On ‘Tenet,’ ‘Fury Road’ and the end of blockbusters

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tenet came out on DVD Dec. 15, 2020, three months and change after its long-delayed theatrical release over Labor Day weekend. It’s still playing in 70 theaters as this is being written, I’m actually of a mind to go see it again, but it had pretty much stopped making money by its eighth weekend. 

I’m used to being one of a small handful of people who sees any given film, it’s true to some extent for almost every movie I see, but I never expected that to be the case for something like Tenet, this $200 million monster with the advertising campaign that lasted more than a year in an age where movies are often cycling completely, from first trailer to release to home media release, within less than a year’s time.

There’s no way to know for certain how much it would have made in a COVID-free world, but my guess is about $350 million domestic at a bare minimum – that’s Inception’s domestic gross of $292.6 million in 2010 adjusted for inflation and rounded up. It would probably be closer to $400, maybe $450 million. In the world that we do live in, Tenet barely made $350 million worldwide, and its domestic gross stands at just a hair under $58 million. That’s around 15% of my estimated minimum, and I think that sounds about right. 

A $58 million domestic performance would be good for 48th place on the 2019 chart, right in between Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a failed and quickly forgotten attempt to capitalize on the old children’s property, and Escape Room, a cheap early January thriller playing off the teambuilding craze. That’s the scale of cultural event that Tenet’s theatrical performance indicates. 

***

Mad Max: Fury Road is five years old now – five and a half, it’ll be six in May. When it rocked the moviegoing world in 2015, taking all the air out of an Avengers movie and sweeping the technical awards at the next Oscars but also barely making back the massive budget it took to build all those cars, no one was really sure how much of an impact it would ultimately make. It was clearly a dying breed of film, a throwback to the type of audacious spectacle that simply hadn’t been coming to theaters for decades, and it was also clearly a dangerous, labor-intensive process that didn’t really make money hand over fist. Five years later, with the release of Tenet, I think that legacy is finally coming into focus. 

There’s a very clear artistic throughline from Fury Road to 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout to Tenet. Once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence and three times is an attack, and “attack” is a good description of what these three movies have done to action cinema. 

One of many things that made Fury Road such a sensation is its absolutely gorgeous story structure. This film is so tightly grounded to basic story structure, its examples of foundational plot elements are so clear, that it isn’t just a textbook example – it’s an example that should replace textbooks. You don’t need a screenwriting course or a mythology degree to write good stories, you can just watch Mad Max: Fury Road.

Fury Road tells its story so gracefully that viewers often complained it didn’t have a story at all. The dialogue is so sparse that there’s a whole genre of moviegoer who missed the urgent story about dehumanization under patriarchy and capitalism. At the time, it distinctly reminded me of 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite, this story about evil as a power structure, that left many viewers saying they didn’t get it because “the rich family didn’t do anything wrong.” 

Fury Road and Parasite are also, of course, black-and-white bros.

The lack of screentime spent on Fury Road’s surface-level narrative deceptively hides the amount of time spent on coming up with how to communicate it so effortlessly, its every shot and word perfectly crafted to convey as much information in as little time as possible. It is this story, told so deftly as to be barley there, and not the gaudy practical stuntwork – well, the gaudy practical stuntwork too – that is Fury Road’s legacy. 

Fallout, which was compared to Fury Road when it released, follows the same mindset to nearly the same extremity – it barely even had a script – but Tenet takes this idea of a bare-bones story and plays with it in ways that feel joyously deliberate.

It’s almost more of a symphony than a movie, and in fact it starts with a symphony-

This cold open is actually a wonderful primer for the rest of the film. There are at least five different military forces – the CIA, the Kiev police they impersonate, at least one agent of Tenet, the terrorists and Sator’s counterintelligence team, which could be united but appear to be two separate organizations – all running around this opera house, apparently oblivious to each other. They’re aware that other people are there shooting at them, but they seem to have little regard for stopping each other or countering each other strategically, everyone’s just madly dashing to their own finish lines as bullets whiz past from some direction or another. This is what we’ll see moving forward, with multiple agencies and multiple versions of the same agency – inverted and conventional – all running around the same combat zone in many scenes.

The movie even opens with the sounds of the orchestra warming their strings up over the new Warner Bros. logo. A lot of people complained about the dialogue being unintelligible at times, but that’s part of the point, and there are several moments where it becomes clear that’s the point – the sting of strings when Neil (Robert Pattinson) introduces himself, the dubstep blasts that reinforce Andrei Sator’s (Kenneth Branagh) “vengeful bitch,” the very clear moment during the montage planning the freeport heist where the music rises to drown out the details of the plan. 

It may not seem like a lot of information is being conveyed, but it’s a cipher to the rest of the film, a scene that ends up being deeply connected to the main plot and one that still gets a lot of personality into its details – the poetic “We live in a twilight world” countersign, the protagonist’s urgency and hostility, that blood-pumping soundtrack that weaves it all together. 

The film goes so far as to label characters with their mechanical names. Bad guys, whose agencies are mostly unknown and don’t matter, are designated “antagonists.” The lead character is simply referred to as the protagonist, and he has more than one argument over whether or not he’s one of many. He has few personality traits written into him at the script level, a hollow shell that actor John David Washington fills in a way that dominates the barely-there narrative – Tenet is a movie that feels almost feral at times, like it’s about to jump out of the screen and bite you, and that’s almost entirely because Washington personally seems like he’s about to jump out of the screen and bite you. 

But the protagonist isn’t simply the good guy, he is very specifically this film’s protagonist, the perspective character through whom we learn about the world of the film. Tenet hinges on the strange fantasy physics of inversion and is much more interested in exploring this concept in action than it is in having any kind of plot. We learn as the protagonist learns and he learns exactly as much as we need to learn when we need to learn it – “don’t try to understand it [inversion], just feel it” – and the story is ultimately about the job he does of learning about and mastering the film world. Tenet ends with him defiantly declaring “I am the protagonist,” and manages to make that a weighty and powerful thing for him to say. 

The other thing Tenet and Fallout have in common with Fury Road is the extreme emphasis on doing the stunts for real – writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan famously bought the production its own Boeing 747 to crash because that was actually the cheapest way to do the scene they were planning, and because hey, when people go to the movies, they want to see things for real.

But I’m not sure anymore that’s true. 

It’s not just that people didn’t come out in droves to see Tenet – there’s a plague on, what are you going to do? – and it’s not just that they didn’t turn out in droves for Fury Road, it’s that viewers seem perfectly satisfied with the sloppy greenscreen that typifies Marvel movies and other Disney properties. It’s that both Disney and now Warner Bros. seem to have thrown in the towel with regard to making movies in the first place. 

Throughout the history of cinema, movies have met the challenge of expanding home media by operating at a scale that TV couldn’t possibly replicate – this is where we get astonishing productions like Ben Hurr, technological marvels like Jurassic Park and masterpieces rooted in the boundaries of cinema like The Godfather. But now, the biggest film distributor in history and its most eager competitor have decided that they can’t beat home media and may as well join them

When Fury Road came out, we said “they don’t make movies like this anymore,” and they’ve made a couple since, but now, they’re really not going to be making movies like that anymore. The business factors that drive that sort of audacious production, the mid-level spectacles that enable directors to dream at that scale in the first place, are dying and in many ways have already been dead for some time now. Filmmakers, and Nolan in particular, aren’t taking it lying down – we’ll see if they can find a way to bring their dreams to the screen again. 

***

Mad Max: Fury Road released on DVD Sept. 1, 2015, but I’ve still never seen it on the small screen. I’ve actually seen it in theaters three times since then in special re-releases. Fallout has been streaming on Amazon Prime for some time now, but I haven’t seen that on the small screen either. I went out and saw Tenet in theaters days after its home media release out of spite as much as anything else, and I don’t know if I’ll ever buy a DVD of it. I have no inclination to see these things outside the flattening darkness and crushing sound of a theater. Almost all movies are, eventually, the same at home, but I just know these won’t be. 

It’s been a privilege to know what it’s like to be in a theater with Tenet, a rarer experience than anyone ever intended and a memory that at this point I hold as a personal responsibility to carry. 

And it may well be the last of its kind. 

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