Christopher Nolan has worked many miracles on the big screen before. Whether it’s literalising our subconscious in Inception, or re-investing Batman with dignity and purpose in his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan is a heroic filmmaker who always pushes boundaries. In 2020, however, it seemed like he’d come up against his greatest foe in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ensuing fallout from the coronavirus caused his new movie Tenet to pinball around the release schedule, to the extent that many doubted if it would come out in 2020 at all. However, Nolan stuck to his guns and Tenet is finally here in all its wondrous, IMAX-lensed glory.
An excellent cast headed by John David Washington guides us through this convoluted story of ‘time-inversion’ (not time-travel), with a multitude of global locations and ambitious action sequences unfolding before our eyes. Nolan is usually a critical darling as far as reviews are concerned, so what’s the reaction to Tenet been like? Scroll down for some spoiler-free samples.
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.”
Variety: “The sheer meticulousness of Nolan’s grand-canvas action aesthetic is enthralling, as if to compensate for the stray loose threads and teasing paradoxes of his screenplay — or perhaps simply to underline that they don’t matter all that much.
"Tenet is no holy grail, but for all its stern, solemn posing, it’s dizzy, expensive, bang-up entertainment of both the old and new school. Right now, as it belatedly crashes a dormant global release calendar, it seems something of a time inversion in itself.”
BBC.com: “To that extent, 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").
"What differentiates Tenet are the bigger ideas in which Nolan is framing his story. It turns what could have been a sub-Bond action-packed spy movie into an inventive, bold and thought-provoking interrogation into our perception of time. It won't leave you shaken, but your mind will be stirred. And that has to be worth a trip to the cinema.”
The Guardian: 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. Yet, for all the nifty bits of reverse chronology, there’s little that lingers in the imagination in the same way as Inception or even Interstellar’s showcase bendy business.
"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.”
The Independent: “In the place of words, atmosphere thrives. Tenet is ruled by a deep, perfidious sense of tension. It’s the rare action film where the characters don’t just say the world will end if they fail in their mission – you feel it, too. Ludwig Göransson (stepping into the shoes of Nolan’s usual collaborator, Hans Zimmer) creates a score built of low, anxious vibrations that pulsate through even the most incidental of scenes.
"Most of the colours we see are familiar to Nolan’s worlds – yellow tones make everything feel like it’s been lightly coated in toxic smog – though one particular, showstopping scene is bathed in hellish reds and blues. The action scenes, all carefully shaped around the idea of ‘inverted time’, are coordinated to look like some kind of strange, modernist ballet.”
Empire: “Try to keep up,” one character says in regards to the mechanics of it all. “Does your head hurt?” another asks later. Somebody is told they need to stop thinking in linear terms. No doubt some big brains will be fine with all of this — and will be able to follow the plot — but for the rest of us, Tenet is often a baffling, bewildering ride.
"Does it matter? Kind of. 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.”