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Tenet reviews round-up: Critics divided over Christopher Nolan’s ‘almost impossible to love’ film

Some have praised director's ‘chilly’ and ‘cerebral’ movie, while others have deemed it ‘a film you can miss’

Clémence Michallon
New York City
Saturday 22 August 2020 08:58 BST
Tenet trailer

The first reviews are in for Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s eagerly awaited movie – which has left critics thoroughly divided.

Tenet, which will be released in the UK on 26 August and in the US on 3 September after several delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, has been deemed both entertaining and “cerebral” by some, but lacking and confusing by others.

Some critics noted that while spoilers are usually a concern when writing a movie review, this time around they would be hard-pressed to say too much about the plot, because it’s too convoluted to do so.

“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,” Jessica Kiang wrote in The New York Times. “Even the scientist played by Clémence Poésy, here exclusively to deliver exposition, eventually cops out. ‘Don’t try to understand it, feel it’ is the best advice anyone offers.”

Leslie Felperin shared a similar impression in The Hollywood Reporter, writing: “If it seems like this review is shying away from describing the plot, that’s not just out of concern to avoid spoilers. I watched the movie twice for this review, and still feel very confused about what is supposed to be going on and why.” Later on, Felperin adds: “Altogether, it makes for a chilly, cerebral film — 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.”

Others, however, praised the plot’s complexity. Among them was The Independent's Clarisse Loughrey, who deemed the film ”seemingly engineered for multiple viewings” in a four-star review, adding: “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. 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.”

Guy Lodge similarly noted in an overall positive review for Variety: “A concrete cornucopia of global chaos and threat, in which humanity’s survival depends on the minor matter of reshaping time and space, Tenet looks well suited to an anxious age.” While deeming Tenet ”no holy grail”, Lodge still praised it as ”dizzy, expensive, bang-up entertainment of both the old and new school”.

In a four-star review for the BBC, Will Gompertz noted: “[Tenet] won’t leave you shaken, but your mind will be stirred. And that has to be worth a trip to the cinema.”

Yet, not everyone was equally taken with Tenet. Jonathan Romney was cautious in his praise, writing in The 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.”

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Anna Smith’s review in Deadline calls Tenet a “film you can miss”, and “chiefly one for those numerous and ardent Nolan fans”. “It may be hard to find Tenet’s dense sci-fi concept truly exciting on first viewing—frankly, there is so much else going on demanding your attention,” Smith notes. “But it is easy to sit back and revel in the wonder of the big-screen experience, and to immediately want to see the film again. And again. Those who love the challenge set by a complex audio visual puzzle will be well served — and with little else major to compete at the box office, time is on their side.”

In The Guardian, Catherine Shoard’s review refers to Tenet as “a palindromic dud”. “Tenet is not a movie it’s worth the nervous braving a trip to the big screen to see, no matter how safe it is. I’m not even sure that, in five years’ time, it’d be worth staying up to catch on telly,” Shoard writes. ”To say so is sad, perhaps heretical. But for audiences to abandon their living rooms in the long term, the first carrot had better not leave a bad taste.”

On a similar note, Mike McCahill’s IndieWire review deems Nolan’s film “a humourless disappointment”, and elaborates: “Nolan is not invested in the meat-and-potatoes plotting of lesser mortals. He trades in big-picture concepts, and his latest is tried-and-tested: a device that reverses matter. Careers too, apparently.”

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