see Tenet elsewhere.