Tenet Movie Reviews Divided on Time-Bending Plot and Ambition

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet reviews are rolling in, and they’re as wide-ranging as his IMAX scope.

John David Washington in Tenet
Photo: Warner Bros.

The first wave of reviews is in for the most anticipated and mysterious release of 2020. While movigoers are still pleasantly unspoiled on just what exactly Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is about, or even what its title means, initial critical consensus is emerging less than a week out from the film’s international debut in markets that include the UK and other parts of Europe and Asia.

Depending on who you ask, the opinion ranges from this is a fine piece of eye-candy and Nolan brain-teasing to it’s evidence Nolan has devolved into self-parody. Intriguingly, all seem to agree that it not Nolan’s “masterpiece.”

Our own UK editor Rosie Fletcher was satisfied overall with the film’s visual wonder and audacity, even if she found it among the chillier and more impenetrable films Nolan’s made.

“When Tenet is at its best it’s frankly breathtaking and it’s what Nolan excels at – showing you things you have never seen, and later, without spoilers, showing you things you have seen but turning them on their heads so they become completely new. At points there are moments that feel akin to the first time audiences witnessed ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix, they are that wonderful… [but] Tenet’s stakes are too high, perhaps, to really have any emotional impact – the end of the world as we know it, even during a pandemic, isn’t an easy concept to come to terms with and makes individual relationships a bit insignificant.”

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You can read her full review here.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin was also impressed by its visceral qualities while also being more disappointed by the filmmaker’s familiar coldness. “Altogether, it makes for a chilly, cerebral film,” Felperin writes, “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.”

Charlotte O’Sullivan of the London Evening Standard, however, thinks nitpicking over a movie’s deficiencies for not being a masterpiece would appear “ungrateful.” Writes O’Sullivan, “It’s like slagging off Santa… Nolan wants to turn the tide of history and might just succeed. What he’s put together may not be the best movie ever made (no film starring Sir Kenneth [Branagh], doing a funny foreign accent, could be called a masterpiece). But Tenet feels like it was made with tomorrow in mind. We’ve been in a long, dark, tunnel. Here’s a lovely ray of light.”

Yet if Nolan is Santa, several critics clearly don’t believe in the myth. Mike McCahill at IndieWire, for one, thought the movie was too oblivious and dour to know how ridiculous its premise is.

“The setup invites comedy: a world spun on its axes, where bullets return to guns and the rules of gravity are suspended. But there’s zero levity in ‘Tenet’: Nolan simply reverses time in an effort to bring dead ideas back to life. And if he couldn’t have envisioned Saturday-night moviegoing being among them, it feels doubly sorrowful that a film striving to lure us all outdoors should visit this many locations and not once allow us to feel sunlight or fresh air on our faces. Visually and spiritually grey, ‘Tenet’ is too terse to have any fun with its premise; it’s a caper for shut-ins…”

Catherine Shoard was as equally unimpressed at the Guardian. Concluding she isn’t sure it’d even be worth catching on television in a few years, Shoard writes, “You exit the cinema a little less energised than you were going in. There’s something grating about a film which insists on detailing its pseudo-science while also conceding you probably won’t have followed a thing. We’re clobbered with plot then comforted with tea-towel homilies about how what’s happened has happened.”

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Still critics have generally been impressed by the visual scale of the movie, with most also appreciating the narrative dexterity of its time traveling-obsessed plot, if not its full execution. Take Empire’s Alex Godfrey, who described the film as a strange hybrid between an M.C. Escher painting and Back to the Future. “It has its cake, eats it, then goes back in time and eats it again. It may not be a hokey time-travel film, but that doesn’t mean Nolan can’t get his rocks off playing around with paradoxes.”

And Mashable’s Shannon Connellan was likewise satisfied with the spectacle and the desire to make the audience work hard. However, she also suspects some audiences will be put off by how confusing and unusually opaque the film is. “After the literal turning point of the film, some details are solved, but many others are left ambiguous. And if they are explained, they’re muffled by the mixing of Ludwig Göransson’s booming score, so ever-present it takes on a character of its own… And you cannot miss a detail in this film.”

IGN’s Matt Purslow, meanwhile, was genuinely impressed by the visual wizardry of a concept that “inverts” time. “It’s when Tenet brings the camera close to its subjects, though, that its ideas really manifest into something special. One sequence involves leading man John David Wahsington fighting hand-to-hand, but his assailant is moving in reverse. This creates an oddly unsettling effect.”

But Jessica Kiang at The New York Times perhaps most amusingly coined a name for Nolan’s films as “intellectacle” entertainment. Writing for the Paper of Record, Kiang says, “Within the context of this self-created brand of brainiac entertainment, ‘Tenet’ meets all expectations, except the expectation that it will exceed them. Forgive the circularity of this argument: it’s a side effect of watching the defiantly circular ‘Tenet.’ … For once, spoiler sensitivity might be the reviewer’s luckiest break, absolving me of even attempting an explanation of a plot so contorted it’s best not to worry about it.”

Of course movie lovers and fans of all stripes will worry about it a lot in the coming days and weeks as Tenet rolls out into international movie houses on Aug. 26 and in select U.S. cities on Sept. 3. While the first draft of opinion on Nolan’s eleventh film is written, we imagine the conversation around this self-intended savior of cinema has only just begun.