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Tenet Is Coming to Cinemas, and ‘the Discourse’ Is Coming with It

This week, Tenet arrives in cinemas. And it is bringing “the discourse” with it.

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The past few months have been tough. In the context of a horrific global pandemic that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, infected millions of people, and devastated the global economy, it is almost churlish to speak about cinema as an industry or an artform that has been specifically or particularly affected. Still, the past few months have seen dramatic shifts in the way that movies are distributed, with a greater embrace of streaming and changes to the cinema experience.

In terms of cinema, the pandemic was shaped by the evacuation of major blockbusters from the summer, with movies like No Time to Die and F9 abandoning their targeted release dates. Every major blockbuster followed suit. There were relatively high-profile releases on streaming like Trolls World Tour, but nothing on the scale of Wonder Woman 1984. The theaters that could open screened curiosities like Unhinged or nostalgic re-releases like The Empire Strikes Back.

This absence of new releases was a problem for cinemas — an industry already in a precarious financial position before the crisis occurred. However, it created an interesting climate for people who talk about movies. With no major new releases of which to speak, I’ve had the chance over the past few months to write about lesser-seen films like Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale or to look back at older films like Atomic Blonde, Nightcrawler, and even Terminator – Genisys.

There is something to be said for having the space for a measured discussion of film, free from the constant churn of content aggregation and the spikes of online outrage. One of the more depressing trends in online film discussion over the past few years has been how angry it has become. It has become impossible to mention certain movies online — like The Last Jedi or Batman v Superman — without provoking an intense and aggressive response, often from complete strangers.

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In hindsight, the stretch of six months between Birds of Prey and Tenet offered a reprieve. There was little to shout about. There were major streaming releases like Greyhound or Palm Springs, but they didn’t break into the zeitgeist. Netflix movies like The Old Guard and Project Power flared and disappeared. Hamilton was perhaps the closest thing that the pandemic period had to a blockbuster, but its outrages had been played out during the show’s run on Broadway.

However, the arrival of Tenet in cinemas will change things. It already has. The press embargo for reviews of Tenet lifted at noon ET on Friday, Aug. 21. The deluge arrived almost instantly. Of course, this was inevitable. This is how the internet talks about movies. It had been starved of a movie on the scale of Tenet, so it was a feeding frenzy. The Guardian ran no fewer than three reviews of the movie before release — at two, three, and five stars.

In a climate where everything must be the best or the worst thing ever for the 15 minutes that it holds public attention, Tenet was especially prone to such hyperbole. Inevitably, think pieces from critics turned up debating the “moral conundrum” or the “moral dilemma” of even reviewing the film in the first place. On social media, the sentiment was heightened and amplified, with some commentators asking critics to “take some responsibility” and refuse to review Tenet at all.

It should go without saying that film critics are probably not the people that audiences should be asking about whether it is safe to go to the cinema. This current pandemic has been shaped and defined by an absence of moral leadership, but film critics are not public health professionals and whether or not it is safe (or safer) to visit the cinema is not something a critic can ascertain. Some pop culture sites have talked to medical professionals and have tried to avoid sensationalism.

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The release of Tenet was always going to prompt this heightened rhetoric. Even before the film was released, Christopher Nolan’s desire to support cinemas was framed as the director setting up “a death cult.” Seth Rogen wryly suggested that Nolan was trying “to kill his greatest fans.” This is the current state of “the discourse,” where a summer blockbuster becomes a moral referendum — often among those who have not even seen it.

In June, an anecdote shared by actor Anne Hathaway in an interview with Hugh Jackman prompted online outrage at the idea that Nolan had banned chairs from his sets. It didn’t matter that people on those sets spoke up and confirmed that they had been provided with chairs. It was irrelevant that a quick Google search could bring back images of people sitting in chairs on Nolan’s sets. It didn’t matter that it was easily refutable; it was a source of outrage, and so Nolan had to issue a denial.

The result is the strange crafting of a narrative around the only director (with the arguable exception of James Cameron) who has enough creative clout to produce original blockbusters on this scale, in this intellectual property-driven landscape. It seems like there’s a vocal section of the online social media landscape actively trying to narrativize Tenet (and Nolan) as a failure before they’ve even seen the film (and in spite of strong reviews at both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic).

Then again, rage has always traveled faster over social media than other emotions. Coincidentally, the past week saw a flare-up over Netflix’s release of the French movie Mignonnes. Critics (rightly) objected to how Netflix packaged this story of a young black girl’s experience with a tween dance crew, objecting to how the poster and trailer seemed to sexualize young girls. However, those who had seen the movie (including Tessa Thompson) pointed out that it was a critique of such culture.

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In this heightened environment, where everybody is angry and everybody has an opinion, it didn’t matter that director Maïmouna Doucouré was drawing from her own experiences of the culture or that reviews of Mignonnes at Sundance had pointed to the film as “a contemplation of today’s destruction of innocence” rather than an uncritical example of it. It seems highly likely that a promising young director’s career has been damaged by people who have not even seen her work.

This is arguably just an example of movie culture being influenced by broader social trends. Social media algorithms are designed to push (and reward) extreme emotional reactions rather than more measured and nuanced responses. Politicians have argued that the public has “had enough of experts” in recent years, and perhaps that applies to everything; it’s no longer expected to have seen a movie to feel comfortable talking or writing at length about it.

None of this is anything new. It has arguably been the direction of online film discourse since the early days of the internet and sites like AICN. As early as 2001, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back defined the internet as “a communications tool used the world over where people can come together to bitch about movies.” Still, the cacophony is exhausting. Looking back, the six months of relative tranquility in online movie discussion were a strange oasis in these most unsettling times.

The jury is still out on whether Tenet can actually save cinema, but it has already resurrected the art of shouting angrily about movies on the internet. Personally, I missed cinema. I did not miss “the discourse.”

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Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.