review roundup

Tenet Probably Isn’t Christopher Nolan’s Masterpiece

Five stars for John David Washington’s beard, though. Photo: Warner Bros.

My, palindrome, my! The first reactions to Christopher Nolan’s COVID-delayed blockbuster thriller Tenet are in from across the pond, because as massive a spectacle as Tenet is, it’s no match for the deadly li’l microscopic germs that are delaying its American release until September 3. So much is riding on Tenet’s extremely well-tailored shoulders: Will it alone have the power to stop a global catastrophe and save the entire film industry as we know it? Based on the first reviews, the future (and the past, if we’re playing by Tenet’s time-bendy rules) of the film is unclear. While critics appreciate Nolan’s expensive take on a globe-trotting Bond movie for its visually inventive action, lush costuming, and large scale, most reviews are middling to cold on the story overall. When the stakes are the fate of all humanity, it turns out it helps to make your characters human. Worst of all, according to several reviews, Nolan appears to commit the capital sin of squandering Elizabeth Debicki. As Jessica Kiang phrased it in the New York Times, Tenet “dazzles the senses, but it does not move the heart.” Here are the early takeaways.

“In Christopher Nolan’s palindromically titled latest movie, two intelligence agents must wend their way through the high-level global machinations of a nuclear weapon–wielding billionaire who has learned how to bend time. If that sounds absurd, well, yes: Occasionally, for all its seriousness, Tenet can feel like Timecop with a superiority complex.” —Christina Newland, Vulture

“Again, his musings are rooted more in physics than philosophy or psychology, with the film’s grabby hook — that you can change the world not by traveling through time, but inverting it — explored in terms of how it practically works, not how it makes anyone feel. If this tendency leads Nolan’s critics to label him a chilly filmmaker, there’s the barest hint of knowing silliness to Tenet that warms it up. It plays best when it stops showing us its work and morphs into 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

“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, which may not preclude it becoming a runaway smash.” —Mike McCahill, IndieWire

“Indeed, take away the time-bending gimmick, and Tenet is a series of timidly generic set pieces: heists, car chases, bomb disposals, more heists. But then, the lie of Nolan’s career has been that he makes the traditionally teenage-boy-aimed blockbuster smarter and more adult, when what he really does is ennoble the teenage boy fixations many of us adults still cherish, creating vast, sizzling conceptual landscapes in which all anyone really does is crack safes and blow stuff up. But gosh, does he blow stuff up good.” —Jessica Kiang, the New York Times

“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.” —Catherine Shoard, the Guardian

“In the end, Tenet feels like the most Nolan-y of Nolan’s own films, amping the many quirks of this remarkable filmmaker’s visual, aural and temporal fetishes up to 11. The result is messily entertaining, a film that feels both boisterous and bloated in equal measure.” —Jason Gorber, SlashFilm

“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 Washington fighting hand-to-hand, but his assailant is moving in reverse. This creates an oddly unsettling effect; the enemy combatant writhes and jerks in unnatural ways, making for something that’s almost a militarised Twin Peaks scene. It’s in sequences like this that Tenet’s time concept is most impressive, rather than its reversed car crashes or time-synced explosions.” —Matt Purslow, IGN

Tenet has ambition, ingenuity and imagination aplenty. Yet it lacks a certain living spark: Despite the occasional sharp line, Nolan never quite feels comfortable with humor, and his directing style is hardly what you’d call insouciant. Tenet is entertaining, but it isn’t exactly fun; Nolan may be a cinematic wizard, but here he’s working in the grandiose watch-this-building-disappear David Copperfield mode rather than showing the sly legerdemain that tends to make for grace in screen magic. Tenet also, for these times, feels somewhat archaically male, with Debicki’s subplot essentially a traditional damsel-in-distress story.” —Jonathan Romney, the Los Angeles Times

“Again, you have to hand it to Nolan. To use the old expression, he puts the money on the screen, delivering the kind of noisy, extravagant and fundamentally ridiculous pulp fiction which reminds you why you go to the cinema. But it collapses under the weight of all the plot strands and concepts stuffed into it. You don’t get the impression, which you usually get from his films, that every element is precisely where it should be. Some parts of it go on too long, others not long enough. It’s a treat to see a really big film again, but a smaller one might have been better.” —Nicholas Barber, BBC

Tenet Probably Isn’t Christopher Nolan’s Masterpiece