‘Tenet’: What The Critics Are Saying


Warner Bros. Pictures
The reviews for the latest Christopher Nolan film have arrived.
After months of teases, mysterious images trailers and release date changes, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has finally been viewed by critics ahead of its release to areas of the world where theaters are open in the age of COVID-19. Is the sci-fi spy thriller starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki the savior of the theatergoing experience that many wanted it to be? Early reviews suggest that the answer to that depends on what audiences are looking for — and whether they want to feel something from the experience, as well.

“Like Xanax, Tenet’s title is a palindrome, spelled the same way backward and forward. That’s fitting for a story about technology that can ‘invert’ people and things, making them capable of going back in time. And like Xanax, Tenet makes you feel floaty, mesmerized and, to an extent, soothed by its spectacle — but also so cloudy in the head that the only option is to relax and let it blow your mind around like a balloon, buffeted by seaside breezes and hot air,” writes The Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin, who sums the movie up as “a chilly, cerebral film — easy to admire, especially since it’s so rich in audacity and originality, but almost impossible to love, lacking as it is in a certain humanity.”

Tenet‘s scale is a delight, and the gorgeous sights and sounds in lovely locations like Rome and India inspire awe–this movie shines on the big-screen,” writes Gamespot’s Eddie Makuch, who similarly struggled to emotionally connect with the movie. “However, the ‘end of the world’ plot doesn’t resonate as much as Nolan’s earlier, more character-focused and intimate stories of people and places. I never fully understood the reason behind the high stakes or why (Kenneth) Branagh’s character so vehemently wanted to end the world. Nevertheless, Tenet offers a story that is engaging and exciting to watch as the layers peel back and the mysteries of the narrative unfold.”

The “exciting to watch” point is one repeated by multiple critics, with the sheer spectacle of Nolan’s latest movie agreed to be one of the movie’s primary draws. As The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey puts it, “It’s the rare action film where the characters don’t just say the world will end if they fail in their mission — you feel it, too. Ludwig Göransson (stepping into the shoes of Nolan’s usual collaborator, Hans Zimmer) creates a score built of low, anxious vibrations that pulsate through even the most incidental of scenes. Most of the colors we see are familiar to Nolan’s worlds — yellow tones make everything feel like it’s been lightly coated in toxic smog — though one particular, showstopping scene is bathed in hellish reds and blues. The action scenes, all carefully shaped around the idea of ‘inverted time,’ are coordinated to look like some kind of strange, modernist ballet.”

Tenet’s real engine is its action sequences, in particular one involving a cargo plane and another multi-car chase,” agrees Catherine Shoard from The Guardian, although with reservations. “They’re good; they have to be. As the eagle-eyed have pointed out, Tenet is a palindrome, which means it’s possible you’ll see some of the same scenes twice. Yet, for all the nifty bits of reverse chronology, there’s little that lingers in the imagination in the same way as Inception or even Interstellar’s showcase bendy business.”

“It’s an undeniable joy to return to the big screen with a picture which has been shot and edited on film, which moves between shiny locations and adroitly-executed set pieces so effortlessly and so expensively,” writes Fionnuala Halligan from Screen International. “It’s also obvious that Nolan, who wrote, directed and co-produced with his partner Emma Thomas and his regular team of collaborators knows precisely what’s going on here, after all he’s spent years constructing his own Matrix. It’s a hopelessly convoluted watch, though, and Warners must be hoping for the kind of repeat viewing which Nolan fans are only too happy to indulge. Feeling it, is, indeed, the best option: although staying in sync with a film with such a disrupted and repeatedly altered internal logic proves to be quite a challenge.”

That frustration is shared by IndieWire’s Mike McCahill, who asks, “What kind of picture is [Tenet]? Big, certainly: IMAX-scaled, and a hefty 150 minutes even after a visibly ruthless edit. It’s clever, too — yes, the palindromic title has some narrative correlation — albeit in an exhausting, rather joyless way. As second comings go, Tenet is like witnessing a Sermon on the Mount preached by a savior who speaks exclusively in dour, drawn-out riddles. Any awe is flattened by follow-up questions.”

“No doubt some big brains will be fine with all of this — and will be able to follow the plot — but for the rest of us, Tenet is often a baffling, bewildering ride. Does it matter? Kind of,” writes Alex Godfrey for Empire. “It’s hard to completely invest in things that go completely over your head. The broad strokes are there, and it’s consistently compelling, but it’s a little taxing. No doubt it all makes sense on Nolan’s hard drive, but it’s difficult to emotionally engage with it all.”

Perhaps Tenet should be considered an achievement rather than an accomplishment, given the incomplete nature of its success. For something that asks the audience to feel rather than understand, it’s more than a little ironic that Tenet turns out to be a movie that’s more admirable than lovable. Perhaps that’s because Nolan is aiming for something different than the audience — or, at least, the critics — were anticipating, as IGN’s Matt Purslow suggests.

“In a world where blockbuster cinema is dominated by franchises and sequels, it serves as an accomplished demonstration of the pleasures of unconnected and non-serialised original storytelling. But while it does tread new ground, Tenet is the ‘safest’ film from Christopher Nolan in some years,” Purslow writes. “Following two recent ambitious movies from the filmmaker, Tenet feels a little conservative, as if Nolan’s style is a franchise rather than a framework.”