What critics have to say about ‘Tenet,’ Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster

Will the director's new sci-fi spy drama save the summer blockbuster season?

Elizabeth Debicki, left, and John David Washington in a scene from "Tenet."

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It’s now been almost six months since a major blockbuster hit movie theaters thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, movie theaters have slowly started to reopen across the nation (including here in Massachusetts), largely showing classic movies or films that were originally intended for a smaller audience, like “The Burnt Orange Heresy.”

With movie theaters announcing and then delaying reopening dates throughout the spring and summer, and studios either pushing their planned blockbusters to 2021 or releasing them on-demand, the only constant has been Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” and the director’s desire for his movie to be the one that welcomes audiences back to theaters.


Nolan is known for producing imaginative blockbusters that are best experienced on the big screen, including “Inception,” “Dunkirk,” and “Interstellar.” With a budget of $200 million, “Tenet,” which opens overseas in some markets on Aug. 26 and begins early screenings in the U.S. on Aug. 31 before opening nationwide on Sept. 3, could be Nolan’s biggest project yet. An ambitious sci-fi spy thriller, “Tenet” stars John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) as intelligence agents attempting to stop the destruction of the planet by a villainous billionaire (Kenneth Branagh) who has learned how to “invert” time.

So far, reviews of “Tenet” have been generally positive, with the film earning an 83 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this article’s publication. While the critics have been largely charmed, scientific experts have warned that movie theaters are risky places to visit right now. One epidemiologist told the A.V. Club that “there is no scenario in which going to a movie theater is a good idea,” while another said that being in a room with poorly circulated air for two hours with people laughing and eating is “just about the last thing I’d do right now.”


Traditionally, we at Boston.com provide review round-ups as a way for viewers to decide whether it’s worth heading to the theaters for any given film. Obviously, there is a lot more than the quality of a movie that factors into that decision right now. While we still plan to publish review round-ups for theatrical releases, we ask readers to familiarize themselves with the state’s regulations regarding movie theaters and the risks they would be taking — for themselves and for others — before making their own decision.

With that in mind, here’s what some of the top film critics are saying, both good and bad, about “Tenet.”


The Good

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gave “Tenet” five stars out of five, calling it “a gigantically confusing, gigantically entertaining and gigantically gigantic metaphysical action thriller.”

“A deadpan jeu d’esprit, a cerebral cadenza, a deadpan flourish of crazy implausibility – but supercharged with steroidal energy and imagination. As head-scratchers go, it’s a scalp-shredder, a skull-mangler. But it’s gloriously ambitious and I staggered out of the cinema, plucking off my face mask dizzy with Nolan-vertigo.”


In the New York Times, Jessica Kiang wrote that despite a relative thematic emptiness, “Tenet” is the type of first-rate blockbuster audiences may not see again for awhile, one that delivers on the price of admission with its very first action scene.

“So seems ‘Tenet,’ the kind of hugely expensive, blissfully empty spectacle it is difficult to imagine getting made in the near-to-medium future, now a fascinating artifact of a lovably clueless civilization unaware of the disaster lurking around the corner. Seek it out, if only to marvel at the entertainingly inane glory of what we once had and are in danger of never having again.”


The BBC’s Will Gompertz gave “Tenet” four stars out of five, writing that the film will stir audience’s minds and “has to be worth a trip to the cinema.”

“[Tenet] is a piece of what is now called ‘event’ cinema, an immersive experience to stimulate all the senses, which it does, from Ludwig Göransson’s throbbing Wagnerian score to visual effects company DNEG’s eye-boggling CGI. In terms of spectacle, Tenet delivers. The stunts, the camera work and the scale are impressive. As is Nolan’s appetite to use blockbuster entertainment as a platform to seriously consider existential threats, the unconscious mind, and cutting-edge physics.”

The So-So

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Nicolas Fonseca gave “Tenet” a B-, praising the film’s spectacle and scope, while wondering whether its anxiety-inducing plotting risks “audience disengagement.”

“Tenet cuts both ways, welcoming us into Nolan’s time-bending world of wonder while also practically daring us to come out the other end without a headache. Because as much as Tenet succeeds at being visually and technologically dazzling, it is more often than not almost unbearably draining.”

Time Out’s Phil de Semlyen gave “Tenet” three stars out of five, writing that it delivers “visual intensity but little heart.” 

“Nolan devotees will still get a kick out of Tenet’s cerebral ideas and no doubt forgive its overloaded climax, while the more casual cinemagoer will get plenty of bang for their buck amid its vast visuals (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema drenches the Nordic location in cool slate greys, while one clifftop shot of the Amalfi Coast is utterly beguiling). And after five months stuck in front of the small screen, maybe being a little overwhelmed is no bad thing. But it’s hard to escape the sense that less might have been more.

The Ugly

Writing for Vulture, Christina Newland said that Nolan’s action scenes began as thrilling but grew into “assaultive” over the 150-minute runtime, and its droning explanations of time travel paradoxes and quantum physics would cause “confusion to bleed into indifference and finally into boredom.”

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



Mike McCahill, writing for Indiewire, criticized “Tenet” as humorless and devoid of meaning, criticizing Nolan as more concerned with building complex plot machinations than the characters on-screen.

“What’s really there to untangle, beyond loops of string and a whole lot of smoke rings? Anyone ready to obsess over a doodad on a backpack as they did over the spinning top of ‘Inception’ can cling to the illusion of Nolan as the movie messiah. On this evidence, though, he’s become a very trying, ungenerous, ever-so-slightly dull boy.”

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