For the aggravating price of $19.99, you can now buy Christopher Nolan’s Tenet — the cerebral action-thriller that was supposed to save movie theaters this summer — and watch it on your own piece-of-shit TV. (Speaking only for the quality of my home entertainment setup here.) It’s not how most in the industry wanted this to go down, and Nolan in particular is concerned that major streaming deals will kill the cinematic experience once and for all. He directs “big” films; they’re supposed to overwhelm you with towering images and thunderous, pulsing sound.
I can only guess as to whether Tenet would have wowed me in IMAX as it failed to at home, but minimizing the brawny blockbuster did open my eyes to Nolan’s true calling as a director. Some say he’s obsessed with exploring the nature of time, how it dilates and compresses, how we measure it versus how it shapes us. Tenet continues this theme with a plot that hinges on “inverted entropy,” or a mechanism by which time seems to flow backwards. But who cares. What Nolan really wanted to do here was altogether more direct: Showcase some giant boats.
Once you notice this, you see it all over Nolan’s résumé. The climax of The Dark Knight saw Heath Ledger’s Joker pose a moral conundrum to the passengers on two commuter ferries — each group had the choice of whether to blow up the other, and if neither did, everyone would die. Dunkirk, of course, is almost entirely boat-based, portraying a naval evacuation and battle in World War II. Interstellar? What is a spaceship if not a boat upon the vast ocean of the universe? When Al Pacino first confronts Robin Williams in Insomnia, you’d better believe they’re on a boat. And there’s no question that Tenet is the most boat-tacular thing he’s made so far — luxury yachts, sailboats, speedboats, Coast Guard watercraft, shipping barges. The works.
Isn’t it adorable? Christopher loves his beefy boats. The absolute units of the sea. Look, that one’s going backwards! How does he do it! If a character gets knocked out or something, don’t worry — they’re gonna wake up on a new boat, that’s all. All the pretentious sci-fi hokum Nolan throws at you isn’t so intimidating when you realize he’s the middle-aged Hollywood auteur version of a toddler playing with Tonka Trucks. And while he’s happy to blow up planes and cars in Tenet, the boats come through without a scratch. They’re simply too precious to him.
Point is, if your favorite parts of wealth porn like Succession and Billions is when people get to backstabbing on the kind of massive pleasure vessel that only the corrupt and egomaniacal would own, anchored with Mediterranean cliffs in the background, you are the target audience for Tenet. Not the nerds who want to figure out the time gimmick. Boats over everything.
If the film business survives to give Nolan another $200 million budget, I bet you anything he goes for broke and delivers his long-rumored passion project: a movie in which the boats are the characters. Visionary, mind-bending stuff, and just the creative shakeup the medium needs. Either that or he takes over on the reboot of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Sail away, Christopher.