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When Christopher Nolan plunged into a dream, within a dream, within a dream in Inception, it was hard to picture what he could do to top himself? Kill Batman (The Dark Knight Rises)? A tsunami in space (Interstellar)? A time-travel thriller is Nolan’s next big idea, which he pulls off beautifully in Tenet, a monumental movie achievement that visually at least, lives up to the hype.

On a massive Imax screen, the film swallows you whole, and drops you in the middle of the action– in the past, present and future. Nolan puts you in the shoes of John David Washington’s “The Protagonist,” and leaves our hero unnamed because he is the audience’s point of view in this time-hopping adventure.

The Protagonist’s mission? To save the world from a global pandemic. If that sounds like what Nolan himself is doing with Tenet, that’s because it is. Off screen, the movie shoulders the load of multiplex-rescuing, world-saving expectations. As the first movie to re-open movie theaters since the pandemic began, Tenet is the event theater chains hope to be big enough, bold enough, exciting enough to get people back in theaters. It’s certainly big enough, with a 250 million dollar budget from Warner Brothers.

Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have crafted a movie that places us in a heightened reality, shooting with Imax cameras on 70mm film. Everything about Tenet is larger and realer, with images so clear they could have been wiped by Windex. Nolan eschews computer effects, striving for authenticity, even if it means crashing a plane into a building or filming the opening sequence in Ukraine.

At an opera house in Kyiv, just as the conductor is raising his baton, a barrage of terrorists take the stage. Outside, a group of CIA agents wait for a signal. They pick a handful of agents to go inside, and one among them (The Protagonist) maneuvers to save a man on the balcony, who greets him with a coded phrase, “we live in a twilight world.” Moments later, a bullet reverses out of a seat, the wood around the bullet-hole falling back into place. Huh? That’s not normal. Then again, nothing in Tenet is.

The Protagonist is then released from the CIA and enlisted by another organization. The mission is known as Tenet, though it might as well be called “Mission Impossible to Understand.” It turns out that the future has been sending objects to the present. “We think it’s a kind of inverse radiation,” a scientist (Clemence Poesy) explains. She goes on to show him a gun that sucks bullets out of the target and into the chamber. Not only do we see bullets go backwards, but also smoke, cars, characters and explosions. Nolan likes doing stuff like that. In Inception, when the hallway revolves in Cillian Murphy’s dream, it’s visually dazzling. The metaphysical stuff in Tenet is even brainier.

The best sequence occurs when a car flips backwards motion during a highway chase. It’s the blockbuster visual moment of the year, earning audible gasps at the showing I attended in San Diego, where theaters have re-opened at 10 percent capacity. There were 20 of us in a 500 seat auditorium, and at least five people walked out, noticeably during exposition dumps about radium (or is it plutonium?), time-travel and time inversion.

Suffice to say, the story is hard to follow–a bit like solving a Rubix Cube while running a marathon– backwards. What saves it is Nolan’s action, which is dedicated to James Bond movies. Indeed, take away the time travel gimmick and what you have left is 007 archetypes: the spy (The Protagonist), his partner-in-crime (Robert Pattinson), a Bond girl (Elizabeth Debecki), and a Bond villain (Kenneth Branagh), who is basically DR.

But Tenet is so much more than a big budget spy flick; it’s a daring, surprising and entirely original piece of work, reverent in its spectacle and haunting in its mesmerizing, dreamlike form. It’s the kind of film where you wonder: is this real? And when the spell breaks, and the credits roll, it’s almost like waking from a dream, within a dream, within a dream.

Unlike other films reviewed by LA Weekly the past few months, Tenet is only in theaters, not available digitally. With LA County movie theaters still closed, you’ll have to go to nearby San Diego as our critic did or -as of this weekend- Orange County theaters, which have been allowed to re-open this weekend. Click here to see the closest theaters near you.