Already, some erstwhile blockbusters have moved to streaming, including the live-action Disney film “Mulan,” which opens (or, more accurately, becomes available for viewing) Friday. But amid all the jockeying, Nolan — who has fought long and hard for the preservation of the theatrical experience — has held his ground. After pushing back “Tenet” from July to August to September, and with theaters having reopened in dozens of states (including Virginia, but excluding Maryland and the District of Columbia), he and Warner Bros. forged ahead with a theatrical opening on Thursday, hoping that Nolan’s obsessive fan base and pent-up demand for getting out of the house will help recoup “Tenet’s” $200 million budget.
A spokesperson for Christopher Nolan explained in a statement on Thursday that “Mr. Nolan is supportive of the Warner Bros. plan precisely because the film is only being opened in places where public health officials have deemed it safe and appropriate to re-open movie theaters.”
I get it. Seeing “Tenet” on the big screen represents victory on so many levels: freedom from the claustrophobia of quarantine; the survival of movie theaters that have been existentially threatened during the shutdown; fealty to the abiding aesthetic principle that cinema is meant to be seen on the big screen, not 25-inch home monitors. But those victories seem premature — if not pyrrhic — when the far more important defeat of a deadly virus is anything but assured.
Which is why I chose not to review “Tenet.”
Warner Bros. had set up a press screening at a theater in Northern Virginia — which, along with D.C. and Maryland, accounts for most of The Post’s print-subscription base — in an auditorium where up to 25 critics could watch the film, masked and at a physical distance. But even with those precautions in place, people would be able to take their masks off to eat and drink. Those of us unable to attend were invited to paid previews that would involve even bigger audiences, albeit masked and distanced.
Sitting in a theater for 2½ hours with other people was our only option to see “Tenet.” There were no alternatives offered, such as the digital links provided to critics for “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” which opened in theaters last week.
The decision to pass on “Tenet” was agonizing for me and my colleagues at The Post. But none of us — critics and editors alike — felt comfortable with the physical terms of watching it when at least 180,000 people have died in the United States from coronavirus and around 40,000 new cases — and up to 1,000 deaths — are reported daily. We are still heeding the suggestions of doctors, scientists and judicious public officials to err on the side of caution and limit our indoor public activities to necessities such as food shopping and medical appointments; the symbolic and economic importance of “Tenet” notwithstanding, it simply didn’t feel essential enough to make the cut.
While respecting our readers’ individual decisions about whether to venture into theaters, the absence of a digital option to watch the film effectively deprived us of the same choice. Put more harshly: We were held hostage to “Tenet’s” marketing rollout — given a high-minded sheen by Nolan’s vaunted artistic purity — and we chose not to play.
This hurts. It hurts that I won’t be able to see “Tenet” and share my impressions of what surely qualifies as the most eagerly awaited film of the year. But, when I recently gave “The Personal History of David Copperfield” a four-star review, it hurt just as much to sing the praises of a movie that my readers in Maryland and D.C. couldn’t enjoy without traveling to Virginia. (Maryland theaters are now cleared to reopen on Friday.) And it hurts knowing that I’m in the privileged position of getting the chance to see (most) movies in the safety and comfort of my own home when everyone else has to see them in enclosed public spaces with people outside their personal bubbles.
Most of all, it hurts not to be able to aid the comeback of movie theaters with full-throated enthusiasm. During the shutdown, we’ve endeavored to shine a light on independent theaters that have made streaming titles available to their patrons, as a way of nurturing their communities and earning at least some revenue while they’ve gone dark. But that admirably resourceful response comes at a cost: The more conditioned viewers become to seeing movies on their home screens, the less inclined they might be to return to brick-and-mortar theaters when they reopen.
To help coax back the audience, the multiplex circuits recently announced “CinemaSafe,” a program that includes reduced capacity, frequent and intensified cleanings, mask mandates and improved air-conditioning systems. Those advances are welcome and commendable. Still, particular policies vary from chain to chain. And it’s not entirely clear that the same multiplex staff members — many of them teenagers — who can’t make people silence their cellphones or keep the right lenses on the projectors will be able to enforce rules about masks.
Did it have to come to this? In the absence of a rational, unpoliticized national health policy, each state, city, industry, business owner, barista and customer has had to cobble together a responsible way to get back to normal, a scattershot approach that produces as many expert opinions as there are experts. When the National Association of Theater Owners (the major exhibitors’ lobbying arm) announced CinemaSafe in August, two scientists who consulted on the program noted that, in an auditorium where people are physically distanced, masked, facing the same direction and not talking, moviegoing is potentially safer than going to a restaurant. But just days earlier, two equally credentialed epidemiologists told the website A.V. Club that going to a movie should be low on our list of priorities. “It’s just about the last thing I would do right now,” said public health expert Abdul El-Sayed.
There’s also something disingenuous — if not downright arrogant — about Nolan leveraging his directorial bona fides to make “Tenet” a high-stakes game of cinematic chicken. Much in the same way that he dares filmgoers to make sense of his notoriously loud, often indecipherable sound mixes, he now seems to be challenging our commitment to Cinema-with-a-capital-C, only this time with life-or-death stakes.
If the past seven months have taught us anything, it’s that resilience and creativity abound in the movie business, from the comeback of drive-in theaters to the nimble pivot art houses and festivals made to streaming. Although “Tenet” will be shown in select drive-ins, none of them will be in areas where indoor theaters are still closed (i.e., areas where they’re most needed). It’s disappointing — if not shocking — that Nolan and Warner Bros. couldn’t come up with screening options more visionary than forcing people into indoor venues before the curve has fully flattened. (Searchlight Pictures, the Disney company behind “Copperfield,” learned this lesson the hard way after the film’s dismal performance last weekend, which indicated that its core audience is still far more comfortable staying home than venturing to the local bijou.)
Nolan’s mantle of auteurist purity rings particularly false considering the thoughtfulness of some of his colleagues. John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place Part II” is arguably just as much a gotta-see-it-on-the-big-screen movie as “Tenet.” But Paramount has prudently decided to push the “Quiet Place” sequel into 2021, while Krasinski became a quarantine sensation with his hit “Some Good News” videos.
Krasinski did what genuine artists do: He read the room and responded accordingly, leaning into the limitations of the era rather than trying to bend them to his will. He knows that the current ethos means making creative work more accessible, not less. And it means working with what you have. (His flexibility has already paid off, incidentally, with the lucrative sale of “SGN” to ViacomCBS.)
After Zoom videos began to go viral in the spring, it was inevitable that someone would make a feature-length film on the conferencing app that has defined our collective reality. In mid-August, the horror movie “Host” — currently streaming on AMC’s Shudder channel — showed how it’s done. With smarts and style, filmmaker Rob Savage created a creepy (and often funny) hour-long delve into the supernatural while making fiendishly clever use of digital artifacts, Zoom-specific glitches and elbow-bump etiquette. (Savage even includes his own version of a Nolan-worthy time loop.)
Like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Unfriended” did with digital video and social media, “Host” uses the vernacular of its time to deliver entertainment values that, at their best, have always been platform-agnostic. After all, a jump scare is a jump scare, in any visual language. Zoom movies will never replace spectacles meant to be enjoyed in theaters. But they’re an ingeniously responsive bridge for a time when we might think we can see the other side, but aren’t nearly there yet.