BY John Menick in Opinion | 03 SEP 20

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Might Just Kill You

The first blockbuster to return to theatres demonstrates Hollywood’s eagerness to ‘exploit bodily presence for profit’ during the pandemic


BY John Menick in Opinion | 03 SEP 20

At some point, every cinephile has asked the question: what would it take to end the dominion of summer blockbusters and superhero films? An asteroid, maybe? (Hollywood’s favourite excuse for planetary mayhem.) Or something more retro, like a silver saucer piloted by an alien on a mission of world peace and better cinema? Hollywood spectacle might preclude our ability to imagine a reality without capitalism, but it also prevents us from imagining a reality without Hollywood. No film envisions the final days of comic-book spectacle, though there are plenty of mock funerals for this or that bygone era of filmmaking. (See Quentin Tarantino’s melancholy paean to the tough-guy 1960s, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 2019.) Imagining the twilight of our own people-in-tights era would require something more extreme – something like the end of the world.

John David Washington in Tenet, 2020. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Which arrived, as everyone knows, last winter. End times weren’t engineered by a supervillain hellbent on destroying civilization. (Although US President Donald Trump’s administration tried to pin a comic-book story of treachery on the Chinese government.) Reality, in the form of a novel and deadly coronavirus, proved less spectacular. Despite the good intentions of Contagion (2011), nothing could have prepared us for this year’s mass death, political cravenness, conspiratorial extremism and general governmental ineptitude. As country after country went into lockdown, movie theatres closed worldwide and bombastic trailers that had previously announced ‘Coming this July’ soon hedged with ‘Coming soon’. By summertime, many planned, big-budget franchises, like Top Gun and Fast & Furious, gave up on 2020 entirely.

With billions in losses on the horizon, Hollywood turned to filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Writing in The Washington Post in March, Nolan, in an unusually sentimental turn, asked readers to remember the plight of the country’s shuttered cinemas. He wrote semi-passionately of the ‘regular people’ who work the concession stands and clean the aisles for an hourly minimum wage. Without mentioning the world’s biggest cinema chain, Chinese-owned AMC Theatres, Nolan described the plight of US family-owned B&B Theatres, a company that ‘apparently’ never fired any employee during its century of existence. Sounding more like Frank Capra than the director of Memento (2000), Nolan concluded: ‘We’re all in this together, something the moviegoing experience has been reinforcing for generations.’

Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington And Robert Pattinson in Tenet, 2020. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

But we aren’t all in this together – at least, not when profits are at stake. What Nolan didn’t mention was that he was on the verge of releasing a new film, Tenet: a time-travelling spy story that is also Hollywood’s US$200 million canary in a coalmine. Originally scheduled for a 17 July release, Tenet was delayed several times before Warner Bros eventually settled on a staggered global release at the end of August and beginning of September. With every delay, the rest of Hollywood’s major releases were also delayed, guaranteeing that Tenet would be the first blockbuster to play in cinemas. But why the insistence on a theatrical opening when streaming is more in step with reality? (Disney, for example, will stream its similarly budgeted new release, a live-action remake of Mulan, on Disney+ in the US, while opening the film in China.) Recouping a US$200 million outlay, for one. But also, most likely, a certain level of hubris.

Last weekend, Tenet opened in many overseas markets, where rates of COVID-19 transmission are generally lower than they are in the US. The film officially opens in the US today; although the studios and cinemas claim to have our safety in mind, many US states screening the movie are seeing record daily increases in COVID-19 cases. Opening in markets where indoor transmission is a very real possibility makes going to the movies a serious health risk. Nolan has potentially turned Tenet into a kind of cursed object – not unlike the videotape in The Ring (2002), which causes viewers to die seven days after watching it. But at least the fictional video in The Ring was an object of legendary fascination; Tenet, according to some critics at least, is not a very good film.

Elizabeth Debicki And John David Washington in Tenet, 2020. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

In cinema, as elsewhere, COVID-19 has accelerated trends that existed pre-lockdown. Attendance was generally in decline across the US during the last decade, with much viewing done at home – alone or in small groups – where the cinematic image is always in competition with email, chat, countless websites and other streaming services. Streaming is only the latest technology in a long process of audience isolation and fragmentation. Since the invention of television, each new innovation – cable, VHS, broadband, YouTube – has presented a greater variety of images to view. Given increased supply, viewership tastes mimicked general political formations: every culture becomes a niche; every niche becomes its own reality.

Nolan has long been an advocate for preserving theatrical releases, but he is also among the few directors still to benefit from the economy of scale that worldwide theatrical distribution offers. It’s true, as he writes in The Washington Post, that cinemas present an opportunity for collectivity, but, in the West, the major economic beneficiary of this is a largely white, patriarchal Hollywood monoculture. Theatres are not, and maybe never were, neutral spaces for collective cinephilic enjoyment. Instead, they are sites of vested economic interest that exploit bodily presence for profit – even if that presence comes at a risk to public health. As for cinema workers, Nolan could have advocated for the government to subsidize their employment until a vaccine for COVID-19 was developed. Instead, he and Hollywood seem fine making them frontline workers. Considering the options, the best thing audiences can do this autumn is help keep cinema workers safe by denying Nolan his profits and staying away from movie theatres. That way, we can prove the director right: we are all in this together.

Main Image: Kenneth Branagh in Tenet, 2020. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

John Menick is an artist and writer living in New York, US.