Inception Is Why We’ll Wait for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

An examination of the auteur's attempt to blaze a trail during uncertain times

Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Blockbuster Month is celebrating the true titans of the genre. All month long, you’ll read through a variety of features digging deep into the greatest hits of Hollywood, from popcorn classics to underrated gems. Today, Sam Mwakasisi delves into the daunting challenges Christopher Nolan and his potentially game-changing new film, Tenet, face in these uncertain times.

Every era in film comes with its own technological advancements, but it takes that perfect note to unify the tools of the times. Amidst the ensuing pandemic, and its share of indefinite delays, hope for a solid note is thinning, not least with the filmmaker who has been central to the conversation for the past decade.

On July 16, 2010, exactly 10 years ago yesterday, Christopher Nolan unleashed Inception into theaters, galvanizing his already meteoric rise into the upper echelon of modern auteurship. And if not for the delays, today would’ve seen the release of that auteurship’s culmination in the much-anticipated and much-delayed spy thriller, Tenet.

Self-proclaimed to be his most ambitious work to date — although, now it’s become his most enigmatic (Warner Bros. most recently announced a very doubtful August 12th release) — Nolan has been adamantly pushing for a theatrical rollout in the hopes of benefiting domestic cinemas. And with each delay, the hype continues to reach deafening levels.

Instead, we now find ourselves in between looking back on the film that solidified Nolan’s original creativity as the fuel of box office gold, and looking forward to a film that’s seen recent memory’s highest questioning — and perhaps highest necessitation — of that fuel to strike a note for the future’s film industry.

We all know what kind of impact a Nolan film can have: The endless debates over that spinning top. The overrun glut of “[X]-ception” memes. The long years of seeing big-budget trailers treat Zack Hemsey’s iconic horn blare like copied homework. If the public interest didn’t lie, the $800 million gross and four Oscar wins certainly didn’t; when Nolan speaks, the entire filmgoing populace listens.

The Dark Knight offered an artistic reappraisal for both comic book films and popcorn blockbusters. In further expanding upon the blockbuster’s potential by pairing it with an original IP matching the format’s magnitude, Inception was one of numerous films that stood out among the upholding of familiarity that 2010 continued, by account of sequels, spin-offs, and spotty dabblings in 3D alike.

However, there’s no denying that it made a name for itself in a truly personalized way. Nolan offered a near-perfect marriage of the most primal factors of modern science-fiction — the visual splendor that makes people come and the cerebral realism that makes people stay (and with enough strength to make up for its break from clean-cut unambiguity).

With Inception, the 2010s kicked off with a blockbuster of unprecedented scope. It set the bar for the decade’s science-fiction while also being an intimate character study within a psychological thriller within a heist thriller within a science-fiction film, turned the human mind into a stomping ground for eye-popping sequences made all the more captivating by gripping drama.

Select set-piece images — a cityscape folding over itself, a variable-gravity hallway, a kick into a bathtub — have been ingrained into the modern film psyche. The film’s industry influence wasn’t felt through a blazed trail of big-budget original films, but rather through offering an example for studios to offer green lights to other A-list passion projects.

Above all, Inception proved that if there was one man we could trust to hold the torch of an era’s creativity and amass what we’ve seen to create something we’ve never seen before, it was Christopher Nolan. He’s since marched that torch into space, back in time, and now all around the continuum of both in Tenet — and as fierce and strong as his fire is, he’s standing against a mighty tall wave.

The 2020s have undeniably kicked off with their own means of navigating developments in technology and mentality. The attention of the masses is now being fought for on streaming, VOD, and online retail platforms like iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, Apple TV and Disney+, whether their digital second life exists to offset their theatrical one, replace it entirely, or run alongside it.

Dunkirk (Warner Bros.)

Between continued enthusiasm in sharing content with the world, perhaps more enthusiasm in gauging new modes of financial returns, and an unprecedented embrace of media willing to get the word out, flexibility is the name of the game, and its maker is the new normal of perpetual uncertainty.

It’s no stretch to say that Tenet was geared to do as much (if not more) to hit a note for the 2020s as Inception did for the 2010s. Murmurs of Nolan’s staunch release plans, including a far longer run in cinemas on top of its current midweek release, have created a symbol for the times not only attention-getting for the hard-earned scale it stands on but the firm stance it takes: vowing to conserve and consolidate an artistic form most are already accepting as subject to change.

The legacy Tenet could have in store is a grey area, both artistically and logistically speaking, in regards to how it will influence the treatment of the near-future’s films. Given the numbers Nolan now attracts, the film’s reported $225 million budget needs anywhere from $450 million to $800 million to turn a comfy profit.

From what we’ve seen so far, Tenet offers no shortage of intriguing story and kickass imagery, but in an age hyper-dedicated to financial security, its ability to spin some Nolan-brand box office gold is a necessity before the bar it sets creativity-wise starts being an example and stops being an utmost risk.

Tenet Christopher Nolan First Look John David Washington Robert Pattinson trailer
Tenet (Warner Bros. Pictures)

As traditionalist as it’s shaping up to be, Tenet offers dimension to Nolan’s creativity solely through the degree of circumstance he’s willing to push through to uphold it, and while past popularity and profit ensure his independence is not unfounded, there’s an aspect of loyalty to Nolan’s brand of artistic presentation that resides beyond what it would take for him to simply cut his losses and become a bigger name joining the digital ranks.

We all know what kind of impact a Nolan film can have, and given that we’ve already seen the effect of fully realized Nolan drops, Tenet offers just as much to discuss in its perpetual inability to release — what was, contrasted with what is yet to be. In a time of wholesale rollout changes, it spends its days meticulously whittling its presentation.

By comparing and contrasting the scenes surrounding Inception and Tenet, we can come to a sense of understanding of how a poster child of cinematic ambition can find viable avenues in a rapidly changing medium. However, it’s the idiosyncratic streak of Christopher Nolan finding creativity as the fuel for cinematic formatting, and not vice versa, that makes his angle on the subject all the more exciting, yet dangerous.

At the end of it all, playing a note is one thing; we can only wait and see as to how loud it resonates, and how many will listen.


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