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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Tenet is a spy action movie directed by Christopher Nolan that stars John David Washington as an international secret agent who must save the world from World War III. The film opens with terrorist activity at a concert, and there's a lot of action fighting throughout the film. It's mostly bloodless, but there are guns, shootings, explosions, crashes, and beatings. Domestic abuse and child custody are a big part of the storyline. Strong language is infrequent, so when it comes, it's noticeable: Expect to hear "f--king bitch," "s--t," etc. Characters drink socially (wine, vodka), and a suicide pill makes an appearance. Like many of Nolan's films, Tenet explores the concept of time, and it is complicated: This isn't a movie where you can check your brain at the door. Save time to talk about it afterward, because it's hard to catch all of the information -- often because audio involving key details is muffled by masks, walkie-talkies, etc. But the ultimate message is one about being the hero of your own story, and characters demonstrate teamwork, perseverance, courage, curiosity, integrity, and empathy. Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki co-star.
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What's the story?
In TENET, a CIA operative known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is given a secret mission to prevent World War III. As he moves deep into the world of international espionage and arms dealers, he investigates how a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) came into possession of a time-based weapon of the future. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, and Clémence Poésy co-star.
Is it any good?
Cinematic master of time manipulation Christopher Nolan has created the Rubik's Cube of time travel movies: It's mentally exhausting, and only the best of us will get all the pieces to line up. Many time travel fans love to study and analyze the genre's fictional rules, and this offering is juicy: It will likely become the template to compare others against. Nolan expects a high level of intelligence from his viewers -- Tenet dips into physics and quantum theory -- and he doesn't waste time explaining anything clearly. It's hard not to feel dumb, and you have to hang on to every word. And, even then, it can be hard to understand what the characters are saying when they're wearing gas masks or speaking through devices (a technique that's now officially a Nolanism). While much of the movie is a whirlwind of "what?," the ending suggests that much of the complexity isn't as relevant to the overall point. You can enjoy it at the level of your choosing: If you want to crunch around in the minutiae, there's ample material, but if you want to jump to the takeaway, then it plays much more like a James Bond movie with a lot of complicated dialogue. It definitely sets up the possibility of a sequel, and it seems like the detail dump is meant to entice viewers to hit up theaters again and again.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and the production values are magnificent. Nolan is a top-notch world builder, and, as we know from Inception, a world destroyer/rebuilder and environment flipper. Similar viscerally exciting special effects and design exist in Tenet. How certain scenes come together could stand next to Stonehenge as a Wonder of the World. Other than that pesky sound mixing, the film exists as a precious work of modern art that the viewer experiences from the inside. And the not-so-subtle message that comes with naming the lead character The Protagonist is worthwhile: You are the hero of your own story.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the violence in Tenet compares to what they've seen in other action movies. Does the fact that it's not especially bloody or gory affect your reaction? What's the impact of media violence on kids?
Nolan has received criticism for using his female characters to propel a man's story forward. Do you think he overcomes that critique here?
What are the rules of time travel in Tenet and other movies? How does that compare to what scientists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein suggest could be possible? Why do you think filmmakers -- and audiences -- enjoy this genre?
How does the lack of profanity in most of the movie affect the impact of hearing it when it is used?
- In theaters: September 3, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: December 15, 2020
- Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Adventures, Great Boy Role Models
- Character strengths: Courage, Curiosity, Integrity, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 150 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: violence and intense action
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award
- Last updated: May 17, 2021
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