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A Hero's Death: Can Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' Really Save Cinema?
Brogan Morris , September 5th, 2020 10:42

With Christopher Nolan's much delayed, long-awaited new thriller finally in cinemas, it feels time to reassess the director's near-Messianic status, Brogan Morris finds

If we’re to believe the hype, then Christopher Nolan’s Tenet isn’t just a movie – it’s the movie to save all movies. As the pandemic laid waste to the 2020 blockbuster season, with cinemas shuttered and major films from Black Widow to Wonder Woman 1984 drop-kicked down the release schedule, only Nolan held firm, insisting his latest mega-budget puzzlebox appear in theatres at least some time this summer. Originally set to open on July 17, then July 31, then August 12, Tenet is finally rolling out globally, including in parts of the US, this week. Now, as his latest picture ends half a year of non-stop financial struggle for theatres, Christopher Nolan is being heralded by some as the potential saviour of cinema.

It’s not an entirely unfamiliar position for the British director to find himself in. In recent years, Christopher Nolan has achieved near-Messianic status among both his fans and an industry that reveres his commitment to “real” cinema. In the age of Disney, where mainstream film is at the mercy of a single family-oriented corporation that never knew a property or studio it didn’t wish to own, wide releases designed for easy consumption are the norm. In this CG-happy, constantly resetting world of the reboot and the superhero movie (ironically, a world that Nolan helped usher in with his Dark Knight trilogy), Christopher Nolan makes challenging, original concepts into $200 million blockbusters, the kind that are shot on film, on location and with special effects realised by-and-large in-camera.

Most importantly, at least right now, Christopher Nolan lionises the old-fashioned theatrical experience. While the likes of Trolls World Tour and Mulan might skip theatres altogether, it’s never been in doubt that Tenet would premiere on the big screen – crisis or no crisis. (Such was the IMAX-first marketing for Dunkirk, Nolan’s previous effort, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that seeing Mark Rylance’s sad face projected on a screen smaller than a skyscraper would have delegitimised the entire thing.) Christopher Nolan has made the theatrical experience an integral part of his brand, and to warrant it he has matched the ever-ballooning superhero franchises by increasingly emphasising scale in his own work. Unfortunately, he’s jettisoned characterisation, heart and narrative sense in the process.

Tenet, as many critics have observed, is the Nolaniest film that Christopher Nolan has ever made – which is to say that it’s full of dynamic action and snappy fashions, while also being bloated, ice-cold and utterly incomprehensible. Thought The Dark Knight Rises’ muffled gymlord Bane was unintelligible, or that Inception’s multiple dreamscapes plot was tough to decipher? Try making sense of a time travel thriller in which crucial information is delivered through oxygen masks, in the midst of deafening battle or by people talking backwards. A technical triumph in which sound and fury (and furious sound) take priority over everything, the sturm-und-drang of Tenet is so all-consuming, the audibility of the dialogue such an afterthought, you’d have to assume that following the story or investing in the characters was never much the point.

There was a time when Christopher Nolan was a master of combining character study with a plot that made armchair detectives and amateur psychologists both of his audience. Early Nolan pictures Memento and The Prestige were great riddles with fascinating antiheroes at their respective centres, while even Batman Begins fit comic book spectacle around the story of a damaged individual struggling to establish his true identity. Nolan’s priorities, however, began to shift following 2010’s Inception, where his taste for grand visuals, byzantine plotting and skin-deep characters first truly came to the fore. Through The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar and Dunkirk, all but a sense of the epic slowly fell away; by the time we get to Tenet, we have a lead character, one so unknowable Nolan didn’t even bother to name him, crashing a (real) jumbo jet into a (real) building in order to steal a painting and gain the trust of a woman he’s just met. At this point, it might seem like Nolan just wanted an excuse to total a jetliner simply because it would look good on the big screen (it does).

The rest of Tenet unfolds this way: characters with no discernible personality doing nonsensical things in order to get us to the next incredible, expensive-looking set piece. It’s no wonder Tom Cruise has championed the film – “Big Movie. Big Screen. Loved it”, the Hollywood bigshot and Scientology brand ambassador tweeted following a screening of Tenet he attended with his Jack Reacher and Missions: Impossible 5-thru-8 director, Christopher McQuarrie, last week. Cruise, along with McQuarrie, has of late been grinding out his own muscular alternative to the contemporary blockbuster: multimillion-dollar movies thin on character and vague on plot but big on dangerous stunts, practical action and glamorous locations all fit for IMAX.

Along with the last two Bond movies, most of Cruise’s films since 2010’s Knight and Day have been this kind of super-sized blockbuster. (The upcoming No Time to Die and Top Gun: Maverick promise to offer more of the same.) Tenet, meanwhile, is practically a parody of this type of film. An enormous event picture made for the biggest screen, any lightness or humanity seems to simply disappear under the weight of Nolan’s latest, while there’s nothing more interesting tying its action together than the convoluted placeholder plots of the recent 007 or M:I films. Unfortunately, despite Nolan’s valiant effort to confuse his audience into an aneurysm, a plot summary reveals Tenet is actually just a ridiculous film dressed up as a baffling one.

There's much to admire about Christopher Nolan and Cruise-McQuarrie attempting to keep the theatrical experience alive by offering their own awesomely tactile alternative to what’s currently on offer at the multiplexes. Set in heightened versions of our world rather than computer-generated fantasy realms, these films can be mighty exciting – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, for one, was a 2018 highlight – and they come with a sense of danger not found in too many contemporary blockbusters (even if there’s never much risk Ethan Hunt will die, we know from behind-the-scenes stunt footage that there’s always a good chance Tom Cruise might).

Still, for all that they’re sold as “real” cinema, there’s little more soul or smarts to these films than there is to be found in the competition. And Tenet, the movie that's supposed to save the movies, is the most egregious example of the super-sized blockbuster yet: a film that ostensibly moves fast, but is so unfeeling and dim as to seem almost lifeless.