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Early ‘Tenet’ Reviews Show Critics Split on Christopher Nolan’s Latest

The real question is whether people will buy tickets.

Warner Bros. Pictures

COVID-19 forced movie theaters around the world to shutter, delaying blockbuster releases and, in many cases, pushed studios to eschew theatrical exhibition in favor of direct-to-streaming releases.

Tenet is supposed to be the movie that saves them. The blockbuster has a stacked cast (including Robert Pattinson, John David Washington, Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Caine), big-budget special effects, and the imprimatur of Christopher Nolan, one of the few directors working whose films can win Oscars and do nine figures at the box office.

A select group of critics has seen Nolan’s latest, which means the first spoiler-free reviews are rolling in. The consensus is that there is none, as what for some is a (tempered) triumph is to others an unmitigated mess.

Writing in The Guardian, Catherine Shoard plants herself firmly in the latter camp.

“Tenet is not a movie 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.”

In the opposite camp are those like Jessica Kiang at the New York Times, whose celebrations of what the film does well come paired with acknowledgments of what it doesn’t.

“Ideally presented in 70-millimeter IMAX, Nolan’s preferred, towering aspect ratio, arrayed with the telegenic faces of a cast of incipient superstars, gorgeously shot across multiple global locations and pivoting on an elastic, time-bending conceit,” she writes. “[T]he film is undeniably enjoyable, but its giddy grandiosity only serves to highlight the brittleness of its purported braininess.”

In other words, Tenet is a spectacle worthy of the big screen — a necessary ingredient of any movie theater renaissance — but its convoluted premise can be perplexing, and not in a good way.

Thankfully, it appears that not fully understanding the film does not preclude one rom enjoying it. Several reviewers said the film is best when it lets itself be a James Bond adventure — Kiang even referred to Washington’s character as “00700.”

In Variety, Guy Lodge wrote that “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.”

These reviews suggest that, in normal times, Tenet would be a film worth seeing in theaters. The question now is whether, in these decidedly abnormal times, whether the film can lure a skeptical public back to theaters.