Most of the reviews for Christopher Nolan’s new film, Tenet, argue that its supposed to be the savior of cinema because its the first blockbuster release post-lockdowns. While they largely cite Nolan’s Washington Post op-ed from March, which correctly argues that cinemas are socially vital and need our help in hard times, the reviews naively suggest that a single film can combat a seventy-plus year decline in moviegoing attendance in the United States. After peaking in the late 1940s, American audiences have been attending the cinema less and less. The only way to combat this decline over the years was through the introduction of new technology that enhanced the uniqueness of cinema’s big screens and large auditoriums (CinemaScope, 3-D, Imax, etc.).
Ever since cinemas closed following the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet was almost guaranteed to lose a substantial amount of box office revenue whether good or bad. Most cinemas will be re-opening at less than half capacity with mandatory face masks, which sounds worse after seeing that Tenet runs at 150 minutes. But in reality, the recent switch to DTC streaming by the major film companies were the real harbingers of death for cinemas, especially with the announcement that Mulan will be released as a PVOD on Disney+. The lockdowns merely accelerated the transition, which is clear from the astronomical amount of subscriptions, the release of multiple new streaming apps, and the online-first release of several new films (Trolls World Tour, The King of Staten Island, etc.) in the last six months.
In the end, cinema will survive. The difference now is that theatrical runs won’t be the initial move for a film’s release. As the separation between cinema and audiovisual entertainment deepens, so will the function of cinemas, which will increasingly become the home of Disney’s mega-blockbusters and the more niche genre films or celluloid productions that attract loyal audiences (e.g., Blumhouse horrors, auteur-directors including Nolan and Tarantino). [Full disclosure: I am a celluloid fanboy.] Those mid-budget comedies and dramas will find greater revenues from a PVOD/DTC release, which has already been happening for several years when Amazon Studios and Netflix began to corner the film festival market.
Positive v. Negative Reviews
Stepping back now to discuss Tenet, rather than discussing the particularities of why its good or bad, it would be more worthwhile to examine its reviews from the major media sites.
The positive reviews are irritating for a number of reasons: lambasting the loss of cinema with Tenet as the gigantically gigantic metaphysical action thriller (yes this is actually from a review) messianic savior, using a line of dialogue from the first act as the way in which to watch the film (when Clémence Poésy’s character tells the Protagonist, “Don’t try to understand it, feel it”), utilizing the same thesaurus in which to describe it (head-scratching, dizzying, breathtaking etc., which are mostly likely the side-effects the reviewers felt from wearing a face mask for 2.5 hours), praising it for being ambitiously original in the franchise film era as if that alone makes a film good (see the initial reception of Heaven’s Gate), and finally, failing to using sarcasm when appropriately needed (see the Guardian review linked above).
Not trying to understand a film is a great argument in favor of the schlocky franchise films of Marvel and Star Wars, which is exactly what most of these Messiah-complex reviews, failing to see past the ideology of ambitiously original productions, argue against. And they do so without a hint of sarcasm. Imagine the reaction from the late Roger Ebert after reading a review that ends: “It shouldn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. What it makes is amazing cinema. Wow.” Whether you agreed or disagreed with them, Ebert, Kael, and the greats had a strength in explaining a film’s deeper meaning. They championed the best part of experiencing a film, which is through the filmmaker’s (in Scorsese’s words) aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. But instead, these positive reviews want you to turn off your brain and be wow’d: ‘Isn’t this time inversion thing pretty wow?’ ‘What about the story?’ ‘What story?’
These reviewers either sincerely believe that Tenet is on par with Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception, or that providing a good review will ensure a steady flow of box office revenue for the industry they are inextricably linked to both personally and professionally. Either way, they simply fail at writing with any kind of truth.
For all its technical joys, Tenet is not one of Nolan’s finest films for a number of reasons. The dialogue was dizzying (this new cold war being “ice cold”), the sound mixing/editing was head-scratching (why is the soundtrack playing over important dialogue, especially when the characters are wearing face masks and difficult to understand?), the acting is (in the words of my friend) straight from first semester film class (Pattinson was going for a Christopher Hitchens impersonation because, why?), the production design and shooting locations were literally all over the map without a coherent reason, and the story wasn’t engaging because it was unnecessarily difficult trying to understand the dynamics of time inversion. Without any characters providing the emotional edge to hinge on to, and no, Elizabeth Debicki’s character and her child that was on screen for 17 frames hardly counts, the traditional cinema of attraction turned into watching how much money a film production could spend without relying on much VFX (the answer: over $200 million).
In short, if you take any of the positive reviews and read them as negative, there’s hardly a difference between the two: “It shouldn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense,” indeed.
Although many of the negative reviews of Tenet are more accurate (i.e., unsarcastic) in their descriptions, they too play the mad-libs game of thesaurus-sharing. The basic pattern is calling it a technical marvel but a narrative dud, which, again, follows the pattern of the positive reviews. The difference is that the former don’t find the technical achievements, for which there are plenty, good enough to outweigh its narrative dudness. I mostly agree with the negative reviews not because I find them more accurate in their criticisms of the narrative, acting, production, etc. (after all, films are subject to individual interpretations and feelings), I agree with them because they don’t lay claim to seeing Tenet/Nolan as the savior of cinema and still respect substance over style. They importantly argue that Nolan has potentially reached a creative inversion point, meaning his innovate cinematic career of fusing science-fiction with narrative theory is beginning to unravel:
Filmmakers should want to mystify. They should want to break your heart, leave you speechless or have you desperate to discuss what just unfolded in the pub down the street. They shouldn’t want to convince you of how smart and daring they are. Tenet is a bit like the myth whereby NASA spent millions of dollars on a pen that could work in zero gravity when the Soviets just used a pencil. Nolan should re-learn how to use a pencil.Tom Duggins, CineVue.
In his appropriately terse review, Duggins argues that Tenet is Nolan’s “apotheosis of style over substance.” Unfortunately, this places the film squarely alongside the franchise films that the cinema originalists consistently disparage using Nolan as an example.
To conclude, I generally sympathize with the cinema originalists and their quest of designating cinema as a special part of society, which is why I think its important to sharpen the critiques made in favor of films like Tenet (i.e., shooting on film, relying on directors/writers instead of producers, etc.). Film industry trends consistently ebb and flow without a standard through-line, so claiming a single film will save cinema is ridiculous unless that film/filmmaker flows from an industry-disrupting movement akin to the New Hollywood auteurs. Otherwise the critiques fall into religious, faith-based arguments, which is unfortunately more common than not. Although its easy to see the argument that Tenet could possibly be the Heaven’s Gate of today, Tenet won’t bankrupt a studio and Nolan’s reputation won’t be ruined. Where the comparison becomes relevant is that the film industry is experiencing an inversion point (sorry I had to), where films are increasingly becoming another form of content among many for both multimedia conglomerates and Big Tech. Heaven’s Gate/Tenet are instead symbols of change rather than its cause. Therefore, if we want cinema to retain a privileged position in society, we have to be honest in our critiques and understand the realities of industry-wide change, however grim they appear, without resorting to hero-worship.