‘Tenet’ Reviews Run the Gamut From ‘Slick’ and ‘Thrilling,’ to ‘Incomprehensible’

Christopher Nolan’s latest espionage film with a sci-fi twist opens in the U.S. on Sept. 3

Last Updated: August 21, 2020 @ 10:18 AM

The reviews for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” are in, and critics have applauded the “Dark Knight” director’s slick take on the James Bond-style espionage thriller, even as they generally agree this is by far Nolan’s “most confusing film” yet.

That’s saying something from the guy who directed “Inception” and “Memento,” both of which critics have compared “Tenet” to as spiritual cousins to the plot structure and the film’s labyrinth ideas about time inversions and the non-linear way in which objects travel through time and space.

And if that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s not supposed to. Early critic reviews have mentioned that the film seems designed to be watched multiple times. While the main concept is easy enough to understand, it’s the more minute details that get lost in dialogue and slick, globetrotting set pieces, with critics calling the plot specifics “incomprehensible.”

“Does it matter all that much, though? ‘Tenet’ is a thrilling place to get lost in. ‘Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,’ explains Laura (Clémence Poésy), who serves as one of the film’s exposition machines,” Clarisse Loughrey writes in her review for The Independent. “The advice is directed as much to us as it is to the film’s hero. But while the appeal of Nolan’s films usually comes from watching all the pieces fall neatly into place, the final picture bringing a sense of order to existence, the director has found himself increasingly drawn towards chaos.”

“But to quote Poésy’s scientist, “Don’t try to think about it.” The rules of time travel seem to be rewritten with every scene,” Nicholas Barber writes for TheWrap. “It’s exciting to watch buildings crumbling and then reassembling themselves immediately afterward, but if the three concurrent time frames in ‘Dunkirk’ or the shuffled structure of ‘Memento’ baffled you, then ‘Tenet’ will have you pleading for an aspirin and a long lie-down.”

Of course, every critic had to mention that the bigger story with “Tenet” is how it’s being released and whether it could be the movie that can save cinemas and draw people back to the movie theaters during a global pandemic. And the size of the film, which critics note jumps around across at least a half-dozen exotic locations, will certainly help justify seeing the movie on a big screen.

“Not only did they film in seven different locations including India, Italy, Estonia and the UK, the big screen effort also uses minimal CGI. Yes, it costs a small fortune to blow up a real plane but boy is it worth it when you get to see the way it is used,” Metro writes.

Although not all critics were enchanted by “Tenet,” and others were even bored by what they saw as a “humorless” and “dour” adventure with too much explanation necessary.

“Where did it all go wrong? Deep in the film’s tangled DNA, there are traces of an effervescent, boundless, city-hopping romp. Turn time back! Reopen cinemas! Save the world,” Indiewire’s Mike McCahill says. “Visually and spiritually grey, “Tenet” is too terse to have any fun with its premise; it’s a caper for shut-ins, which may not preclude it becoming a runaway smash.”

Read some more excerpts from early reviews of “Tenet” below:

Nicholas Barber, TheWrap

There aren’t many directors who would be entrusted with such a massive, globe-trotting, brain-teasing production — at least one that isn’t based on a Marvel comic, anyway. Nolan’s go-for-broke ambition should be celebrated. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that “Tenet” amounts, ultimately, to a Bond knock-off with a sci-fi gimmick.

Clarisse Loughrey, The Independent

It’s the most complex of Nolan’s contraptions. It can be frightening. It can be claustrophobic. At times, it verges on the incomprehensible. We expect the complex and byzantine from Nolan’s work. But here, with an idea he’s wrestled with for over a decade, the director’s managed to reach new heights of obfuscation.

Mike McCahill, Indiewire

And what kind of picture is it? 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.

Leslie Felperin, THR

I watched the movie twice for this review, and still feel very confused about what is supposed to be going on and why. Even more baffling than the why is the how, the fictional physics of inversion. All those outfits that make YouTube videos about movie plot holes and cinematic inconsistencies are going to implode with joy when they get a load of this.

Jonathan Romney, Los Angeles Times

Truth be told, “Tenet” is not the absolutely sui generis wonder you may be expecting. It’s basically espionage adventure, but with a science fiction backbone: Nolan ups the ante on “Mission: Impossible” by making the impossibility not just physical but quantum physical. And he goes about it expertly, bullishly and with giddily perverse intent to bewilder.

Nick Levine, NME

Though it’s sometimes hamstrung by clumsy dialogue – a necessary evil, perhaps, given how much Nolan needs to explain – Tenet is rarely less than thrilling to watch. It’s a challenging, ambitious and genuinely original film packed with compelling performances – Washington and Debicki are especially excellent – which confirms Nolan as the master of the cerebral blockbuster. And if you can, you need to see this visually stunning movie on a big screen.

Guy Lodge, Variety

But it’s also just a movie: a big, brashly beautiful, grandiosely enjoyable one that will provide succor to audiences long-starved for escapist spectacle on this beefy, made-for-IMAX scale. (Opening on August 26 in international markets, it will make its way to the U.S. on September 3.) It’s not, however, a film with much of consequence to say about the real world it’s finally entering, or indeed the elaborately rearranged, eve-of-destruction world it has devised on screen. That’s not a mark against it.

For the record, a previous version of this story incorrectly attributed TheWrap’s review.