Movies

Why on Earth Was Christopher Nolan Trying to Lure Us Into Movie Theaters Teeming With Pathogens to Watch Tenet?

The Movie Club, Entry 5.

Christopher Nolan behind the camera.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Warner Bros.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.

Dear gang,

As we start our second round, what you’ve all written has my mind vibrating in so many directions I don’t know where to start. But for some reason I keep coming back to a movie none of us have talked about yet, one that made it onto only one of our lists (Justin’s, as an honorable mention), one that I haven’t even seen: Tenet. At the beginning of this year, Christopher Nolan’s two-and-half-hour sci-fi thriller was ready and waiting to be rolled out like a sleek, shiny, custom-built car—a Batmobile, if you will. Its original release date was in mid-July, at the height of the summer movie season. Then came the rolling closings of movie theaters nationwide.

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Tenet is about a CIA agent who messes with the flow of time, which is essentially what Nolan tried to do all year as his film’s release was postponed multiple times, costing Warner Bros. hundreds of thousands of dollars each time. In interviews and editorials, Nolan positioned himself as a champion of the movie industry—and his biggest, most expensive film yet as the one that would start drawing audiences back into theaters. But the words he wrote in late March in an idealistic Washington Post editorial about the future of the industry—”there are parts of life that are far more important than going the movies. But when you consider what theaters provide, maybe not so many as you might think”—hit very differently by Sept. 3, when Tenet finally became the first big studio tentpole release to open in U.S. theaters since the pandemic began.

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After a spring and summer of fighting about masks had devolved into the numbing realization that the government’s pandemic plan was to … have no plan whatsoever, about the opening or closing of theaters or schools or restaurants or anything else, the Nolan/WB stance of “my multiplex, right or wrong” began look less like movie-industry boosterism and more like simple arrogance. Especially when other powerful industry players joined the chorus of exhortation—remember that promotional video Tom Cruise posted of himself, masked and stoked in the back of a chauffeured van, going to see Tenet at an appropriately distanced London theater? It was one of the year’s many Everest-high peaks of celebrity obliviousness.

Though it spent a few weeks at the top of the box office due to the scarcity of other new theatrical releases (in some multiplexes it played on virtually every screen), Tenet was a financial failure relative to its high cost of production and marketing, losing the studio somewhere between $50 million and $100 million. Of course, this fact tells us little about the quality of Tenet and a lot about the level of public confidence in the safety of moviegoing. But with even a few months’ distance on the debate, it seems unbelievable that Warner Bros. had the gall to challenge us to risk our lives to see a movie. For myself, I know no amount of Nolanesque mind-bending would have lured me into a theater teeming with pathogens to watch the damn thing, and I resented that audiences across the country were being asked to do so as proof of their continued faith in the theatrical experience.

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In his last post, Odie talked about his yearlong indifference to seeing First Cow, however much praise and accolades it won, because he’s never liked a Kelly Reichardt film before and at some level simply can’t be bothered. Even as someone who’s never not liked a Reichardt film—even her quickly forgotten eco-thriller Night Moves had its moments—I can identify. That feeling of resisting seeing a major new movie from some combination of personal disinclination, professional disinterest, and sheer stubbornness is one I contend with all the time, and I wonder if you all do too, and which movies it happened with this year. In theory I believe that as critics we should be open to seeing, and potentially loving or hating, any film, but there are so many movies coming at us now through so many firehoses that some basic principles of triage are necessary. And maybe Nolan is to me as Reichardt is to Odie, an auteur with a sensibility I’ve just never vibed with.

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Judgments of the two movies’ aesthetic value aside, in commercial positioning Tenet is the anti–First Cow: the big, loud, expensive blockbuster versus the small, quiet, relatively low-budget indie. And for reasons that had more to do with economics and epidemiology than cinema, this wound up being the year of the latter rather than the former. First Cow won best picture of the year from the New York Film Critics’ Circle and is now in the conversation about the year’s best movies, though the din of the delayed Oscar season may be about to drown out its gentle lowing. Justin, in your next post can you give that film’s bovine heroine, and the two friends who milk her on the sly as part of a (literally) sweet entrepreneurial scheme, their due—and, in the process, maybe nonjudgmentally nudge Odie in the direction of giving First Cow a watch?

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Alison, you asked me to name a movie this year that I was outside the critical mainstream on. It’s hard to think of an answer, which must either mean that I’m the most basic pumpkin-spice critic out there or simply that there were fewer films we all shared a common discourse about in a scattered, nearly theaterless year. This is way too mild an answer to start a fight on those “state your unpopular opinion” hot-take prompts, but I can say that I liked Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble comedy Let Them All Talk much more than most critics seemed to, enough to put it on my Top 10 list and turn it on a second time in a week when I already had plenty to watch. It debuted quietly near the end of the year on HBO Max, the still-new streaming service that, beginning next year, will become a massive industry player, as Warner Bros. releases all its new movies simultaneously in theaters and on that service. The story of a successful but self-centered novelist (Meryl Streep) who attempts to reach out to a pair of estranged friends (Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen) by inviting them on a luxury trans-Atlantic crossing, Let Them All Talk is an unassuming hangout movie with smart, spiky dialogue that was partly improvised on set and partly scripted by the idiosyncratic short-story master Deborah Eisenberg. You might think of it as Magic Mike XXL on the high seas. It sets up situations familiar from romantic comedy, road movies, and dramas about female friendship without ever settling on any one of those genres; there’s something odd and asymmetric about its structure that stays with you, with a couple of huge and never-fully-resolved twists that come only minutes from the end.

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The movie’s full title, presumably expanded after the pandemic changed the world it was being released into, is Let Them All Talk, aka the Fall of 2019, and the film feels like a throwback not only because it takes place on a public event–packed ocean cruise of the kind that no one in their right mind would set foot on now. Let Them All Talk is a midscale, midbudget movie for and about adults whose conflicts hinge not on reversing the direction of time to save the world, but on stuff like finding the right word for the next sentence in your book, or the right time to reach for the hand of the person you’re crushing on, or the right way to tell the harsh truth to a friend who’s lost your trust. Whether you personally went for Let Them All Talk or not, I think we all want movies of that scale to continue to exist. Will those films be the ones the most endangered by the move toward streaming services and away from theatrical-only windows for major new releases? Or will the vanishing distinction between those two modes of viewing make it more likely for midscale movies to get made and released (if not—and this is a key benefit of the theatrical model—noticed and seen by audiences)? Though it’s shot, scored, and edited in Soderbergh’s customary high style, Let Them All Talk is the kind of movie that plays just fine on the small screen, especially when that’s the only choice you’ve got. But once we’re finally able to congregate in the sticky-floored temple of art and commerce that is the American multiplex, I hope there will still be films like this to see on the big screen.

Spikily,

Dana

Read the next entry here.

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