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Movie Guru: ‘Tenet’ a true Christopher Nolan film

"Tenet" is a movie about a secret agent embarking on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.
Warner Bros

Christopher Nolan is the carrot cake of the cinematic world.

When it comes to carrot cake, the quality of the cake itself isn’t what really determines whether or not you want to eat it. If you don’t like carrot cake, then even the best-made carrot cake in the world isn’t going to tempt you. And if you do like carrot cake, then even an average carrot cake is still going to end up tasting pretty good to you.

Whether or not you end up braving the movie theater for this weekend’s “Tenet” will depend entirely on how you feel about Christopher Nolan. The film leans heavily into several classic Nolan hallmarks — an obsession with time, world-building with a ton of complex technical detail, dramatic, mind-bending action scenes and twisty plots are all very much on display. There are also some notable problems — a script that regularly forgets about emotional development and a sound mix that often makes the dialogue hard to hear — but by this point that’s just as much part of Nolan’s brand as everything else. For good and for ill, his movies are a very specific flavor.

In his latest adventure, Nolan plucks a CIA agent from a seemingly fatal assignment and recruits him to a secret spy agency that’s meant to stop a threat they claim is bigger than nuclear war. Part of that threat is something they call “inversion,” which involves a long, complicated explanation involving the word “entropy.” For the audience, however, the major takeaway is that we get action scenes that involve things going both backward and forwards in time.

They are, as a rule, really cool action scenes. Most of Nolan’s love and attention seemed to go toward developing them, and the results offer all the complex spectacle Nolan fans could hope for. If you have been tempted to go back to your local movie theater, these scenes are the perfect time to do it. They’ll be worth watching no matter the size of the screen, but it’s only on a full-sized screen that they achieve their true grandeur.

It’s the rest of the movie where things get more complicated. There’s a lot of technical explanation about exactly what’s going on, and what I could hear of it did manage to pique my interest. With the sound mix the way it is, however, I didn’t hear enough to really get sucked in the way I did with “Inception.” One character advises another to “just feel” rather than try to think too hard about what’s happening, but feelings are a notable area where Nolan’s movies tend to stumble. Unless you’re “feeling” how incredible that last fight scene was, there’s not a lot here to work with.

As with most Nolan movies, the actors fight to give their characters the depth and personality the script forgot. Elizabeth Debicki manages the best at giving her character real emotional depth, but the script doesn’t give her much agency. Robert Pattinson does wonders in the personality department, making Neil engaging enough that you miss him every time he’s offscreen, and John David Washington provides some nice flickers of humor. Kenneth Branagh chews scenery like he’s starving to death, but here it’s oddly delightful to watch.

Is this the best Christopher Nolan movie ever made? Absolutely not. Is it going to scratch that Christopher Nolan-shaped itch you’ve had ever since you first saw the trailers? Absolutely.

And with either Christopher Nolan or carrot cake, sometimes that’s enough.

‘Tenet’

  • Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language
  • Written and directed by: Christopher Nolan
  • Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Michael Caine and more
  • Grade: Three stars (out of four)

Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at themovieguruslc@gmail.com


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