What I can tell you is this: “Tenet” is not a great movie, though it is a useful illustration of the power of seeing a movie in a cinema. And the debate over whether to see it says a lot about how the pandemic has complicated our decision-making.
The cultural studies professor and critic Phillip Maciak argued that Nolan’s insistence that “Tenet” appear on the big screen — and preferably, that viewers see it on the biggest screen possible — has made him “a second-tier villain of the pandemic,” stubbornly pushing audiences to return to theaters before it’s safe for them to do so en masse.
If you believe that the difference between seeing a movie projected on a giant screen and streaming one on your television at home is primarily a matter of presentation, then of course trying to get large numbers of people back at the multiplex is a folly, and maybe even a deadly one. But if you believe, as Nolan’s advocacy implies, that movies made for and screened in theaters are an art form fundamentally distinct from anything that airs on a small screen, the stakes are different.
According to this worldview, if movie theaters die, an entire category of art will die with them. Letting the theatrical business be destroyed is the equivalent of banning anyone from making sculpture or writing and recording three-minute pop songs. More than that, it’s effectively saying that very few people will even be able to see the genre’s works that have already been made, because the means of delivery would cease to exist except in a few high-density areas. One of the most popular art forms in the world would suddenly become akin to the Mona Lisa in its rarity and accessibility.
Those conflicting perspectives lend themselves to very different calculations about whether to return to the movies.
If going to a theater is about choosing one format over another, then buying a ticket may not seem worth it. What’s the point, after all, of distracting yourself from a pandemic for a couple of hours only to succumb to the disease you’re eager to forget about because some jerk didn’t put their mask back on after drinking a gargantuan soda?
But if in going to the movies you’re throwing yourself into a fight to save an entire art form, then you might be willing to take on more risk than you would for something you perceive as a simple pleasure. Covid-19 is a terrifying illness that has already killed more than 181,000 Americans. Though much about the disease remains unknown, early experiences suggest that it could pose grave, long-term health implications even for people who don’t exhibit severe symptoms. Still, it’s possible that some people might find the idea of life without big-screen movies so unendurable that they’re willing to accept some risk to prevent that outcome.
As for whether “Tenet” is the movie for which you should take that risk, my verdict is mixed. “Tenet” is full of clothes so fabulous it’ll have you regretting your quarantine athleisure. It also has a number of genuinely thrilling action set pieces, especially the one that opens the film. John David Washington, who plays a character known only as the Protagonist, has a lethal charm that pairs well with Robert Pattinson’s quiet humor and Elizabeth Debicki’s icy fragility.
But the film is also full of enough loose ends to weave back together into one of those beautiful suits. And “Tenet” is so complex that its plot actually undermines Nolan’s insistence that it’s meant to be seen in a theater. This is a movie that practically begs the audience to pause, rewind and push play again, all while busting out some thumb tacks and brightly colored thread, the better to diagram its twists and turns.
Right now, however, the overall quality of the movie is hard to disentangle from the joy of simply being in a theater again. As the lights went down, the music started and the opening scene began, I could feel my chest tighten. For the first time in six months, that sensation didn’t mean I was afraid. “Tenet” is a movie about being pulled back into the past over and over again. Seeing it helped me believe that moviegoing might have a future.