I fear for the theatre-going experience. I fear that we could be witnessing the demise of movie theatres just as the previous generation witnessed the slow decay and death of the drive-in.
I’ve just been to see Tenet, one of the lucky cinema-goers where the film was available for advanced screenings and where local theatre owners don’t want to put their customer through a body cavity search just to get in. Just purchase your ticket online and the rest is business as usual. Other than when you select your ticket, the two seats on either side and the two directly back and front grey out, it’s business as usual.
And what a business, this was no ordinary viewing, but the Premium experience. Leather recliner chairs, little swing trays on the chair arms for your food, there was plenty of space between you and the next punter social distancing, and certainly plenty of space where you get a good gap between you and the next popcorn muncher, all quality. 150 seats in this room.
But there were only 9 people there, including myself, on a Saturday night. I went along and saw Star Wars: A New Hope at the same theatre midweek and there were only 4 people at that showing, including myself. And that is why I fear for movie theatres. No business model can sustain those numbers. Cinemas are dead, the corpse just does not know it yet so it’s giving the illusion of life. But it’s dead.
Still, all these negative thoughts would disappear the moment the movie started right? Christopher Nolan, one of my favourite directors, surely if anyone can help release all the pent-up frustration of living in the post-COVID world and save cinema, it’s him.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid this was not the case. For months now, I was hearing that Nolan wanted this film shown on the big screen, it needed to be seen in theatres. And I’m left asking, why?
First, the basic story, and I’ll have to limit myself so as to remain spoiler-free: This is pretty much an espionage adventure film via a science-fiction structure much like Inception. As you may have gathered from the trailers, this is a world in which temporal time-shifts are possible, and the world is now in imminent danger as forces in the future set about bringing an end to the world, as they’ve seen the future baby, and it’s not rosy.
We meet our protagonist, John David Washington, during a CIA rescue mission whereby his actions bring himself to the attention of the organisation, Tenet, who are fixed on stopping the end of the world by employing the same time-shifting means as Kenneth Branagh’s future ending villains.
As a fan of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and films like Inception and Interstellar, I was expecting grand spectacle and dizzying set-pieces as the reason why Nolan insisted this must be seen on the big screen. And I fear I was left disappointed. There are three major action scenes: one involving a runaway cargo plane in an airport terminal, a freeway car chase, and finally a battle scene where the respective armies of the good and evil face off for the fate of the world.
They are all technically brilliant and shot well enough but really offer nothing we haven’t seen before, and unfortunately, they and the film have little heart. It’s worth the big-screen viewing for sure but for all the effort the filmmakers and actors put in I think the film tries too hard to be clever and ultimately disappears up its own arse. I went in fully invested and wanting to love this film but in the end, the plot was so convoluted and insistent on twisting in on itself to prove how clever it was, and it was all just loud noise signifying nothing.
The actors give it their all and special mention should go to the increasingly interesting Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki in their respective roles. Both invest their characters with some soul that is sorely missing in the rest of the cast. Kudos also to Aaron Taylor-Johnson who manages to bring some spark into his few scenes as a soldier fighting alongside our heroes for the fate of the world.
But I think the film can best be summed up by the two main actors, John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh. Both, for me, bring little substance into the film, there isn’t much that will linger from their performances once the lights go up. Washington never seems to kick up a gear emotionally, as the stakes get higher and the people he has grown to care for come under threat. Branagh as a villain is as hollow as he has always seemed to me as an actor. Frankly, he generates no fear or awe as a world-ending villain.
The film also makes the mistake that a handful of recent films have made, with storylines that exist inside of a multi-verse or time-paradox structure, in that its major plot anchor is also its Achilles heel. Much like Avengers: Endgame, with all its time reversals and shifts in chronology it is hard to be fully invested in the fate of our protagonists when you believe that at any moment they events unfolding on screen can be reversed or re-staged to show an entirely different outcome from what you are seeing at that moment.
In the end, it’s not a masterpiece but an interesting enough film that aims for giddy heights, but unfortunately overreaches. If I had to suggest a reference point, look no further than Nolan’s own family; Jonathan Nolan’s Westworld series. Remember the first season of Westworld? The smart, imaginative, chronologically skipping high concept series that never lost sight of the heart and soul of its characters’ struggles, and the very real and heartfelt threats they faced in its lofty ethical examination into what it truly meant to be human. Then remember the sharp drop of the second season, where it forgot all about story and character, and just wanted to be seen as the smartest show on TV.
Well ultimately that’s where I think this new film from Christopher Nolan ends up, in an effort to be smart, it’s forgotten the heart. Basically, Inception = Westworld S1, while Tenet = Westworld S2.
Yeah, I really wanted this film to be better. I wanted this to be a return to the theatre-going experience, a flag in the sand for not giving up on the big screen, and continuing to support exhibitors in these tough times. But for me and the handful of punters who were willing to go and support our local theatres, there just wasn’t anything to get excited about. I fear that the call of home theatre and streaming might become too loud for me if this is the best that must-be-seen-on-the-big-screen cinema can provide.