When you watch a movie by writer-director Christopher Nolan, you find either time travel, explosions, or Michael Caine. Nolan provides all three in his newest release called “Tenet.”
Nolan’s choice of title could reflect the word’s meaning as a “strongly held principle,” or it could have allure as a palindrome that uses the same letters backward and forward. Or, perhaps it just sounds cool, like the number of digits people with two hands display. Whatever the case, “Tenet” falls into the Nolan oeuvre that asks viewers to pay close attention. He avoids formula and rules, exploring the fascination he repeatedly shows for ironies and conundrums, a conceit he displayed with his first big hit “Memento” and one infuses his “Batman/Dark Knight” series, pouring into his other hits like “Inception” and “Intergalactic.” Cerebral as well as popular, these films defy plotting guidelines because they focus on characters who generate little sympathy.
These protagonists face challenging situations without ever inspiring huggable warmth. This holds true for the lead in “Tenet.” While headliner John David Washington demonstrates impressive action hero looks and physicality, his protagonist—the name of his character—remains a cipher. Washington makes a strong protagonist, with promising potential for superstar status. The script gives more acting opportunities to co-stars Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh, letting Washington’s protagonist reflect viewers in a state of confusion, not quite sure what just happened or why.
The unraveling process gets complicated, and dialogue asks, “does your head hurt yet?” as mind-bending concepts emerge. And yes, my head hurt, but more from a landslide of ear challenging sounds. Dialogue often submerges under detonating explosions, no surprise from Nolan, whose massive hits give him the budget to go ballistic; no duds exist as he infuses his worlds with a cacophony of sights and sounds. Never slowing down to explain much or allow a passive moment, “Tenet” almost requires a second or third viewing, all part of the Nolan pattern that creates moneymaking blockbusters.
Robin Holabird is a former film commissioner for the Nevada Film Office and a longtime KUNR entertainment reviewer. Catch her commentary Fridays during Fresh Air, between 2:37 and 2:47 p.m.