Content warning: gun violence.
They say not to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Why?
Are we so gullible that anyone who hears the forbidden word will throw their popcorn and sprint down the aisles like a re-showing of “Cats” has just begun?
I don’t buy it. People aren’t that easy to scare. How many of us have grown up having class interrupted by fire, tornado and lockdown sirens, and barely batted our eyes as we walked outside, hid under tables, barricaded doors or grabbed classroom items to use against a shooter?
It’s something about the movie theater, specifically.
We’re used to bullets flying through classrooms like spitballs, just like we’re used to sitting on airplanes, and wondering if maybe, just maybe, it’ll happen again. These spaces have been under attack for decades — from hijackings in the ’70s to 9/11, from Columbine to Newtown. However traumatized, we’ve learned to live with these threats, and American culture has warped around them.
But movie theaters were safe. With a sip of soda, a bite of popcorn and the hum of a projector, we could fall into a story and leave the real world and its real terrors behind. We could lean back in those red seats, stretch out our legs and feel safe opposite the silver screen.
I’ve been wondering, lately, if that was what people did in Aurora before their midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, 2012. It was a sold out show on opening night, full of kids, tweens, teens and adults ready to see the most anticipated movie of the year. I wonder what the pre-show bustle sounded like. The shuffling of seats as someone with an armful of wrinkling Twizzlers passed fans debating whether Batman would survive Bane, or if Hathaway’s Catwoman would be any good.
The excitement of a blockbuster, a real tentpole event of a film, is infectious no matter who you are. I can feel their excitement as the movie began, because I’ve felt it myself, year after year, through blockbusters good and bad, memorable and disposable. But, that night in July 2012, around the point where an injured Bruce Wayne finally returns as Batman for a police chase, a door next to the screen opened. A man walked into the theater, and started shooting.
Movie theaters didn’t feel safe anymore.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve given arbitrary value to some walls, a giant piece of plastic, strips of celluloid and a concession stand. That might be true, because the movies have always been a deeply personal comfort. When I first found out I was gay, or, more accurately, admitted it to myself, one of the first things I did was go and see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Not a perfect movie, but a perfect escape.
Immersed in Middle Earth for those two and a half hours, I didn’t think about what it would be like going through life differently from my friends and family, in a place where (at the time) I couldn’t legally marry, and where (in my state) it was still legal to deny me service or the adoption of a child because of my sexual orientation. For those two and a half hours, I just thought about a particularly officious Hobbit, some obnoxious dwarves and a familiar wizard.
Still, this was mere months after Aurora. Before the lights went out and I chowed down on buttery popcorn, I checked the exits and made a plan, just in case. I’ve done that at the movies ever since. The theater, while still offering escape beneath the flickering beams of a projector, had become somewhere to look over my shoulder every once in a while. It wasn’t too scary, because I’d gotten used to it. For the most part, so did everyone else. Like with schools and airplanes, American culture warped around the threat to movie theaters, and soldiered on.
Despite the subliminal fear, my imagination remained wide open. I accepted whatever appeared on the screen, even a CGI creature named Smeagol, as emotional fact. By doing so, though, wasn’t I making myself vulnerable? Is that why someone can’t yell “fire” in a movie theater, because everyone, their disbelief suspended, would believe them?
That was my attempt to explain why I drove almost 100 miles and donned a face shield, N95 mask, gloves and plastic poncho to see “Tenet” in a movie theatre.
The state government has shuttered cinemas across most of Michigan since March. For good reason, too. Yet part of me thought that, as a movie critic, I needed to capture what going to the movies looked and felt like during the coronavirus pandemic. More honestly, I was scared. I have been, constantly, since March. Throughout my life, whenever things have scared me, I have seen a movie. After the past six months, I desperately craved the escape that only the cinema gave me.
“Tenet,” directed by Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”) and starring John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”), has been the most anticipated film of 2020. The teasers promised a mind-bending thriller that would take my mind off the virus, November’s election and the University’s terrible reopening plans. It seemed perfect.
When I entered the Findley AMC 12, the lobby was empty. Caution tape hung limp over arcade machines that once flashed bright red and yellow. The concession stand was barren, blocked off by towering plastic spit shields on the counter. Two people in masks and gloves took my ticket, and pointed me to my theater. It wasn’t any better. Large swaths of the empty, opening night auditorium were roped off by yellow caution tape, like something terrible had already happened.
When I sat down, I looked for the exits and made a plan, just in case. The ads dazzled against my face shield. Smiling M&M’S appeared, and said something like “We’re so glad you’re back! Thank you!”
Just as they said this, two people entered the theater and sat on the opposite end of my row. They promptly removed their masks, and one of them, I kid you not, coughed into their popcorn. My poncho crinkled against the seat when I shivered.
Then the previews began: “007: No Time To Die,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Murder on the Nile” and “Dune.” While these trailers normally would’ve been exciting, especially that last one, it was hard to focus on the screen. It wasn’t just because my glasses kept fogging up behind my face shield; I had already decided that, until a vaccine was widely distributed, I was never doing this again.
The magic of the cinema was choked to death by the yards of caution tape and the smell of cleaning fluid that radiated from the tile beneath my feet. Its replacement was a constant, piercing anxiety. My imagination could withstand the threat of a mass shooting (I’m American, after all), but COVID-19 has stolen everything that made movie theaters so warm.
The other people in the audience, not to mention the smorgasbord of snacks, are both invitations to the virus. Even breathing feels dangerous. Seeing a movie in September 2020 feels like watching a film while the theater burns down around you. It was nearly impossible to suspend my disbelief and use my imagination, because it was already totally occupied thinking about all the horrors, microbial, economic and political, that the starkly different theaters implied.
Still, as “Tenet” began, I had hope. This was 2020’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’” I could leap into one of Christopher Nolan’s finely-crafted, riveting dreamscapes. I could, finally, forget the world for a few hours in the darkness of a movie theater.
Boy, was I wrong.
There’s a great movie buried deep within “Tenet.” But it would take a team of skilled special agents, much like those in the film, to remove it without being pulverized by the movie’s sheer excesses.
“Tenet” begins with a pulse-pounding scene that rivals even the bank heist opening of “The Dark Knight.” One isn’t entirely sure what is going on, but it doesn’t matter because the action is so riveting, propelled by wonderful cinematography and an intense score. The viewer assumes that, however confusing the opening scene is, answers will come later. They don’t.
Nolan maintains this high-speed, chaotic energy for the rest of the movie, but never bothers to slow down and explain any of it, which amplifies the worst qualities of his previous films. He is so concerned with his frantic pace, and showing off his intelligence by referencing entropy, paradoxes, inversion, nuclear science and whatever a “temporal pincer movement” is, that he forgoes almost all resolution, character development and cinematic structure. He yanks his cardboard cutout characters from hyperbolic set-piece to hyperbolic set-piece, spewing out incoherent science fiction world-building as he goes along. The first few scenes are fascinating, because you think it’s all going somewhere. But, as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, even doubling back on itself, my brain shut off.
At one point, a character tells the protagonist “Don’t try and understand it.” This seemed like a message to the viewer, meaning one of two things: This film is intentionally inexplicable, or you’re too stupid to understand this complex cinematic masterpiece.
Unfortunately, though, beneath all the pretentious scientific esoterica and (perhaps intentionally) confusing plot, “Tenet” is just a glorified, multi-million dollar episode of “Doctor Who” (so much so, that anyone who has seen the latter will probably guess some of the movie’s biggest twists). Deep down, it’s an incredibly flat science-fiction spy story shot with a drab industrial palette of greys, blacks and whites that do little to make the onslaught of plot more appealing.
On top of all this, the characters are dimensionless. When your protagonist is literally called “The Protagonist,” and that’s about the extent the viewer knows about him, it’s hard to care. Why struggle to follow the convoluted story-line when you don’t empathize with those who inhabit it?
The characters that are given a bit of personality are either enormously melodramatic, enormously problematic or both. Kenneth Branagh (“Dunkirk”), a gem of British acting, is little more than a Bond villain parody here, bad Russian accent and all. His role would’ve been better in the experienced hands of Nick Cage. The film’s only prominent women are both shot. One is needlessly terrorized and beaten, to add some appearance of depth.
Watching “Tenet” is like watching a Rolls-Royce drive, at high speed, straight into a brick wall. If the car is headed nowhere, who cares how fast it’s going, and how many times it spins around? When the credits rolled, no matter how exciting and visually inventive “Tenet” occasionally was, how bopping a soundtrack it had and how good Washington and Pattinson were, it felt like a complete waste of time.
I have no desire to see it again, even without the threat of contracting a deadly respiratory disease. It’s a waste of both talent and a potentially strong premise. A dangerous one, too. This isn’t a film worth suiting up in a plague outfit for or, God forbid, getting sick.
Yet I can’t help but feel that even if “Tenet” had been any better, this was doomed from the start. First Aurora poked some holes, and now COVID-19 has ripped the floodgates from their hinges and made going to the cinema an exercise in sheer terror. To find true joyful escape within a film, you need to at least feel like there is no direct and present danger to your life.
What happens when it’s not just airplanes, classrooms or movie theaters that aren’t safe from brutal, inexplicable tragedy? What happens when nowhere is? Where do you escape to when it’s the entire world that’s on fire?
I don’t have any answers. America has been steaming toward chaos for years now, and the cinema is just another casualty. Those previews keep gnawing at me, though. Who’s to say that “No Time To Die,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Murder on The Nile” or, God help us, “Dune” will be any better than “Tenet?”
Can you justify risking people’s lives for an almost certainly futile attempt at finding escape through the silver screen? The studios see everything in shades of green, so their answer is obvious. Our patronage shouldn’t be. The days of refuge at the cinema are, if not over, at least on an indefinite hiatus. Wait for a vaccine.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.