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Tenet First Reviews: A Beautiful, Spectacular Head-Scratcher

Critics say Christopher Nolan's 007-meets-Minority Report sci-fi thriller is tricky to decipher but full of mind-blowing action.

by | August 21, 2020 | Comments

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One of the most anticipated movies of 2020, and one of the few tentpole releases still opening this year, Christoper Nolan’s Tenet is… Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. That is to say, based on the mostly-positive first reviews of the sci-fi spy thriller, you know what you’re getting into, but also you have no idea. The movie, which stars John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, appears to be another difficult one to describe, plot-wise, in part because of spoilers, but it’s also celebrated for its action and mind-blowing effects, even if you don’t care about any of the characters. And while some critics suggest the film needs to be seen on the big screen, we encourage you to check here for the latest information on how movie theaters are implementing new safety regulations in light of COVID-19.

With that said, here’s what critics are saying about Tenet:


How does it compare to the rest of Nolan’s filmography?

It’s one of his most daring sci-fi narratives yet, and the results are truly phenomenal.
– Linda Marric, The Jewish Chronicle

Tenet exceeds our already sky-high expectations… It is undeniably the most audacious film of his career – which is saying something.
– James Mottram, South China Morning Post

Tenet is as intricately and exquisitely designed as Nolan’s earlier work. It boasts some of the most spectacular, memorable set-pieces of his career.
– Clarisse Loughrey, Independent

Tenet is not Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, but it is another thrilling entry into his canon.
– Matt Purslow, IGN

Tenet is the first time I felt he gets too carried away with his own concept.
– Casey Chong, Casey’s Movie Mania


John David Washington in Tenet

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

So what is it about, anyway?

What’s narratively most interesting about it is strictly off-limits in any pre-screening discussion.
Guy Lodge, Variety

We’re not even sure we could spoil this one if we tried.
Simon Miraudo, Student Edge

The palindromic title has some narrative correlation — albeit in an exhausting, rather joyless way.
Mike McCahill, IndieWire


Can we expect another mind-bending delight?

If Nolan’s Inception baked your noodle, prepare for a whole new level of bewilderment.
Andy Lea, Daily Star

Tenet will have you saying “Wow,” but also “Huh?,” “Wha …?” and “WTF??!!!”
Radheyan Simonpillai, NOW Toronto

Tenet is not in itself that difficult to understand: It’s more convoluted than it is complex, wider than it is deep, and there’s more linearity to its form than you might guess.
Guy Lodge, Variety

The fun with Tenet lies not in trying to decipher the whats or the whys but in simply admiring the how.
Adam Woodward, Little White Lies

I watched the movie twice for this review, and still feel very confused about what is supposed to be going on and why.
Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter


Tenet

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Is it more about the visuals?

Tenet frequently delivers mind-blowing moments that are unlike anything you’ve seen (or even thought about) before.
Ian Sandwell, Digital Spy

Tenet is best approached as an experience to be felt rather than comprehensively understood. Sit back, relax and prepare to have your mind blown.
James Mottram, South China Morning Post

An absolute treat as a Movie Event… Tenet’s deployment of stupefying practical special effects is pure wizardry.
Shannon Conellan, Mashable

Nolan’s commitment to shooting practically achieves an effect akin to first seeing the T-Rex stomp onscreen in Jurassic Park – it’s a film that shows you the impossible in a way that’s indistinguishable from reality.
Jordan Farley, Total Film

Take away the time-bending gimmick, and Tenet is a series of timidly generic set pieces: heists, car chases, bomb disposals, more heists… but gosh, does he blow stuff up good.
Jessica Kiang, New York Times


How is the action?

The action exceeds anything Nolan has ever done before.
Radheyan Simonpillai, NOW Toronto

The sheer meticulousness of Nolan’s grand-canvas action aesthetic is enthralling, as if to compensate for the stray loose threads and teasing paradoxes of his screenplay — or perhaps simply to underline that they don’t matter all that much.
Guy Lodge, Variety

If Nolan has out-Nolaned himself, it’s in the action set-pieces which, despite being of head-scrambling technical intricacy, are sharper than Occam’s razor and carried off with astonishing economy.
Adam Woodward, Little White Lies

Big, bombastic and does everything with the most epic scale possible. It’s a lot like being punched in the face by Cinema™, in the best and worst ways.
Tom Beasley, Flickering Myth


Tenet

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Are the stakes compelling?

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.
Clarisse Loughrey, Independent

Tenet’s stakes are too high, perhaps, to really have any emotional impact.
Rosie Fletcher, Den of Geek


What is the movie reminiscent of?

Tenet revisits the terrain of 2000’s Memento with more money… yet plot-wise, Tenet has more in common with Minority Report.
Mike McCahill, IndieWire

Tenet can feel like a $200 million remake of Primer, with a fiendishly brilliant but confounding narrative that practically demands one or two rewatches to fully appreciate the big picture.
Jordan Farley, Total Film

It may echo the cleverness of Rian Johnson’s Looper and Shane Carruth’s Primer in its dizzying disregard for linear chronology, but the plotting is muddled rather than complex.
Nicholas Barber, The Wrap

It’s reminiscent of Steven Knight’s Serenity…influences range from La Jetée to From Russia With Love.
Radheyan Simonpillai, NOW Toronto


But what does it really feel like?

Nolan has made his own Bond film here, borrowing everything he likes about it, binning everything he doesn’t, then Nolaning it all up.
Alex Godfrey, Empire Magazine

The fanciest James Bond romp you ever did see, complete with dizzy global location-hopping, car chases that slip and loop like spaghetti, and bespoke tailoring you actually want to reach into the screen and stroke.
Guy Lodge, Variety

This is absolutely Nolan delivering his James Bond movie, only Bond never had to deal with inverted bullets.
Ian Sandwell, Digital Spy


Tenet

(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

How is the cast?

David Washington is rock solid in the lead role… Robert Pattinson brings his A-game.
Adam Woodward, Little White Lies

Robert Pattinson puts in a truly electrifying turn.
Linda Marric, The Jewish Chronicle

Only Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh made quite an impression in their respective roles.
Casey Chong, Casey’s Movie Mania

Branagh is unexpectedly fearsome.
Clarisse Loughrey, Independent


But do we care about their characters enough?

Though leads John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki bring a level of solid integrity to their characters while wrapped up in flawless costumes, we’re left without any idea of who they actually are.
Shannon Conellan, Mashable

Tenet suggests Nolan no longer has any interest in human beings beyond assets on a poster or dots on a diagram.
Simon Miraudo, Student Edge

Tenet is by no means a movie about race. But Washington does appear to lean into what his race brings to the role.
Radheyan Simonpillai, NOW Toronto


What are the movie’s biggest issues?

Tenet’s coldness is what keeps it just short of greatness… the viewer’s investment is purely intellectual.
Laura Potier, Starburst

[It] feels strangely hollow and coldly detached. So detached to the point that Nolan’s otherwise great acting ensemble fails to connect emotionally.
Casey Chong, Casey’s Movie Mania

It’s hard to work out what’s happening. It’s harder still to care.
Donald Clarke, Irish Times

For a film which prides itself on its innovative outlook, its portrayal of gender roles can feel surprisingly old-fashioned.
Linda Marric, The Jewish Chronicle


Tenet

(Photo by )

Do we need to see it in a theater (if we can)?

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.
Rosie Fletcher, Den of Geek

Viewed solely from its technical point-of-view… This is a must-see on the biggest screen possible.
Casey Chong, Casey’s Movie Mania

It’s best experienced in a huge, dark room.
Matt Purslow, IGN

Demands to be seen in a cinema, and on the biggest possible screen… But Tenet will later thrive in home viewing formats, giving viewers the chance to pause and go back over tricky passages.
Jonathan Romney, Los Angeles Times

[Note: Information on movie theater safety precautions can be found here.]


Tenet will debut in several global markets on August 26-28 and open in limited theaters in the U.S. on September 3 before expanding wider around the world.

#1

Tenet (2020)
69%

#1
Adjusted Score: 95824%
Critics Consensus: A visually dazzling puzzle for film lovers to unlock, Tenet serves up all the cerebral spectacle audiences expect from a Christopher Nolan production.
Synopsis: A secret agent embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.... [More]
Directed By: Christopher Nolan

Thumbnail image by Warner Bros. Pictures