We can all admit that after everything the world has gone through in 2020 it’s nice to be talking about movies again. Recently, many (who could see it safely) got a chance to witness the latest epic from the mind of Christopher Nolan. Tenet is an elaborate espionage thriller that demands multiple viewings to understand it as well as awe at its wonder. Once viewed, many will understand why Nolan fought for this to be the first new feature audience’s experienced after COVID-19 shut down the entire industry. Tenet is a 150-minute action-packed letter to studios to make more bold, original cinema.
Much like Inception, Nolan takes a simple time-bending story, adds tons of exposition and spectacle, keeping most audiences happy on the surface. But as time as has gone on, many critics have noticed the meta storyline within the 2010 Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle as Nolan telling us how modern movies should be made. Think about it, Cobb, a man who can’t go home to see his kids until he finishes an impossible task, can be compared to Nolan unable to go home to his family till the final cut is sent to the studio. Inevitably, both surround themselves with the best talent in their positions, and complete their impossible tasks with ambiguity to if either figures — one fictional and one real — can truly find happiness once they get home.
This project was made during a time in Nolan’s career where he released The Dark Knight and was given his first blank check, a term used to describe a director who’s made several hits, thus allowing them ability to dictate to a studio the amount of money they need to make their next feature.
After making Warner Bros. Studios a billion dollars, and with a career full of successful projects and critical hits, there was no reason not to give Nolan whatever he wants.
Since giving him carte blanche, Nolan been on a nonstop hot streak of hits. Over the last decade, Nolan wrapped his Batman trilogy, took audiences to space in Interstellar and then to war with Dunkirk, with the latter resulting in his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.
With this success has come a negative aspect when discussing the British director. Nolan and his filmography have created resentment and exhaustion from cinephiles around the world due to a diehard fan base that live and breathe every frame he shows on screen. He can’t do anything wrong in their eyes, thus driving his detractors crazy. But unlike his dedicated following, Nolan isn’t concerned with winning praise from online chat rooms and social media sites with arguments erupting over whether he is the best director working today.
The man is simply trying to utilize the limited power he has to do his best and save the art form we all hold dear.
That brings us back to Tenet, his latest attempt at showing the world that grand scale epics can still be made with originality and vigor. Tenet is a 10-year evolution of the meta-ideas Nolan introduced in Inception. While that film was about storytelling and how to make a movie, Tenet is a commanding rally cry about what we should do with the future of cinema.
Tenet introduces the idea of inversion as an invention of the future brought into the present involving the past to change the world forever. This technology is designed to move life forward, but due to corruption of physics and formula, it causes everything to move backwards, requiring The Protagonist (John David Washington) to fix it before it’s too late.
Based on this plot, it’s clear what Nolan is suggesting. In order to fix the future of cinema, filmmakers must look to the past to gain back their creative control and apply it in the present. This doesn’t involve nostalgia or existing intellectual properties; it’s about how movies used to get made at a time when studios weren’t worried about the bottom line. They took big risks with unique films from directors from around the world, and whether the movie made a ton at the box office, that director would get another chance.
Now, we see more filmmakers compromising their vision for another’s.
If a director has a breakout film, something truly personal that only they could make, they often sign with a major studio next to make, not another independent movie, but a comic book adaptation for the billion-dollar genre machines running everything. Look at Olivia Wilde, who after her indie hit of Booksmart last year, is being tapped to direct a project in the world of Spider-Man. Or Chloé Zhao directing Marvel’s Eternals. Or Nia DaCosta with Captain Marvel 2. Or Taika Waititi with Thor: Ragnarok. And many more just like them.
Sure, studios tell them it’s their own vision, but it’s not really when you consider everything is tied to cinematic universes and ultimately fits a bigger story another director will finish and they will have no control over. In the end, they are giving up a ton of their creative freedom and time in order to make a movie they shouldn’t have to make. Think about all the time Edgar Wright lost in building the foundation for Ant Man, and before shooting, they fired him. Imagine the projects he could have made if he never spent a minute working with Marvel. We only have a limited time on this planet, and one can only assume many young directors don’t want to direct the next MCU entry, but rather a big, original blockbuster of their own like Inception or Tenet.
Is this an idea that can fall on deaf ears and eyes when watching someone debut a $200 million action film? Perhaps. But it makes sense because Nolan is one of the biggest advocates when it comes to film preservation and shooting on actual celluloid. He also just loves cinema in general, hence why he fought so much over this summer — whether right or wrong — to get the theaters back open for everyone to see movies again.
We have all seen the hate he has gotten for it, putting his name on the line for the reopening of theaters, with some saying Tenet was going to save the whole movie going experience. While this can be seen as a rotten thing to do given the current health crisis, wouldn’t you fight to keep something your passionate alive if you had that power?
As a loud voice in today’s cinema culture, Christopher Nolan doesn’t want to be one of the few to speak out and save the industry or the only one with a blank check. But he does, and with that comes an important responsibility to get everyone on the same level playing field. It’s what leaders do. He’s not a monster, he’s just ahead of the curve.