In Toronto, where I live, movie theaters have been open for a few weeks. They are restricted to a maximum of 50 people per screening to assure proper distancing from others. You are required to buy your ticket in advance and you have to wear a mask the whole time. I had been skeptical about going, but when Warner Bros. announced that it was releasing Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster Tenet in Canada, I knew I had to go see it.
So this past Wednesday, I strapped on my fanciest cloth mask and went to my local cinema. All around the theater lobby, there were nervous glances from masked faces. A couple told me they were not sure this was the best idea, but they needed a shred of normalcy, and this is where they turned for it. “I haven’t seen a movie in a theater, literally since last year!” one of them said.
The wait in the lobby was filled with excitement but also uncertainty, each of us glancing carefully at the distance between our bodies and the closest next person. Slowly, we took our turns navigating hand sanitizer stations. The regular movie snacks were on offer, but few opted in — I imagine because they didn’t want to think about removing their mask, even momentarily, to munch on a handful of popcorn.
Once we were ushered into the theater, I sunk into my seat, let my shoulders drop, and settled in for an actual blockbuster on an actual big screen — and it was absolutely everything I needed.
Let’s dispense with the review quickly here: Nolan’s 11th film is a delicious feast of battles and twists and time-bending. Its nameless protagonist, played by John David Washington, embarks on a mildly absurd mission to prevent a devastating war (“A nuclear holocaust?” he asks; “No, something worse,” he is told). It’s ambitious in scale, much like Nolan’s previous offerings Interstellar and Inception (and suffers from the same pacing issues), though it’s significantly less warm than its predecessors. But as with previous Nolan films, the ambition is the sell: You don’t see a Nolan movie because it’s going to get an Oscar nod; you see a Nolan movie because he’s going to attempt a wild feat that few directors would. He’s a risk-taker in terms of concepts (“a heist...in your mind!”) and unparalleled in creating a thrilling spectacle. Tenet is enjoyable for the same reason Evel Knievel is fun to watch: One minute it’s where are you going with this, and the next it’s motherfucker, he pulled it off. You should see Tenet where it’s safe to do so. It’s wildly fun.
You should see Tenet where it’s safe to do so. It’s wildly fun.
But it’s this whole “where it’s safe to do so” business that’s the bigger question. We haven’t had to imagine a summer without a movie that everyone saw since Jaws came out in 1975. For 45 years, the summer blockbuster has given us something to orbit around, a Movie Event, a common reference point, a conversation starter. On a good year, we get several. But since the pandemic took over our lives, the virus has become the only conversation.
The internet has now been inundated with odes to the movie theater. Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman penned this effusive tribute to “a temple, a cave, a womb, a big dark space that conferred, just by being there, the magic of invisibility.” In the New Yorker, Richard Brody reminded us that a theater creates exigency: “A film dropping online does so with little actual urgency, because it will (in general) remain available ... whereas a theatrical release is an emergency.”
And the necessity of the theater in the modern era, at least in the Before Times, is twofold: One, you might miss the film in the actual theater; but two, and perhaps more pressing, is that you might miss the window of conversation for a film. In the case of blockbusters, with films jockeying for position every week, people love to be part of the digital chatter that emerges after a big film drops. Marvel in particular mastered this with its Avengers universe, each of its new releases dominating the conversation. There is a real FOMO that kicks in if you can’t participate.
The classic blockbuster, of course, is not without its criticisms. While its long-rumored death has been entirely exaggerated, blockbusters on the whole tend to have a diversity problem, have been charged with draining creativity from the film industry, and accused of getting less enjoyable.
While I’m aware of these problems, I was particularly looking forward to the blockbusters of 2020. We’ve been seeing fewer white men anchor blockbusters, but this summer had an even bigger opportunity to further those efforts: Marvel had Black Widow on offer, Disney had Mulan on the schedule, DC was pushing Wonder Woman 1984 — to say nothing of Tenet, a $200-million film starring a Black man not named Will Smith! We had all of this coming, and a new installment of the Fast and Furious film franchise, possibly the most diverse blockbuster franchise around.
But I am speaking a language of summers past here, with all this hoping and excitement. The pandemic extinguished those with the quickness. The signs of trouble started coming in fast. First, James Bond got moved from an April release to November. F9, the ninth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, was moved from Memorial Day to April 2021. Mulan was delayed by months. Top Gun and A Quiet Place 2 got pushed back to next year. I knew things were bad when even Marvel, the undisputed titan of every summer, moved Black Widow from a May release to November.
As the restrictions stretched on, and other titles pushed their release dates, there was one outlier. Tenet held steady to a mid-July release. Nolan penned a beautiful ode to movie theaters in the Washington Post. They will “need our help,” the director wrote. The narrative became: Tenet will be the savior of the theater. The movie was a beacon of hope — yes, the coronavirus is wreaking havoc, but Nolan will take it on. His defiance became my defiance, too.
Eventually, Nolan blinked. Mid-July became late July, became early August, and in the US, the film will be released in early September (allegedly). Even critics began to accept the idea of a summer without blockbusters. Hell, maybe it’s a good thing we won’t be getting these big movies anyway, some wrote.
The tenuous future of Tenet — and by extension, the tenuous future of the movie theater — emboldened streaming services to make a play for replacing that popcorn flick theater feeling. While Netflix offered Charlize Theron in The Old Guard, Apple TV+ gave us Tom Hanks in Greyhound. These films were positioned as a way to keep the blockbuster alive. The move worked very well. And fine, millions of people streamed the films. They just…don’t feel like blockbusters. They feel like action movies you watch at home.
Even though I have a reasonably sized TV and am an adult capable of making popcorn at home, it quickly became apparent what the theater experience offers: not a single distraction. In a theater, it’s just you and the movie. At home, my phone is just a stretch away, while my cat insists on sliding across the apartment floor for absolutely no reason. The volume has to be low enough for my daughter to sleep, unless I’d like to watch the movie with headphones on, on a small laptop screen. In other words, outside the theater, real life happens, and it tugs at you in a million little ways, so that the best you can do is give 78% of your attention to a movie. That’s under ideal circumstances. But a cinema is an invitation to forget what’s behind your immediate walls.
A cinema is an invitation to forget what’s behind your immediate walls.
So I waited and waited, patiently moving my hopes slightly, protecting them from the wind. Then the announcement came: Tenet will have international release first, followed by a staggered US release. Here in Canada, where the coronavirus response has been substantially saner, movie theaters began to slowly reopen in the middle of July, so this was promising. And on opening day, I was there.
The bad news is: The sweet thrill of the summer movie now comes with an asterisk. An uncomplicated joy has become complicated. Before deciding to see Tenet, my wife and I had to have a serious conversation about whether we were both comfortable with the decision. We’re all going to have to have those conversations now.
The good news, though, is that even with a mask on, Tenet kept me on the edge of my seat. Though people were seated far away from me, I still saw them jumping with tension. The feeling of a theater chair, the rush of anticipation when the trailers end and the movie is about to begin, none of that went away.
I can’t tell you whether Tenet’s arrival in US theaters next week will be enough to rescue Hollywood from a very bad summer. In all likelihood, 2020 will go down as a year that the film industry — and, frankly, the rest of us — would like to forget. But leaving the theater, I overheard a group of eight people, who arrived separately and didn’t seem to know each other, all masked and standing apart, excitedly talking about the thrills of the movie, analyzing it, breathlessly sharing their favorite parts. They were trying to make sense of the ending. They were marveling at the premise of the big movie they had just seen. It was a little different and a little the same: Somewhere in the darkness, the magic of the theater did its thing. ●
Correction: Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV+. An earlier version of this article misstated the platform.