The movie of the year was released last week. And, no, I’m not talking about Christopher Nolan’s Tenet; I’m talking about the briskly edited, 34-second video of a masked Tom Cruise, being driven in a black van through the streets of London in order to attend a theatrical screening of Nolan’s long-delayed time-trip blockbuster. This movie has it all: National Lampoon’s European Vacation–caliber moving shots of London landmarks; a shot where Cruise stands in front of a giant Tenet poster and proudly declares, “Back to the movies”; several shots of Cruise lurched forward in his theater seat transfixed by Nolan’s film; a shot where Cruise stands up at the end of the film and states, “Great to be back in a movie theater, everybody”; and, well, that’s it. (The mask Cruise is wearing appears to be an N95 valve mask, which, notoriously, protects only the wearer from infection.) It is as craven a work of cinematic propaganda as you are likely to see, but, for that reason, it is maybe the great film of the pandemic so far.
While nations have gone in and out of lockdown, schools have opened and closed and opened and closed, and families have separated from one another for months at a time, the global film industry has itchily sought our fastest possible return to the cineplex. Cruise—whose video is captioned, “Big Movie. Big Screen. Loved it.”—did not emerge from self-isolation to tell us that going to the movies again is safe. He emerged to tell us that going to the movies again is good. (It’s worth noting that Cruise was accompanied by Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie, who is aiming to restart production of the Cruise-starring franchise’s latest installment next month.) This tension—between the relative safety of the theatrical experience and the cultural sanctity of the theatrical experience—has defined the film industry’s response to the pandemic this summer. The cost in lives and the cost in money have both been rhetorically laundered through the magic and romance of cinema. And it’s no accident that, at the center of this fracas, is the director of Tenet himself.
He hasn’t been in charge of a bungled federal response, nor is he wantonly spreading false information to the public, but Nolan has become a second-tier villain of the pandemic. Although he’s been relatively quiet as Tenet’s release date has been adjusted and adjusted and adjusted again, when he has spoken, it’s been in the same rhapsodic register as Cruise. In a video for Chinese moviegoers who’ll be seeing the film this week, for instance, he said: “I like nothing more than escaping to another world through the power of movies. And Tenet is our attempt to make as big a film as possible, with as immersive action as possible for the big screen.” It’s in line with long-standing Hollywood tradition to frame an epic adventure film like Tenet as a means of imaginative escape for people across the globe whose lives have been upended by a rampaging virus and the economic and social collapses it’s brought in its wake. While two and a half hours in the immersive environment of an Imax theater might provide needed escapism for viewers mired in the culture of the coronavirus, it provides no escape from the virus itself. It’s telling that Nolan foregrounds cinema’s ability to help us forget the world around us rather than, say, critically engage or rethink it. It’s no use taking a fantastic voyage to Christopher Nolan’s alternate universe if our bodies are still sitting around in this one, snorting up all the aerosol droplets the theater’s A/C vents are helpfully distributing around the room. The “power of the movies,” if it’s mobilized in this way to herd viewers into spaces as demonstrably unsafe as movie theaters, is a dangerous one. What if the “power of movies” could allow us to escape to another world from the safety of our own homes?
As the release date shifted from July to August to September, Warner Bros. has been pushing the narrative that Tenet would be released when it was safe for us to see Tenet. Deadline reported that Warner Bros. would be opening Tenet stateside only in those cities where “it’s seen that it’s safe to reopen.” It was also reported this week that COVID-19 hospitalizations where I live in St. Louis are approaching a record high. And yet, as early as Monday night, when sneak previews begin across the U.S., I’ll be able to go to the Galleria 6 or the Hi-Pointe or the AMC Esquire 7 and watch Tenet in an air-conditioned room full of people. It’s not safe. But here comes Tenet.
This isn’t just about the specific bad luck of being a would-be blockbuster in America’s pandemic summer. For Nolan, at least, it’s as much about long-simmering dread over the loss and degradation of cinema by digital technology. There are few filmmakers as evangelical in their opposition to the digital—to digital cinematography, digital projection, digital effects, and, heaven forbid, digital streaming—as Christopher Nolan. Nolan avows the not-uncommon belief that these innovations represent a death of cinema, that digital tools not only cheapen the product and the experience but threaten the very medium of film itself. He has something of a point here. Seeing a film with 70 mm clarity and laser-aligned sound genuinely is a thrilling experience—and it’s one that, to judge from Tenet’s $53 million opening weekend, much of the world is raring to get back to. There’s an indescribable magic to seeing a classic film projected from an original print on an enormous screen, surrounded by hundreds of other enchanted spectators. And, while the rise of digital streaming has the feel of a democratic delivery system, it’s as capable of letting great films disappear as it is rendering them accessible to broader audiences. It’s also one of several culprits making the more boutique pleasures of old-fashioned projection and exhibition harder to come by.
Nolan is, however, uncommon in his orthodoxy about the bleak future this divide portends. Tenet, as he says in that video, was made “for the big screen.” For Nolan, his films are inseparable from the specificity of their medium format and exhibition context. To say Tenet is made for the big screen is, of course, a common kind of directorial cliché, but, for Nolan and many others, it also carries a very literal, material charge. This film, outside its ideal exhibition context, projected on large format film in a darkened theater, is fundamentally something else. For Tenet to lose its run in theaters, for it to go direct to streaming, for this work of filmic art to immediately be subordinated to the digital economy would be an untenably compromised situation for this fundamentalist filmmaker.
Nolan’s aesthetic fundamentalism is not the primary reason for Tenet’s hasty return to theaters—it probably doesn’t mean very much to Warner Bros. at all, and most theater chains don’t even have the technical capacity to project Nolan’s films the way he’d wish—but it provides an artistic alibi for what is, at bottom, a matter of finances. Indeed, Nolan himself articulated the structure of this alibi in a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed warning against the tyranny of the digital. “The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers,” he wrote, “who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels.”
The financial concerns that buttress and contextualize Nolan’s cinematic advocacy are real. For every executive whose payday is theoretically preserved by the opening of this film, there are thousands of below-the-line craftspeople and theater workers whose jobs remain safe. But the lesson of this crisis so far is that losses are inevitable in the short term, and that the only way to avoid greater losses in the medium term is to fundamentally reconceive what the world looks like. The U.S. has lagged behind its peers in part because of a widespread cultural refusal to change in this way, to “lose” a way of being—even temporarily—in service of saving the lives and livelihoods of those around us. (The theater industry has argued that if they’re not able to reopen soon, the damage could be irreversible, but it would be worse if movie theaters become known as superspreading hot spots.) The Tenet fiasco, shot through with romantic nostalgia for a particular type of cinematic experience that was at some risk of disappearance even before COVID-19, is a catastrophic fable of coronavirus denialism, particularly in the U.S. Long partial to ponderous tales of masked heroes—whether they be batmen or WWII-era wingmen—Nolan and Warner Bros. find themselves, at least philosophically, in league with the anti-maskers and anti-lockdown protesters. When the lights go down in the theater, the outside world melts away—this is cinema’s most notorious special effect. And it’s an effect that plenty of lawmakers and business owners and frustrated citizens have been trying to reproduce when they’ve rushed reopenings and prematurely lifted lockdown orders and defiantly posed for maskless photo-ops. If we go back to work, if we go back to school, if we go back to the movies, the pandemic melts away. But when the lights go up, we know that’s not true. Tenet, despite its radical reimagining of past and future, will one day come to symbolize the stubborn, pointless insistence that the world continue on exactly as it had been before.