The Oddity of Not Being Able to Review “Tenet” (2020)

My opinions of Christopher Nolan’s movies are somewhat variant, which often seems to make me the odd person out in an era that has anointed him as the signature filmmaker of our time. I say this fully knowing that he has made at least three masterpieces that I love: Memento (2000), The Dark Knight (2008), and Dunkirk (2017). Yet, I also think he has put out a handful of messy and vastly overrated pieces, namely Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Interstellar (2014). Even so, the one consistent throughline of any Nolan film is that he is a gifted filmmaker who always comes to a project with a distinct vision that he executes in compelling ways, even when the result is inconsistent or overwrought. I roll my eyes at most of Interstellar, but that docking sequence is a showstopping Stanley Kubrick homage. I will always go out to see what he has to offer because I know that no matter my personal feelings on the film by the end, for two-plus hours I will be entertained and engaged. Therefore, you can imagine my sheer disappointment at learning that I will not experience his newest film Tenet (2020) in its full scope in a theatre, and I have no idea when I will even be able to see it at all. 

For those who may have not been overly locked into the saga of Tenet’s release (I envy you, and also pity you for missing out on the most overly dramatic will-they-won’t-they of recent memory), a touch of background: before COVID-19 arrived and upended every norm of film industry production and release strategy, Tenet was slated for a prime July 17th opening smack in the middle of summer blockbuster season. It is a release strategy that has worked wonders for Nolan’s films in the past, and his longtime studio Warner Bros. saw another chance to cash in. Even once the pandemic spread, they did not shift the date. Many have postulated that this is because Nolan is such a staunch supporter of the theatrical experience and wanted his movie to act as a dose of adrenaline for a struggling wing of the industry, but even mega-directors cannot combat a deadly pandemic, and so the date eventually was changed. Then it changed again, and again, and suddenly Tenet became a September movie, at least stateside. The reality of the United States’ COVID-19 containment (let’s be real, lack thereof) means that Tenet was released earlier in other countries that have done a better job combatting spread, and only now is being released stateside. And yet, with arguably the first movie spectacular of 2020 playing a 30-minute drive from my front door, I will not be going to see it or review it. 

Why, you ask? My reasoning is simple: while I love movie theaters and have missed going more than almost anything else during this pandemic, I frankly do not believe that it is safe enough to venture out yet. The communal reality of theaters, that ability to experience a film with strangers who you share nothing with apart from an interest in whatever is happening on screen, is also now the fear that keeps me away. I have been careful throughout this pandemic to maintain my distance and avoid high-risk situations because aspects of my personal medical history mean that the possibility of contracting COVID-19 is an especially scary thought to consider. In addition, as a high school teacher who must come into proximity with an array of colleagues and students, I balk at the idea of accidentally bringing this virus into our community. Walking into a theater, even wearing a mask and sitting as far away from the other audience members as possible, means opening myself up to the heightened risk of an enclosed space with questionable ventilation, and at this moment that is fundamentally not an option for me. 

I recognize that in the grand scheme of my life, and especially in the context of what people are fighting nationally and internationally right now, my not being able to see or review Tenet is the truest definition of a first-world problem. It will not impact my health. It will not impact my career. It is one movie in a lifetime where I will watch and write about countless others. Even recognizing that, I find myself thinking often of how disconcerting it is to be someone who finds joy through wading into the broader cultural debates about film and pop culture, and it is undeniable that anything Nolan releases becomes an immediate part of the zeitgeist. Yet, for the first time, a wide swath of the people who usually leap at the chance to see and write about a new Nolan film cannot do so, and an even wider array of normal people who just want to escape into a movie for an afternoon or evening cannot. Possibly the most concerning part of it is that Tenet has come to represent more than just a film, as it has stood as the lightning rod for conversations about whether or not a return to theatrical distribution is viable as a release strategy. If Warner Bros. and Nolan cannot make it work, does that mean that no one can? 

Obviously that question is partly theoretical, and partly depends on the broader ability of our country to somehow pull itself together and subdue COVID-19. Abysmal federal leadership and inconsistent state leadership means that, at best, we are still looking at a long process until a return to some sort of ‘normal’ life is viable. So I, and no doubt critics and movie lovers everywhere, must make peace with the fact that Tenet is simply the first of many should-be-massive-releases that we will not be able to experience as culture together. Instead, I at least will continue to watch what I can when I can, and when Tenet comes to VOD at some point, I will watch it. I will review it. It may be months after it has released, but I take the silver lining in that; I’ll have so much time to develop the hottest take humanly possible. Until then, if you live someplace where it’s safer to go to the movies, so help me God if you spoil it for me, there is not a corner of this world you can retreat to where I will not find you and make you pay. I can’t promise much these days, but I promise that. 

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