"Tenet," Christopher Nolan's time-bending spy film which opens in select US cities on September 3, was supposed to be the event film of the summer. Is it as mind-blowing as the trailer suggested, or does the movie fall short of expectations? Here's what the reviews say.
'Tenet' Is A Sci-Fi Movie That Plays With The Idea Of Time Inversion
"Tenet" will prompt much post-viewing head-scratching and diagram-scribbling, but at its heart is the simple if outlandish idea that some mysterious objects move backwards through time at the same speed as everything else moves forward. An unnamed CIA agent referred to in the credits as The Protagonist (John David Washington, "BlacKkKlansman") is told about these objects by a lab-coated scientist (Clémence Poésy) who wisely advises him, "Don't try to understand it."
Washington's unnamed character is quickly inducted into the mysteries of "inversion," a process by which an object — or a person — can have its entropy reversed, making it appear, to those of us moving lamely forward through time, as if it is spooling backward. His new inversion-related mission leads him first to a fixer, Neil (a delightful Robert Pattinson), useful for both his action chops and his master's in physics, then to a Mumbai arms dealer (Dimple Kapadia), whose fortress apartment can only be accessed by bungee jump, and thence to the villainous Ukrainian squillionaire Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who can only be accessed via his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a miserable, imperiled art dealer who loathes him.
Though 'Tenet' Also Closely Resembles A James Bond Film
He (Christopher Nolan) has often said that he would like to direct a Bond movie, but he must have got tired of waiting for the producers to hire him, so he has gone ahead and made one of his own […] Basically, "Tenet" is a Bond movie which squeezes "Back to the Future 2" and "Edge of Tomorrow" into its last half-hour.
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.
The Action Scenes Are Where The Movie Shines
"Tenet's" real engine is its action sequences, in particular one involving a cargo plane and another multi-car chase. They're good; they have to be. As the eagle-eyed have pointed out, "Tenet" is a palindrome, which means it's possible you'll see some of the same scenes twice.
Similar to "Inception," which created an entire dream-world mythology only to have its revolving-hallway tussle become its most iconic sequence, in "Tenet," time inversion poses a civilization-annihilating threat, but the killer scene is, again, a corridor fight. We see it twice, and each time, after your brain clicks to one of the combatants fighting forward in time while the other goes backward, the sheer how-did-they-do-that ingenuity is dazzling.
But The Characters Of The Movie Fall Flat Compared To The Spectacle
Like much of his back catalogue, Nolan draws "Tenet's" characters in broad strokes. They're pieces in a plot-focussed puzzle more than fully-realized 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.
It's a particular disappointment to observe Washington coached into beardy impatience, as if he sensed the casual disrespect in being asked to play a character his writer-director didn't bother to name. (It's possible he grew the facial hair while Nolan was explaining the plot.) Pattinson gives tremendous fringe, but his absurd cut-glass accent sounds a wise attempt to put distance between himself and Nolan's ever-deteriorating dialogue […] As Branagh's moll, Elizabeth Debicki is here to look good in deckwear and have guns held to her head; similarly capable supporting players (Martin Donovan, Dimple Kapadia, Caine) offer gobbets of exposition before being packed off to payroll. "Tenet" suggests Nolan no longer has any interest in human beings beyond assets on a poster or dots on a diagram.
Though The Chemistry Between Washington And Pattinson Helps Support The Movie
Washington is basically James Bond, forward and backward, a kind of 00700, right down to the occasional wry one-liner. And if it takes megastar charisma to be able to memorably inhabit so vaporous a role, he is also blessed to be playing off an equally unflappable Pattinson — their chemistry, rather than the sexless semi-flirtation between Washington's hero and Debicki's damsel, gives the film whatever romance it has.
It's exhilarating, in a "Fast & Furious" sort of way, especially as so many of the stunts are done for real rather than with CGI. It helps, too, that the swaggering Washington and the smirking Pattinson make a likable double act.
And For Better Or For Worse, 'Tenet' Is A Very 'Nolan' Film
After a career spent exploring the concept of time, director Christopher Nolan finally tackles the subject head-on in "Tenet;" a film not just interested in timelines, but directly focused on them. It's a classic Nolan film in almost every way — packed tight with lofty ideas, impeccable set-pieces and pacy plotting — to the point that it's practically a comfort watch rather than exciting new ground.
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. The drive of Nolan and his collaborators is to craft something that acts simultaneously as an escapist thrill and a deeper rumination on our choices and sacrifices, and how even the most small of circumstances can lead to events outside of our control. There's a desire to entertain and engage audiences, not through the pre-established conventions of franchise lore that drives most blockbusters, but through a spark of originality that draws from past works but fiercely attempts to carve its own niche. This is to be lauded, even if the end result feels very loud and needlessly dense.
Though Like Most Nolan Movies, 'Tenet' Might Seem Cold And Missing An Emotional Heart
"Tenet" dazzles the senses, but it does not move the heart — a criticism common to all of Nolan's original films. And other widely recognized Nolan blind spots are also in evidence: it's depressing that as fine an actress as Debicki should be saddled with such a cipher role, given a son in lieu of a character and made responsible for the story's only bad decisions.
With "Tenet," he is ever more caught up in his own machinations: Nolan deploys his actors like spokespeople, appointed to field and deflect queries from his client base. This wasn't the case in "Memento" and 2002's "Insomnia," where there was an immediately recognizable complexity and frailty about his leads. In those days, Nolan was still an artisanal puzzlemaker, rather than a businessman and a brand.
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.