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Even Though No One Wants To See It in Theaters, the Reviews Are Coming in for Tenet

trailer screenshot of john david washington in tenet. Warner Brothers.

Tenet opens in theaters tomorrow! Well, it opens in some theaters tomorrow. It’s not playing here in the US, yet, that would be bonkers! It’s playing in Europe and other non-American markets and the reviews are slowly trickling in. The consensus? It sounds like the movie is fine and very Christopher Nolan operating at peak Christopher Nolan … but probably not worth risking anyone’s life for?

Over at Entertainment Weekly, the feelings from Nicholas Fonseca are mixed, praising Tenet‘s ambitious filmmaking and technical achievements, while also noting that it’s incredibly confusing and a bit of a slog. “Because as much as Tenet succeeds at being visually and technologically dazzling, it is more often than not almost unbearably draining.” Sounds … fun?

Collider’s review, from Rafael Motomator, which comes with a disclaimer that no one at the site recommends seeing the movie in theaters given how unsafe that is right now, calls the film “a collection of Christopher Nolan’s greatest hits and failures” and notes that the mysterious plot is “more convoluted than it is complex.” That plot, by the way, centers on John David Washington’s secret agent Protagonist (that literally how he’s credited: The Protagonist”) seeking to take down a shady Russian oligarch.  This involves using “time inversion” which Collider cites as the highlight of Tenet, saying: “nothing can really prepare you for the pure, breathtaking spectacle of the film.”

We can already see a theme emerging here: Tenet looks very cool, and it’s sleek action and filmmaking are fun and interesting to watch, but the plot is too confusing. As Zehra Pehlan at FalvourMag puts it: “Before we know it, the audience is in need of a Physics degree as bullets fly backwards and the mention of time travel and inverted nuclear weapons overtake a vague script that could only make sense to its creator.” Similarly, Time Out says: “Visual information comes at you in multiple directions in massive action sequences that offer little respite from the brain-bending ideas being chucked about.”

But what about the emotion and characters? Deep feelings beyond manly brooding and frowning aren’t typically Christopher Nolan’s thing, but is there anything in Tenet that inspires any connection to The Protagonist or the other characters, like Robert Pattinson’s Neil? It doesn’t sound like it, according to Rosie Fletcher at Den of Geek: “Tenet’s stakes are too high, perhaps, to really have any emotional impact – the end of the world as we know it, even during a pandemic, isn’t an easy concept to come to terms with and makes individual relationships a bit insignificant.”

One comparison that runs through many reviews: James Bond. Much like Inception was Nolan’s take on a heist film and Memento was his take on a noir, Tenet is his timey-wimey take on an espionage thriller. That does sound very cool, but still a bit empty. Jessica Kiang for the New York Times explained: “the film is undeniably enjoyable, but its giddy grandiosity only serves to highlight the brittleness of its purported braininess.” Kiang also notes that, like many of Nolan’s films, “Tenet dazzles the senses, but it does not move the heart.”

Perhaps the best description of the movie I found was from Leslie Felperin at The Hollywood Reporter, who found Tenet to be somewhat, shall we say, pharmaceutical:

Like Xanax, Tenet’s title is a palindrome, spelled the same way backward and forward. That’s fitting for a story about technology that can “invert” people and things, making them capable of going back in time. And like Xanax, Tenet makes you feel floaty, mesmerized and, to an extent, soothed by its spectacle — but also so cloudy in the head that the only option is to relax and let it blow your mind around like a balloon, buffeted by seaside breezes and hot air.

All in all, it sounds like Tenet is certainly a sight to see, but maybe not a film that demands to be felt or one that gives the viewer many tidy answers or explanations. For me, just spectacle isn’t really something I’m currently willing to risk my health for, especially if it doesn’t come with a plot that makes sense or emotional resonance of any kind. With all that in mind, and despite Nolan’s love of IMAX, I think I’ll personally wait to see this one in the safety of my home.

(Image: Warner Brothers)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.