‘Tenet’ Needs Movie Theaters Even More Than Movie Theaters Need ‘Tenet’

The question of "how" to see a new Christopher Nolan movie has become a running joke, but with "Tenet" the joke isn't funny anymore.
Warner Bros.

When it comes to a new Christopher Nolan movie, the question of if you should see it has long been supplanted by the question of how you might do that. On the big screen, of course — that much is a given — but which screen, and how big? Will the local multiplex do, or is it worth schlepping to the IMAX across town? Can you settle for digital projection, or is the clarity of 70mm a must? Screening options have become something of a running joke with Nolan movies — “Dunkirk” was released in so many different formats that Warner Bros. had to create an illustrated guide — and the eyerolls that accompany his blockbuster timepieces now arrive with the kind of clockwork precision that he would have to appreciate.

Now that we’ve thrown the worst pandemic of the last century into the mix, the how of seeing a new Christopher Nolan movie starts to get a little complicated, even for him. It starts to feel like less of a joke than a logic puzzle shaded with personal risk, unnerving self-doubt, and a certain moral dubiousness — one that’s compounded if you crow about the experience afterward in a way that might inspire other people to follow suit. There’s no “right way” to eat popcorn at the moment — even if it’s much safer in countries with competent governments — and anyone craving a taste of “Tenet” has to adopt their own approach.

New Zealanders did it by closing ranks and behaving responsibly all summer long. Tom Cruise did it by raiding the “Mission: Impossible” props department for the coolest face-covering he could find and slipping into a London IMAX. Some Americans, stuck in the coastal States where movie theaters have yet to reopen, did it by flying halfway across the country.

Between conversation-garbling masks, heist-like screening vibes, long-distance trips, or some combination of the three, every showing of “Tenet” has been shaped by the collective thrill of knotting time around itself so that it briefly points in both directions at once — back to a past where it was safe to watch a movie, and forward to a future where it might be safe to do so again. In other words, the experience of going to see “Tenet” so palpably captures the experience of a Christopher Nolan movie that actually watching the damn thing almost feels like an afterthought.

That was certainly my experience September 1, when I joined a small handful of safety-conscious friends on a road trip to the multiplex above a zombified Connecticut mall where we’d rented an auditorium for three hours. Everyone knows that internet-era film critics are insufferable one-percenters who wield their immense privilege with a Kushnerian lack of self-awareness, but even a prole like you can enjoy one of Cinemark’s “private watch parties” for $150, which averages out to less than the cost of a regular movie ticket if you bring a large enough pod.

For now, that’s pretty much the only way I’d feel comfortable going to a movie theater in America. I was relieved when IndieWire joined several other sites in refusing to review “New Mutants” last week, and I’m extremely reluctant to write anything that could encourage someone to let hype overwhelm their responsibility to public health.

If that proves too difficult a needle to thread — and I’ll be deeply sorry if it does — “Tenet” made the task a bit easier than I anticipated. Nolan’s latest mega-budget experiment with cinematic time is, on first watch, the messiest and least engaging thing he’s made since “The Dark Knight Rises.” For all of the criticism that “Inception” has received for its constant exposition (fair) or lack of heart (wrong), and for all of the shade thrown at “Interstellar” for being directed by the tea-swilling IMDB icon who made “Inception” (accurate, but stupid), “Tenet” is the first of Nolan’s original films that can’t escape the terminal velocity of its own time-bending conceit.

In this splashy Bond-adjacent sci-fi spectacle about entropy and the eternal nuisance of saving our world from its fetish for self-destruction, the rules of the game don’t propel the story forward so much as they do forward, and then backward, and then back and forth until it starts to feel like the whole movie is stuck in place. Which isn’t to say it’s a total wash, or that all of its pleasures demand a strategy guide or a PhD in “Braid.” Nolan’s confidence, his vision, his singular ability to extrapolate mad spectacle from the simplest elements of cinema, making it seem like he’s inventing an entirely new form… it’s all here.

There are, as ever, a handful of seismic analog setpieces, the best of which are seamlessly entwined into a dizzying heist that makes you smile and shake your head at how Nolan can build a puzzle and solve it at the same time. Robert Pattinson wears scarves so well that it almost makes up for what Darren Aronofksy has done to them, Michael Caine eats a lot of french fries in what feels like both a short cameo and a sweet goodbye, John David Washington’s beard delivers one of the year’s most expressive performances, an Elizabeth Debicki is finally allowed to look as tall as she is in real life. Her talents are wasted on a one-dimensional mommy role, but her scenes with Kenneth Branagh (whose hammy performance as a Russian bad guy is prosciutto-thin) seem like they were shot with the same forced-perspective trickery that Peter Jackson used inside Frodo Baggins’ house. Anyone who thinks Nolan is humorless isn’t paying attention. Best of all, the whole thing somehow coheres into a nice commentary on generational self-interest and the debt we owe our collective future.

However. This is a road riddled with uncharacteristically large potholes, the characters are hollow and clichéd even by Nolan’s representative standards, and the while the big picture is easy enough to understand, things are often too chaotic to follow minute to minute. Aaron Taylor-Johnson literally talks the audience through a diagram of the big finale before it starts, and I was still lost the moment shit got real.

For all of the third-act eureka moments of closure, “Tenet” is sorely missing the symphonic wallop of Nolan’s best work, and it’s centuries removed from the human touch that made something like “The Prestige” so special. Rewatches will likely prove even more rewarding than they usually do with Nolan movies, but on first blush the most engaging conflict in “Tenet” is between the film’s shape and its story. It holds your interest through entropy alone, and it’s easy to imagine how the slightest distraction might cause the whole thing to sputter apart.

After months of anxious chatter about how this atemporal epic would single-handedly bring multiplexes back to life and save cinema from the streaming scourge, it turns out that “Tenet” might need movie theaters more than movie theaters need “Tenet.”

Which, sadly, isn’t to suggest that YOU HAVE TO SEE “TENET” ON THE BIG SCREEN so much as it is to say that the film might not work at all on a small one. Then again, few movies would benefit more from a rewind button. Or subtitles. Or having the Wikipedia page open on your lap. Or all three at once.

The truth is that the most thrilling aspects of seeing “Tenet” had little to do with the film itself. I doubt anything in “Unhinged” or “New Mutants” could match the electric shock of Ludwig Göransson’s score or the brutalist architecture of Nolan’s action, but the unique joy of going to the movies again was clear before the feature started.

You could feel it in the excitement during the car ride there, and during the surreal experience of walking through an empty mall as we searched for the theater. You could feel it when the lights went down and the “Dune” trailer (or what turned out to be the two-minute trailer for the “Dune” trailer) promised another transportive adventure on the horizon, one that will spirit us away from the nightmare we’ve been stuck in for at least the last six months … and into a much sexier nightmare on the sands of Arrakis.

By the time we got to the “Wonder Woman 1984” trailer — and a Cinemark promo in which Chris Pine effectively reminded us that watching movies on your phone is stupid and harmful to an industry that’s doing just great and not at all suffering an existential crisis, why do you ask? — it was already obvious that I hadn’t seen a movie since March. Not really.

Christopher Nolan might be the rare auteur who has the power to compel the masses back to the multiplexes, but “Tenet” shouldn’t be framed as the only film capable of saving an entire tradition. For one thing, that narrative foments the kind of false urgency that might inspire someone to go to a theater against their better judgment. For another, the mere act of going to the movies after half a year of involuntary abstinence was enough to underscore why the theatrical experience isn’t just an inextricable part of the attraction, but also an invaluable attraction unto itself.

I’ve never been shy about the value I place on the theatrical experience, and I’ve done my best to be mindful of the privilege that moviegoing has come to entail in an increasingly stratified country that has long deprived many communities from real access to the arts. On a similar tip, I know this article can’t avoid a certain degree of hypocrisy (“going to the movies is so great — don’t do it!”), even if it highlights a cost-effective method that seems relatively safe.

But at a time when media websites like this one constantly insist that movie theaters and streaming are locked in an apocalyptic war between the past and the future, the most valuable takeaway from seeing “Tenet” might be that one can’t exist without the other. Either they strike a certain harmony, or the present will be crushed to death between them.

It would have been a colossal waste to release “Tenet” straight to HBO Max, but I still wish that Warner Bros. would have pushed until it’s safer for general domestic audiences to see it in theaters (just as I wish every studio would postpone their slate for as long as it’s financially viable to do so, however naïve that might be). Not only because massive numbers of preventable deaths tend to suck the fun out of box office tallies, but also because it’s self-defeating for everyone to keep acting like tomorrow has already won.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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