Tenet Review: Christopher Nolan’s Sci-fi Spy Movie Explodes Into Cinemas

It’s one of the most mysterious and anticipated movies of the year but will Tenet tempt audiences back to the cinema?

John David Washington in Tenet
Photo: Warner Bros.

For better or worse, Tenet is the most important film of 2020. Sure, it’s the new Christopher Nolan film, an event movie shrouded in secrecy with a terrific cast which in any year would be an important mark on the cinematic calendar. But this year, when cinemas have been closed for months, where streaming services are king and several big releases have eschewed a theatrical opening altogether or been pushed back to 2021 and beyond, all eyes are on Tenet.

Or rather Warner Bros. is *hoping* all eyes, or at least a decent number of eyes, will be on Tenet when it arrives in UK and other European cinemas on Aug. 26. 

Originally scheduled for earlier in the summer, Tenet marks the first significant movie to open theatrically since lockdown. Nolan was never going to settle for less than a decent big screen debut for this film, and for good reason. It’s an absolutely huge, epic spectacle of a movie which definitely benefits from an IMAX screen. And if there was one movie that would drag cinema fans out of their houses, it was this. But is it worth it?

Well the short answer is, of course, yes. Tenet is rich, complicated, packed to the rafters with twists, mind-blowing action sequences we’ve never seen the like of before, a super high concept which, certainly in the final third, would very much benefit from multiple viewings, and so very much to talk about by the end that you more than get your money’s worth. And with an absolutely jam packed runtime of 2 hours and 30 minutes, it sure feels like it. That doesn’t, however, make it a masterpiece.

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Tenet opens with a bang. Multiple bangs in fact, as a terrorist organization launches a coordinated attack on an opera house in Kiev. Musicians are murdered and the audience is gassed into unconsciousness while bombs are set around the auditorium. But in amongst them is a plant – John David Washington’s nameless CIA agent (known as The Protagonist in the credits), who has a different agenda entirely. 

It’s a blistering introduction that’s more an opening coda than a big part of the plot, instead leading him to the real assignment: Save the entire world. Not from a nuclear apocalypse but something even worse.

If you ever wondered what a Christopher Nolan Bond movie might look like, the answer is this. Tenet is an incredibly pacy, twisty thriller which zips all over the world as our hero tries to work out what’s going on, who is behind it and why, while mixing with organized criminals and arms dealers to try to get to the boss level baddie controlling everything. 

The Protagonist has a right hand man in the form of Robert Pattinson’s debonair fixer Neil, and the two set out to solve the mystery and save the day by any means necessary. This could involve bungeeing *up* a hotel, fighting using a cheese grater,  a hold-your-breath heist sequence (where it’s nigh-on impossible for the audience not to hold its breath too), and one of the most ridiculous, spectacular, multiple vehicle road set pieces we have ever seen. 

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. 

While the first half of Tenet does feel like a fresher, newer take on Bond – Kenneth Branagh’s Russian arms dealer is pure cartoon Bond villain, while Elizabeth Debicki as his abused wife gives a terrific performance but still spends a lot of time being saved – toward the end, things get complicated.

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When Tenet moves away from espionage and leans harder into sci-fi, things become tangled and at times confusing – more than just rewarding multiple viewings, it almost demands them. If Tenet begins as Nolan does Bond, by the end it’s more like Nolan does Doctor Who (but on a ginormous budget with an awful lot of gun fire) as things get increasingly timey-wimey. This is intelligent sci-fi action but it’s a lot to take in.

Nolan’s films can be accused of being a bit cold (Dunkirk being a notable exception) and while there’s great chemistry between Washington and Pattinson it’s too easy here to get caught up in the action, the philosophy, and the pseudo science and forget to care about the characters. 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. 

Performances are strong, and of course there’s an affectionate cameo for Michael Caine in there, but the lack of back story for most of our main players and the constant zipping around different locations meeting multiple factions and trying to piece together what’s going on leaves little room for empathy.

Fans of Inception should definitely get a kick out of Tenet and there are similarities, though while Inception had its complexities it was a somewhat clearer concept than what Tenet deals with.

Is it worth braving the cinema for? It depends how safe you feel of course, but this is certainly the biggest bang for your buck of the year so far. See it on the biggest screen you can with the very best sound system and immerse yourself in Ludwig Göransson’s pulsing, pounding score. The most important film of the year is a heavy weight to carry, and Tenet for the most part pulls it off. This may not be a perfect film but it could just be perfect cinema.


4 out of 5