Tenet (2020) struggles to establish its pledge, let alone deliver its prestige.

Opening with the kind of crowded theatre scene that “Tenet” itself yearns to bring back to the world’s COVID-starved cinemas, Christopher Nolan’s latest high concept blockbuster sets out its mission statement right out of the gate with a relentlessly kinetic action sequence design to grab the auditorium by the throat.

After barely surviving a dangerous mission, a CIA operative is given a new mission: an assignment which consists of a gesture and a single word – Tenet. With nothing less than the fate of the world at stake, the agent must navigate a hidden shadow world of mysterious technology and impossible events.

Tenet’s central premise isn’t that difficult to follow, it’s just that it works really, really hard to be obscure and gnomic during its first hour, an hour which suffers from an excruciating smugness of dialogue. Each and every line feels like it’s trying to one-up the line before it, It’s so delighted with its own cleverness and it wants you to know it. It’s a necessary artifice because the fundamental idea behind the movie isn’t that tricky to explain – after all, “Red Dwarf” managed to do it in less than thirty minutes in the opening episode of its third season and even have a few laughs while doing it. Then again, without the suffocating self-satisfaction of Nolan’s auteur-erotic asphyxiation, it might be harder to disguise that this, more than any of his other films, is an exercise in style over substance.

If you strip away the deliberate obfuscation and the sci-fi trappings, what you’re left with would actually make a really good Bond movie – certainly better than the soap-opera saga that’s plagued Daniel Craig’s time as 007 – as the unnamed Protagonist trots the globe to try and track down some radioactive isotope that Kenneth Branagh’s scenery chewing Russian oligarch requires to complete his scheme for world domination. Along the way, Nolan – either by accident or tongue-in-cheek design – manages to homage not only “Top Secret!” but also “Airplane!” – as he mixes up a cocktail of espionage and archly complex heist logistics. Unfortunately, Ludwig Göransson’s overpowering and intrusive score is more likely to leave audiences shaken, not stirred.

Aware of the flimsiness of the film’s pretence of complexity, Nolan struggles to balance the action and exposition, sacrificing character in order to give them both more room. The breakneck pacing superficially makes it seem much more complicated than “Inception” but in reality “Inception” was simply more polished than “Tenet” is. The action sequences are reliably slick and well-executed but there’s nothing here that you won’t have seen before and even Hoyte Van Hoytema’s usually impeccable cinematography seems uninspired by Nolan’s inexplicable embracing of a drab and dull beige palette. It’s also ironic that for a film that’s explicitly about the flow of time, it’s not actually that good at articulating the passing of time in and of itself.

In amongst all this whelming filmmaking, there are thankfully some strong individual performances. John David Washington is superb as the proxy-Bond ‘Protagonist’ while Robert Pattinson is a delight as the transatlantic Felix Leiter equivalent. Debicki makes for an impressive leading lady and Branagh is a formidable villain.

Technically, of course, it’s a tremendously impressive piece of work and no doubt countless hours of effort and preparation went into the scenes involving time moving both forwards and backwards but all too often the result is either a little goofy looking or filmed in such a way that it’s sometimes frustrating to try to follow what’s happening in the action scenes, especially the hand to hand combat and a big action set-piece which resembles nothing more than a lavish corporate paintball event.

“Tenet” feels like it’s two or three drafts away from greatness and twenty to thirty minutes too long as it insists on showing you events which you’ve already seen from a different perspective because the film is utterly convinced it’s smarter than you. While it may reward repeated viewings, there’s an equal and opposite risk that the more you watch, the more you’ll start to see there’s something not quite right about these emperor’s new clothes.