'Tenet' is dizzying and convoluted, but visually stunning, critics say

Key Points
  • Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" currently holds a "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Critics praised the film's visual effects, but criticized its story structure and heavy-handed sound mixing.
  • "Tenet" arrives in theaters in the U.S. on Sept. 4. 

In this article

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson star in "Tenet," an upcoming spy film written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros.

For fans of Christopher Nolan, "Tenet" hits each mark on the famed director's checklist: cerebral puzzles, dazzling fight sequences and bass-thumping sound mixing. 

Still, some critics wondered if it is really worth it for audiences to abandon their couches and head out to the big screen to see the film. "Tenet," which debuts Sept. 4, currently holds a 77% "Fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes from 154 reviews.

Nolan's latest feature, centers around a man called "The Protagonist," a secret agent played by John David Washington, who is tasked with hunting down a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and preventing World War III by traveling through time and inverting it. In truth, the ambitious film, is much more convoluted as it seeks to ground pseudoscience in reality.

"Trying to understand the story can make you feel like you're sitting on a stool in a dunce cap," Johnny Oleksinski, a writer for the New York Post, wrote in his review of the film.

"The months-long shroud of secrecy around the film's plot was not for fear of spoilers, but rather because Warner Bros. couldn't find a smart enough marketer to summarize this science blither-blather," he said.

"Tenet" becomes sensational when it stops trying to dole out exposition and offers up visually stunning chase sequences and close-quartered combat. The final third of the film reportedly makes up for the convoluted setup, critics say.

Here's a rundown of what critics said about "Tenet" ahead of its U.S. opening this weekend:

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

"Gorgeous visuals and game performances can't compensate for generic action, thin characters and a needlessly convoluted plot. Oh, and it would be nice if we could hear all of that exposition." 

That's how Forbes' critic Scott Mendelson begins his review of Nolan's "Tenet." 

Nolan has long been criticized for audio mixing, which often emphasizes music and sound effects over dialogue. It was a critique that reviewers emphasized for "Interstellar" and "The Dark Knight Rises." The same appears to be true for "Tenet," which relies heavily on exposition and monologues. 

"I sat dead center in the third row of an IMAX auditorium (far from anyone else, natch) while wearing my hearing aides and I still had a terrible time understanding much of the dialogue," Mendelson said. "For a film that's supposed to show audiences that theatrical moviegoing is worth saving, Tenet will probably play better on Blu-ray with the subtitles turned on."

Mendelson, like other critics, praised the visual effects seen in the film, but noted that while the stunts are practical and "technically impressive," they "don't really matter on an emotional or even narrative level." In other words, they are done to look good, not to further the plot.

Read the full review from Forbes.

Guy Lodge, Variety

Guy Lodge, a writer for Variety, is quick to point out in his review of "Tenet" that Nolan's story is complicated, but that the convoluted structure is overshadowed by the veteran director's filmmaking prowess.

"Tenet" is "a big, brashly beautiful, grandiosely enjoyable [film] that will provide succor to audiences long-starved for escapist spectacle on this beefy, made-for-Imax scale," Lodge wrote.

As with Nolan's other cerebral films, "Interstellar" and "Inception," "Tenet" spends time diving into why and how inversion works, pausing the action.

"As much verbiage as Nolan devotes to unpicking his jazziest ideas, the excitement is all in their cinematic illustration: The film's eerie images of bullets hurtling backwards through inverted air (the detritus of a coming war, we're told) are more striking than the neat theory behind their trajectory," Lodge said.

Like other critics, Lodge seems to surmise that "Tenet" is not quite up to par with some of Nolan's previous films, but is a fun ride for his fans.

Read the full review from Variety.

John David Washington stars in the upcoming spy-thriller "Tenet" from director Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros.

Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times

If there ever was a film to be seen on the big screen, it's this one, said Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times. 

"This is a visually breathtaking cinematic experience that deserves to be seen (in the safest possible environment, of course) on the biggest screen you can find, as Nolan has so famously fought for during the pandemic and multiple delayed release dates," Roeper wrote in his review of "Tenet."

Roeper notes that Nolan's film has flaws, but that in its reach for "cinematic greatness," "Tenet" reminds audiences of the magic of going out to the movies. 

In other words: just enjoy the ride.

Read the full review from Chicago Sun Times.

Christina Newland, Vulture

Like other critics, Vulture's Christina Newland, found "Tenet's" brutal fight scenes and reverse car chases genuinely thrilling, but balked at how quickly the plot wore thin.

"As the conspiracy moves in concentric circles and curlicues — in a sense, inverting itself — what was a novelty at the outset becomes more and more of a drag," she wrote in her review. "Time travel paradoxes, quantum physics, and 'temporal pincer movements' are explained in increasingly dull expository scenes (some even involving literal visual aids), causing audience confusion to bleed into indifference and finally into boredom."

Newland says that the film is "mostly entertaining" but "baffling." While many will return to theaters to rewatch Nolan's newest film, others will simply wait for a YouTube video to neatly parse out explanations and theories.

"[Nolan] is enraptured by his own cleverness, ready to pummel and dazzle his audience into abject submission," Newland wrote. "Anything to distract from the fact that that 'Tenet' is a locked puzzle box with nothing inside."

Read the full review from Vulture.

Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of CNBC, also owns Rotten Tomatoes.

'Tenet' grosses more than $53 million worldwide despite Covid-19 pandemic
'Tenet' grosses more than $53 million worldwide despite Covid-19 pandemic