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The first spoiler-free Tenet reviews are all over the place

Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster is slowly rolling out to places with functional movie theaters

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John David Washington looks at a bullet hole in a window in Tenet. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Christopher Nolan loves to play with time in his films, so the quest to put his new film Tenet in theaters must have been a thrill for him. Due to shutdowns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie has shifted spots on the release calendar several times over the summer. Now, the hope is that Labor Day weekend might be sturdy enough for at least some American filmgoers to head to their local multiplexes to watch John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki prevent whatever World War III-esque catastrophe Nolan has hiding behind the curtain of his IMAX-sized action movie.

The mystery of how exactly Tenet will safely arrive to U.S. theaters has not overshadowed the mystery of Nolan’s spy thriller, which until this moment had not been seen by anyone. Was it good? Was it “Christopher Nolan good?” Was it good enough to renew interest in going to the movies? The situation created pressure, but at the end of the day, the hope was that Tenet was just a banger of a summer blockbuster.

Today, two questions found answers. Tenet is absolutely coming out in two weeks, at the very least finding its way into theaters around the world where it’s safe enough to open; and the enjoyment factor is going to be all over the map. A small amount of critics, mainly in Canada and the UK, were able to catch Tenet in anticipation of the theatrical release, and the reviews range from disaster to ecstatic, stunt-heavy achievement. For those who want a spoiler-free taste of Tenet, here are a few of the reactions so far:

From the New York Times:

Gorgeously shot across multiple global locations and pivoting on an elastic, time-bending conceit (more on that later/earlier), the film is undeniably enjoyable, but its giddy grandiosity only serves to highlight the brittleness of its purported braininess. This would hardly be a criticism of any other blockbuster. But Nolan is, by several exploding football fields, the foremost auteur of the “intellectacle,” which combines popcorn-dropping visual ingenuity with all the sedate satisfactions of a medium-grade Sudoku. Within the context of this self-created brand of brainiac entertainment, Tenet meets all expectations, except the expectation that it will exceed them. Forgive the circularity of this argument: it’s a side effect of watching the defiantly circular Tenet.

From The Guardian:

No wonder Christopher Nolan thinks Tenet can save cinema. That’s a doddle compared to the challenge faced in his film, which, we’re frequently reminded, is a proper whopper. Prevent world war three? Bigger. Avoid armageddon? Worse. To spell it out would be a spoiler, but think 9/11 times a hundred, to quote Team America: World Police, a film Tenet faintly resembles. The fate of a few multiplexes is small fry.

Lucky, really, because Tenet is not a movie it’s 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.

From The Telegraph:

Feeling your heart and brain race to keep up is a significant part of the fun here, and in that unique and unmistakable Nolan-esque way, there is a series of exhilarating mental snaps whenever the two temporal perspectives intermesh, like the teeth on opposite sides of a zip. As for the parts you won’t and can’t, appreciate first time around – well, rewatching is always an option. If Tenet does revive the British box office, as cinemas are praying it will, that will be down in no small part to the fact you have to see it at least three times to be sure you understood it [...] This is a film that will cause many to throw up their hands in bamboozlement — and many more, I hope, to clasp theirs in awe and delight.

From Indiewire:

Nolan is not invested in the meat-and-potatoes plotting of lesser mortals. He trades in big-picture concepts, and his latest is tried-and-tested: a device that reverses matter. Careers too, apparently. Tenet revisits the terrain of 2000’s Memento with more money and a protagonist — sorry, Protagonist — who, in tracking and repurposing that gizmo for good, masters the flow of time rather than falling prey to it. Yet plot-wise, Tenet has more in common with Minority Report than Memento, even as it lacks the sophistication to make that route worthy of exploration. An insinuating mid-budget noir has been punched up into a bet-the-house studio actioner; interminably PG-13 shootouts and fistfights replace those tangible, haunting Post-Its and Polaroids.

From Variety:

[Nolan’s] musings are rooted more in physics than philosophy or psychology, with the film’s grabby hook — that you can change the world not by traveling through time, but inverting it — explored in terms of how it practically works, not how it makes anyone feel. If this tendency leads Nolan’s critics to label him a chilly filmmaker, there’s the barest hint of knowing silliness to Tenet that warms it up. 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.

Tenet arrives to theaters, in theory, on Sept. 4.