Brow Beat

Here’s What Critics Are Saying About Tenet

The plot sure is confusing, but get a load of these suits!

He strides confidently across the British streets, his beard neatly trimmed, his silver three piece neatly pressed.
John David Washington in a crisp three piece in Tenet. Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

After several COVID-related delays, Christopher Nolan’s mysterious new movie Tenet will finally receive a theatrical release in the U.K. this week, with a safe and hopefully non-life-threatening U.S. release shortly to follow. The first reviews are in, and they promise the same dazzling visuals and dizzying plot that we’ve come to expect from the writer-director—for better and for worse. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh co-star in the sci-fi action blockbuster, which follows John David Washington as a man tasked with preventing World War III as the result of time manipulation, or something.

Below, we’ve rounded up what critics had to say about the movie.

The name’s Nolan. Christopher Nolan.

Nicholas Barber, BBC Culture:

From its opening action set piece, to its whistle-stop tour of international beauty spots, to its super-rich, heavily-accented bad guy with an army of expendable henchmen, Tenet follows the 007 formula to the letter—the only notable change being that the main role has been split in two, with Washington playing the tough, dedicated government agent, and Pattinson adding the English accent, the insouciant humour and the taste for alcohol. 

Will Gompertz, BBC:

 … it’s certainly not Bond, but then, it’s not not Bond either. There are action sequences with Bond-like levels of spectacle, and interior scenes in which you sense The Protagonist actively putting his tanks on 007’s lawn with his own bone-dry quips (asked how he would like to die, he replies: “Old”).

Alex Godfrey, Empire:

Nolan has made his own Bond film here, borrowing everything he likes about it, binning everything he doesn’t, then Nolaning it all up (ie: mucking about with the fabric of time).

The plot is hard to follow …

Nicholas Barber, the Wrap:

… there is one solid reason why “Tenet” could make a profit: Even if not many people pay to see it, some of those people will pay to see it again and again and again in the hope that, eventually, they will be able to work out what on earth is going on.

Leslie Felperin, the Hollywood Reporter:

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. … 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.

Anna Smith, Deadline:

“Does your head hurt yet?” asks Robert Pattinson’s debonair British agent Neil at one point in Tenet. The answer is, inevitably: yes.

… but it’s OK to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Guy Lodge, Variety:

“Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” a cryptic scientist (Clémence Poésy) counsels the Protagonist early on, and whether Nolan intends it or not, this feels like solid advice for the viewer too. “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, though it offers some elegantly executed structural figure-eights along the way.

Jessica Kiang, New York Times:

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. … Suffice to say, the time-inversion idea is most impressive not in the film’s grander architecture, which, as widely surmised, loosely resembles a palindrome, but in single scenes in which some elements run forward while others reverse.

Jonathan Romney, Los Angeles Times:

In fact, it’s possible simply to let go and enjoy the movie as a chain of over-the-top set pieces: Washington scales a skyscraper to reach a key contact; gets close to the villain’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki) in order to meet her husband, Russian arms dealer Sator (Branagh); crashes a plane into a building to get to an important object; pilots a sort of super-catamaran because … who knows, possibly just because it looks swanky and 007-ish.

The director’s devotees are in for a treat …

Anna Smith, Deadline:

The heavily expository dialogue may not win over popcorn audiences, but fans of Nolan should relish the chance to decode it over multiple viewings. Not a glimpse of detail or a line of dialogue is wasted—like a spy, it’s on you to keep your eyes and ears open and pick up the many clues as they come thick and fast. Despite the 2 1/2-hour running time, there’s no good time to take a restroom break, unless you’d prefer to miss the sight of Branagh topless.

Jason Gorber, SlashFilm:

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.

… but Tenet may be too emotionally distant to win him any new ones.

Alex Godfrey, Empire:

It’s hard to completely invest in things that go completely over your head. The broad strokes are there, and it’s consistently compelling, but it’s a little taxing. No doubt it all makes sense on Nolan’s hard drive, but it’s difficult to emotionally engage with it all.

Leslie Felperin, the Hollywood Reporter:

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.

The characters are underbaked …

Matt Purslow, IGN:

They’re pieces in a plot-focussed puzzle more than fully-realised people. That John David Washington’s character is never referred to by name throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour run time is a good indication as to Tenet’s priorities when it comes to characters vs narrative. This feels somewhat of a step back after the director’s achievements with Interstellar, which finally demonstrated Nolan’s chops for emotional humanity, and it works as a disservice to the astonishing talents of Washington and Robert Pattinson …

Will Gompertz, BBC:

Kat is the key, a love triangle plot device that might work on paper but doesn’t in the film where there is little emotional spark or screen chemistry between her and either Andrei or The Protagonist - or Max for that matter […] You’re left wondering why the two men are willing to stake everything that has ever been or will ever be on a bit of a cold fish with whom neither appear remotely enamoured.

Catherine Shoard, the Guardian:

Washington doesn’t help. A naturally charismatic performer, he’s weirdly muted and muzzled here (as a sidenote, Tenet will surely go down in history as a film shot during peak-beard). The spark he’s supposed to have with Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) isn’t there, which makes for a motivation problem.

… though Branagh seems to be enjoying himself.

Kevin Maher, the Times of London:

the evil Russian oligarch Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh with fabulously clipped consonants (“If I ken nat hev you, den nobeddy ken!”).

Jason Gorber, SlashFilm:

seems mostly freed to take his role to theatrical levels of menace, but doing so without ever devolving into farce

Critics are split about whether it’s worth seeing it in a theater …

Rosie Fletcher, Den of Geek:

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.

Catherine Shoard, the Guardian:

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. 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.

… but they can agree on one thing: These suits are crisp.

Shannon Connellan, Mashable:

extremely well-tailored suits

Phil de Semlyen, Time Out:

scalpel-sharp suits

Jessica Kiang, New York Times:

Seriously, the most mind-boggling aspect of Tenet might be the ironing budget.