Off the Page – Jurassic Park

There really are very few action adventure films that hold up as well as Jurassic Park (1993).  Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster ushered in a new era in Hollywood when it came to visual effects, utilizing CGI at a level previously unseen before in the movies.  It also restarted a renewed interest in paleontological studies, as fans young and old finally got to see dinosaurs on screen that looked more real than ever before.  The movie’s plot certainly was tailor made for the cinema, but you have to go pretty far back to remember that before Jurassic Park was a hit movie it started out as a hit novel.  Jurassic Park was the original brainchild of one of the most celebrated Science Fiction authors of his time; Michael Crichton.  Crichton had already built up a long-standing relationship with Hollywood before.  His earlier work like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man were runaway best sellers that in turn were adapted into hit movies.  Crichton even dabbled into filmmaking himself, both writing and directing the original film Westworld (1973), which of course would later go on to influence the hit HBO series of the same name.  So, when he began writing what would end up being Jurassic Park, he probably had a good feeling that it would likely be made into a film right away.  In fact, Universal Pictures optioned the novel even before it was published in 1990.  It passed around to a number of filmmakers, but once it landed in the hands of Spielberg, it was just a natural fit.  Who better to trust with Crichton’s high concept vision than the guy who’s been at the forefront of so many groundbreaking effects films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985).  However, Jurassic Park would be different from those movies before and that is largely due to the themes that Crichton often worked with.

Michael Crichton was a Harvard educated medicinal scholar, earning an M.D. in 1969.  However, he never actually practiced medicine in his life, opting to pursue his writing career instead, especially after getting his first novel published while still attending school.  Despite this divergent path, Crichton still put his scientific knowledge at the forefront of his work, writing through the lens of speculative Science Fiction.  Though many of his novels feature science that either doesn’t actually exist or hadn’t been invented yet, his scientific background allowed for him to provide enough informed detail to actually convince the reader that the fictionalized science in his novels could be plausible.  And many of his predictions have remarkably proven to be close to reality since he first wrote them down.  The Andromeda Strain showed a believable scenario of how society might respond to a deadly viral outbreak that seems eerily close to today.  The Terminal Man provided a dire warning of the dangers of how computers could be used for mind control purposes.  Westworld predicted the advances in robotics, and Jurassic Park speculated on the potential consequences of genetic engineering; all things that we are seeing continually explored in science today.  Despite the usual bleakness of Crichton’s narratives, he was not a science skeptic.  He believed very much in expanding the scientific advancements that he wrote about, but he also argued that every scientific experiment must come with a fail-safe protection, just in case things go horribly wrong.  More than anything, he hated the abuses of science, and this became an over-arching theme of his work.  In particular, he used his writing to critique the science for profit motive that he often saw being abused in his time, particularly by pharmaceutical companies, entrepreneur engineers, and politicians who exploited science for their own agendas.  This in particular is what frames the narrative of Jurassic Park; a money-making venture gone horribly wrong.

“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

It’s interesting to note that Jurassic Park began not as a novel, but as a screenplay.  Crichton wrote his first draft back in 1983, with the focus of the story centered on a young grad student who creates the first living dinosaur through genetic engineering.  The breakthrough leads to investors, who devise the idea of creating a wildlife park of dinosaurs.  It’s part of Crichton’s critical eye that something as monumental as the creation of a living dinosaur would inevitably lead to the desire of exploitation for the sake of entertainment in the end.  In many ways, this early draft of what would end up being the story echoes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the one who made the scientific breakthrough being forced to confront the harsh reality of what it means to play god, and how a perversion of nature inevitably ends up destroying those who break it’s rules.  Over time, Crichton revised his story, deciding to expand upon his themes in a novel form.  In the book, the breakthrough and exploitation period has already passed, and what we find instead is a scenario of what corporatized science run amok would look like.  The Jurassic Park in question comes across as this sanitized, Disneyland like paradise, but as the novel progresses, that veneer of safety is stripped away to reveal the harsh reality that man should never have messed around with natural order.  Though the themes never changed over the time of writing the book, Crichton certainly wrote his story with a eye for adventure as well.  His book is filled with spectacular set-pieces that do lend themselves well to cinema.  There are detailed encounters with each dinosaur found on the fictional Isla Nublar, including the memorable raptor chase and the frightening encounter with the Tyrannosaurus Rex.  For the most part, these set-pieces made the translation to the big screen pretty much in tact, but what is interesting is how the move from page to screen shifted the themes of Crichton’s novel.

“Dinosaurs eat man.  Women inherit the Earth.”

One big difference between Michael Crichton’s novel of Jurassic Park  and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is the way that the characters are used.  For one thing, Spielberg streamlines the number of characters to just a select few.  A lot of the novel focuses on the scientists working behind the scenes in the bio-engineering labs where the dinosaurs are created.  In the film, much of their roles are distilled down to one character in one scene of the movie.  The character of Dr. Wu (played by B.D. Wong) is given more of a role in the novel, but in the movie he appears just to given scientific exposition for the audience, explaining exactly all we need to know about how the park was able to create dinosaurs.  In this case, it actually helps the film to streamline Crichton’s scientific details.  Spielberg knows that what the audience is waiting for is real life dinosaurs, and by giving us one scene to establish what we need to know, it helps to free up the rest of the movie’s plot just for that.  Spielberg also gave more character dimensions to different characters and even altered their fate from what was in the book.  This is particularly the case with Dr. Ian Malcolm, played memorably by Jeff Goldblum.  In a case where I think the character was altered to better reflect the actor who’s playing him, Dr. Malcolm is very different from his literary origins, where he is depicted as a rigid, intellectual scientist who actually dies early on in the book.  Perhaps when Spielberg cast the suave, eccentric Goldblum in the role, he tailored the character to be more like him.  A lot of the character’s arc in the story is actually taken from another character named Donald Gennero, who is depicted in the movie as a cowardly lawyer who gets quickly eaten by the T-Rex at the halfway point.  Gennero’s skepticism of the park is also reversed in the film, with the “blood-sucking” lawyer being all in on the plan for the park, while Malcolm is given the more cynical view.

But perhaps the most dramatic change from book to screen is the depiction of the character John Hammond.  In the book, Hammond is the epitome of Crichton’s view of corporatized science taken to it’s most extreme.  Hammond in the novel is a callous, profit driven business tycoon who created the park as nothing more than a way to earn more money.  He cares little for the dinosaurs that are grown out of his laboratories, and even less for the poor humans who are put at risk of getting eaten by the dinosaurs when they get loose.  He’s basically more P.T. Barnham than Walt Disney in this regard, seeing the park less a bold vision and more as a means to increase his own stature in the world of business.  Spielberg on the other hand leans more in the Walt Disney direction with his portrayal of John Hammond.  With his version, John Hammond is more idealistic and is not concerned about the financial viability of the park.  In his own words, he “spares no expense” in seeing his park becoming a reality.  For him the park is a source of pride, but it’s in that rosy outlook that he naively misses the flaws in his plan.  It’s a far more sympathetic version of the character, departing very far from Crichton’s version.  It also helps when the charming and jovial Sir Richard Attenborough is playing him.  And Spielberg definitely seemed to want to emphasize Hammond’s noble intentions, because cinematically it reinforces the wonder of the park’s potential.  Inevitably, Hammond’s arc in the movie is proof of Murphy’s Law imagined through this scenario, where everything that could go wrong, does go wrong, and it better illustrates the Frankenstein parallels even more.  In the book, Hammond is unredeemable, and inevitably is killed by his own creation; eaten alive by a pack of dinosaurs.  But in the movie, Hammond lives, and Spielberg leaves us with a poignant moment as Hammond looks back on a park he must now leave behind, seeing it descend into disaster.  Though Spielberg’s version of the character of John Hammond is sympathetic, the themes of Crichton’s novel still resonate, as his naivete is emblematic of the lack of foreseeing the need for a fail-safe plan to be in place.  As Ian Malcolm astutely points out to John Hammond in the film, “You spent so much time thinking about whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should.”

“If Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

From that we see the biggest departure that Spielberg makes from Crichton’s novel, and more than anything it speaks to Spielberg’s sense of how such a story should play on the silver screen.  We as the audience need to be given the sense of wonder, looking in awe at a world where dinosaurs walk the earth again.  That’s why the opening part of the movie takes a far more optimistic tone.  The movie does begin with an intense opening scene, where we do see the lethal threat that keeping dinosaurs captive can pose; in this case with one employee becoming a victim of a velociraptor.  But, after that, the movie doesn’t have it’s next moment of danger until almost the halfway mark.  Instead, we follow the characters of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who are pretty much as they are from the book, as they see the park for the first time.  And their sense of wonder translates to our sense of wonder.  With help from John Williams iconic score, we are given an amazing introduction to the dinosaurs, roaming the park peacefully in the way that I’m sure John Hammond had envisioned.  But once the movie moves into the second half, the wonder gives way to terror, as we learn the real cost of toying with nature.  By giving that contrast between the idealized vision and the risks that lie underneath, Spielberg gives the themes of Crichton’s novel more resonance.  We need to be given that exciting sense of the potential of the park, before we see the terror that can come when it all falls apart.  And that’s when the terrifying set pieces of Crichton’s novel become all the more cinematic.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex encounter in particular is a masterclass in cinematic tension building, as Spielberg builds up the reveal of the creature in an incredible way.  Utilizing the groundbreaking CGI animation from Industrial Light and Magic and full sized animatronics from the Stan Winston workshop, the T Rex is an incredibly realized creation that still holds up to this day.  And perhaps drawing from his “slow reveal” lessons from the making of Jaws (1975) Spielberg brilliantly establishes the T Rex’s arrival through something as simple as water ripples in a cup.  Though Crichton’s writing lends itself very well to the cinematic form, it’s Spielberg who made it work in such a brilliant fashion with his sense of how to make it all work on the screen.

One thing that I do think Spielberg translated perfectly in tact from Crichton’s novel is the corporatization of science within the park.  After that inspiring moment where we first see the dinosaurs, John Hammond then takes his guests to the main hub facility of the park.  There we see the sanitization of what Hammond has accomplished, presented through branding, merchandising , and state of the art presentation.  The film even has the characters watch what is essentially a propaganda piece in the form of a cartoon, which both spells out the science behind the film for the audience but also illustrates the naïve way that John Hammond is trying to market his park to a less informed public.  Spielberg definitely drew inspiration here from some attractions found in Disneyland and other parks, like the Carousel of Progress and Adventures Thru Inner Space, which also provided sanitized, propaganda messaging from their corporate sponsors like GE and Monsanto.  And though there initially is no malice behind what Hammond is trying to push through what he sees as entertainment, it nevertheless shows the way that science can often be manipulated in order to create the rosiest of outlooks to the wider public.  It’s in this part of the movie that we do see the movie reach the more cynical view of Crichton’s novel.  Though the realization and the vision behind the park is impressive, it’s once the scientists dig deeper into what’s actually going on inside the labs that they begin to see behind the corporate veneer of it all, and see it’s inherit danger.  The little details in Spielberg’s portrayal of Hammond’s compound really drive home this point, as there is a great contrast between the sweet wholesome confines of the facility and the ultimate wild reality of the park itself.  It’s especially poignant when Spielberg cuts to a stuffed animal version of a dinosaur in the gift shop right after the characters have been attacked by the real thing.  Ironically, an identical gift shop can be found today at Universal Studios right outside the Jurassic Park ride exit.  At least there the dinosaurs are not real.

“They never attack the same place twice.  They are testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically.  They remember.”

In both cases, the novel and the movie are both brilliant bodies of work, but they do take different angles on achieving the same message.  For Crichton, the perversion of science is inevitable and the consequences bear out on the people who unwisely play god without caution.  In Spielberg’s film, there is an added level of poignancy where the failure of the park becomes more of a tragedy than anything.  I think the most fascinating angle that Spielberg takes in his film is the way he portrays John Hammond.  For Crichton, he was the epitome of capitalism’s exploiting of science for all the wrong reasons.  Spielberg, on the other hand, almost in a way identifies with John Hammond, viewing him as a man wanting to create something positive for the world in an entertaining way, only to see his vision unrealized and shattered by the end.  I think that it’s why he cast a fellow film director like Attenborough in the role.  Like a lot of directors, Spielberg has had his share of disappointing failures go wrong even after embarking on them with the best intentions.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he added this element into the movie that was his follow-up to the disappointing Hook (1991).  At the same time, I hardly think that Spielberg was disrespecting the vision of Michael Crichton with his revisions.  After all, Crichton had a hand in the screenplay for this as well, taking cues from his original draft and also giving Spielberg the go ahead to make the changes that he needed, with David Keopp providing the extra material.  Whether you read the book or watch the movie, the message in the end remains the same.  We all must be wary of how we use science in near and distant future.  Science is a powerful tool that can help uplift society if used correctly, but it can also be a force for destruction if used improperly.  Basically, both Crichton and Spielberg’s ultimate intentions is for everyone to educate themselves and have a better understanding of Science in general.  Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale of unchecked Science run amok by people who should never have utilized it in the first place.  And on top of that, it is an incredibly vivid adventure that still stands the test of time, even as Science has caught us up to where it’s visions may even become a reality some day.

“Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you wanna sell it.  Well…”

Intermission – The State of the Audience Experience in Movie Theaters and Why It Matters

There is one thing that I want to extrapolate from my review of Tenet (2020) last week.  Putting the movie itself aside, there was a thing that mattered a lot to me on my experience watching the film from last week, and that was the feeling I had of just being in a movie theater again.  It’s one of those things that I realized I had just taken for granted all these years, and it made a little emotional getting the chance to go back into a theater after such a long time away.  The COVID-19 pandemic led to a months long closure of the theatrical exhibition market, and as a result for me and many other film enthusiasts around the world, this has been the longest time we’ve had separated from our favorite local theaters.  Where I live, the City of Los Angeles, theaters are still closed, but in the nearby San Diego and Orange counties, they have been allowed to reopen.  Taking this opportunity, I drove far out of town to finally regain that experience and all I can say is that there really is no substitute.  After months of either consuming films at home on Netflix or driving out to the local Drive-In’s, I can definitely say that the theatrical experience is absolutely the preferred way to go.  It’s the best way to have a distraction free connection with a movie; sitting in a four-walled room in the dark with the silver screen aglow, transporting you into it’s story.  An even better experience can be found when the theater is full of equally enthusiastic fans, all reacting to the movie in the same way, either through laughter, screams or cheers.  This has sadly been what the pandemic has taken away the most, and my hope is that as time heals the destruction of this pandemic, that we may be able to return to that shared experience again.  The only question is, are we trying to hard to bring that back right now?

Tenet had a lot of high expectations coming into the start of the year.  Christopher Nolan films are always big screen spectacles, and this was not going to be any different.  What I don’t think Nolan and Warner Brothers ever anticipated was that Tenet would be tasked with being the “great white hope” of saving the movie theater industry.  The prolonged length of this pandemic and the shutdown that it has caused in order to control the spread has led to numerous tent pole films being pushed back from their original release dates.  Many opted to wait a year, while others decided to just skip theaters entirely, moving to video on demand instead.  There was no question what Nolan wanted for his film.  A passionate defender of the theatrical experience, Nolan has insisted that Tenet be screened in theaters first, and Warner Brothers has kept to their promise.  The only question is, why do it now, at a time when the pandemic is still raging?  The movie is releasing only in markets where the theaters have been allowed to reopen, which excludes the biggest ones of New York and Los Angeles, and the theaters that are screening it are doing so with ticket sales well bellow the usual capacity, in order to not violate the health guidelines of their community.  So, despite having the highest box office total in North America since the shutdown began, Tenet’s box office returns for it’s opening weekend were well below what it normally would’ve made under different circumstances.  It’s opening was a paltry $22 million, which is Nolan’s lowest opening weekend since The Prestiege (2006) fourteen years ago, and alarmingly short of what it needs to recoup the staggering $200 million budget of the movie; Nolan’s most expensive film to date.  One has to wonder if pushing the movie back to next year could have changed the fortunes of this film.  By insisting on opening the movie in the middle of a pandemic, and seeing this expensive project fall well short of it’s potential given the circumstances, it unfortunately casts a shadow of failure upon the movie, regardless of the quality of the film itself.  In the end, Warner Brothers and Nolan may have self-inflicted a negative blight on their reputations going forward.

The movies in themselves do matter, given how much work goes into making them from so many working professionals, but at the same time, so does the safety of the people who choose to go to the movie theaters.  A lot of people are just not ready to take that risk right now.  I consider myself one of those willing to venture back to the theaters as soon as possible, but I understand the concern of those who are not ready.  The reality is, Hollywood is just going to have to deal with this for probably the rest of the year and some time after that as well, and that maybe the rest of 2020 should be blockbuster free until we can get this pandemic under control.  Unfortunately for Tenet, it has become the sacrificial canary in the coal mine telling us that it’s not time yet to have things return to normal.  Just having theaters open at all is incurring some level of risk, especially for those who are working there.  I can tell you from my experience in San Diego last week that I felt very safe in the hands of the staff at the theater I attended.  Run by the ailing theater chain AMC, the Mission Valley multiplex that I visited had an attentive, friendly and most importantly cautious staff who worked hard to make the place as clean and worry free as possible.  In each theater, there was a large amount of space separating each person in their seats, and I felt very confident in the fact that I wouldn’t be infected while watching a movie in there.  Even still, the staff at the theater is under enormous pressure to make everyone feel safe in their establishment, and every day for them now becomes a march to the front lines in combating this illness.  We don’t know at this point how much of an impact working through this pandemic will have on theater workers across the world, and my heart really goes out to them considering that I too once worked in a theater like them, albeit in much more stable and healthy times.

No doubt, the worries about what might happen in the weeks and months ahead is still giving Hollywood pause.  Tenet’s soft opening is now causing another round of delays across the industry, as more and more blockbuster are pulling out of their release dates, and moving back even more.  Wonder Woman 1984, which was supposed to have been out last June, is now on it’s third delay, releasing on Christmas Day, and even that might not even be the last of it.  We also don’t know what effect that Disney’s Mulan (2020) experiment on Disney+ may have, and if more blockbuster films are just going to abandon theaters altogether.  It may end up leading to a year without blockbuster films at the theaters.  As Tenet has shown, it’s just impossible right now for any movie to generate the kind of record-breaking box office that we saw in the last decade.  My prediction is that theaters will remain open, but for the next year, you’re only going to see smaller films released on the big screen.  While Tenet and The New Mutants are suffering from mediocre box office numbers, smaller budget films playing right now at the same time like the Russell Crowe headlined Unhinged (2020) and the period drama The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) are performing at an appropriate level reflective of their substantially lower budgets.  In fact, the movie Unhinged has reached the point now where it is turning in a small profit.  I think this is going to be the pattern for a while moving forward; lower risk films carrying the burden of helping the theaters businesses stay open, while the tent pole blockbusters wait out the storm until it’s ready to open up big again.  I don’t know if that is how it will exactly play out in the end, since major studios don’t want to sit on their expensive projects for very long, but it may have to be the necessary route in order to bring things back to normal.

I certainly want a return to normal sooner rather than later, but it simply isn’t possible right now.  What Hollywood and the theatrical industry have to do right now is follow the recommendations of the health experts and follow their guidelines.  We have thankfully reached a point where a reopening is possible now, and that theaters no longer have to keep their doors shut.    There is one thing that I remember well from my time as theater employee, and that is to always make the customer feel at home when they come to see a movie at our establishment.  It’s all about driving customers to want to return again, and that aspect of the job could not be more important right now than it has ever been.  I do see an innate desire in people towards wanting to get out of their homes and go out to the movies again, but that takes a level of trust between the theaters and the audience that is in desperate need of being reaffirmed.  From my experience, I saw a theater staff ready and happy to welcome customers back, but I don’t know what the rest of the country is seeing right now.  Movie theaters are going to be going through a lot of changes in order to reaffirm their standing in the eyes of audience members, and it will probably extend to a significant alteration in how they do business.  For the foreseeable, I believe we’re going to see a lot of cost cutting from some of the major chains, including smaller staffs, fewer showtimes, and even the permanent closures of some facilities.  In order to bring more customers back, a lot of theaters are likely going to be lowering prices on tickets and concessions, just so that they can generate any money they can.  Even if the pandemic ended tomorrow, the damage is already done on the theatrical industry, and they are going to be recuperating for a long time.  But, they have no other choice but to cater to the needs of their audience, because they are going to be what is essential to their survival in the years ahead.

I did find it interesting upon my experience how much emphasis AMC put into thanking their theater patrons on returning to their venues.  Right before the movie trailers began, the screen projected a big thank you message to all of us in the theater for returning.  It’s all marketing to be sure, but the push their trying to make is an understandable one.  AMC, above all the others, was the most vulnerable theater chain in the country during this pandemic.  Taking on massive amounts of debt just to fend off bankruptcy, as well as cutting a very one-sided deal with Universal Studios, AMC is at a make or break point where they need theaters open just to survive.  And the other chains are also dealing with their own financial liquidity problems, which likely haunt them for many years.  The one thing that could make things better for the chains going forward is an expansion of their subscriber based ticketing.  AMC was already benefiting from such a program, but had to put it on hold for all their subscribers once the shutdown started.  What could help convince subscribers to restart their monthly subscription is to incentive-ize people to rejoin.  This could be either through more perks, credits, free monthly gifts, or even a tie-in offer with a partnered company.  It’s all about convincing customers that it’s in their interest to remain a loyal subscriber.  I can see AMC and Regal trying a whole variety of ideas to help boost their numbers back up to where they were before.  Their MoviePass inspired programs were after all only a couple years into their life-span before the shutdown happened; it wouldn’t be impossible for them to get back to those numbers again in the same amount of time.  Reduced pricing of concessions may be harder to implement, because it would greatly reduce the profit margin of the theater companies who are dependent on strong concessions sales, but introducing quantitative bargains could help drive more people towards wanting to buy snacks from the theaters.  Necessity is the mother of all invention after all, and movie theaters are going to be experimenting with a lot of ideas in order to bring back their lost audiences.

A lot of things could happen in the next year in order to bring people back to the theaters, but I think that perhaps the most effective tool for bringing audiences back to the theaters will be the feeling of Nostalgia.  It’s certainly what I felt when I walked back into a theater.  We all have fond memories of watching movies in a theater, whether with family or friends, or alone with a bunch of complete strangers.  The powerful effect that movies have on us comes from the shared way we respond to them.  Sometimes the greatest entertainment that we can have in a theater is in seeing the reaction the film can have on the people who are watching it.  And it’s those reactions that in themselves become part of our nostalgia for the movies.  There’s been videos floating around the internet since the pandemic began that show the audience reaction to last year’s climatic finale to Avengers: Endgame (2019).  It’s an experience that I can recall first hand myself because it was just like the response I saw at the IMAX screening I was at.  It’s the moment when all the superheroes who were killed off by the villain Thanos in the previous film, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) return and join the Avengers on the battle field, passing through magically produced portals.  It’s one of the most amazing audience experiences I’ve ever had, with the whole audience hollering and cheering, and a few even crying, all in response to this powerful moment in the movie.  It’s one of those moments in life that you could only have with a totally engaged audience, and I’m thankful that someone has preserved that moment in a video and shared it online for everyone to relive.  It reminds us what we have been missing and what we should strive to get back, and that in itself is a powerful reminder of why we need the theatrical experience.  The response that that video has received gives me hope that we may return back to normal someday, because the desire to have that experience is still out there.  It’ll take some time, but we’ll get back there.

So, for the moment, if you are still weary of returning to the movie theaters because of fear of the pandemic still raging, I don’t blame you.  Things are certainly not back to normal yet.  But I have hope that we are getting past the worst of it, and are beginning the long climb back to where we were before.  Based on the response I hear about people hoping for the reopening of their local theaters, and the strong business I see from the local Drive-In’s in my area, there is a desire out there to go to the movies again.  It’s just going to take some time in order to return to the way it was before.  Movie theaters are in a moment of renewal, where they have to start again from scratch after a long pause.  We may see a renewed focus on the customer experience that could turn into a positive for the industry going down the road, but we’ll also see a significant downturn in the market reach that they once had.  At the same time, Hollywood is going to have to consider what is in the best interest of their biggest movies in the years ahead.  Clearly putting Tenet out there as a test run did not generate the desired effect, and it may have even unfortunately tarnished the track record of one of the industry’s most celebrated filmmakers.  I’d say it would be best to just put the rest of 2020 on hold when it comes to the big tent-pole films.  It would be better to have the smaller movies carry the load for a while.  It is Awards season after all, and it’s the moment where low risk, critically acclaimed films can take this opportunity to shine, without making it look like they are putting the audience at risk.  That’s ultimately what is going to ensure the survival of the industry after all, the level of trust between the filmmakers, the theaters, and the audience.  The pandemic has disrupted the happy medium between all parties, but out of that disruption, we could see a renewed effort to make the theatrical experience better as a whole.  People want to go out to see movies; that’s apparent now.  It’s just about making it so that audiences don’t have to feel that there is a risk involved in doing so.  Things are bad right now, but this too will pass, and it’s up to us to hold Hollywood and the movie theaters accountable for taking the right measures in welcoming us back in a way that is not reckless.  No matter what, I will always choose movie theaters first when it comes to the cinematic experience, and I want it to come back in a way that ensures that it will have a bright and prosperous future.

Tenet – Review

The Summer season of 2020 came and went, and for the first time in a century, movie theaters remained silent.  There have been a few individual theaters open here and there across the country where the COVID-19 pandemic has been less virulent, but for the major chains across the country, it has been anything but a normal year for them.  With the major studios either moving all their major tent-poles to next year or dropping them off onto streaming services, there has been no reason for the theaters to reopen and return to normal business.  The next year or so is going to be a long, slow return to normalcy for the theater industry, and the feats they had to go through over this Summer just to keep themselves afloat may have made the marker for normalcy far different from what it used to be.  At this point, we don’t know where the end game of all of this will land, and that is making everyone worried.  Hollywood is facing it’s most existential crisis since the advent of television, and they are being increasingly confronted with the hard choice of what they must do in order to survive this pandemic year.  Do they sacrifice the theatrical market in order to secure financial stability for the year ahead, or do they assist the theatrical market with new releases, at the risk of receiving less than normal returns.  After a Summer that made it impossible to do any business normally in the movie theaters, Hollywood is now trying some new experiments with their upcoming releases.  As we head into Labor Day weekend, two of the year’s biggest new films are making their debut, but with entirely different roll outs.  Disney’s long delayed Mulan (2020) is skipping a theatrical release in favor of a premium streaming debut on Disney+.  At the same time, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which was originally set for mid-July, is also coming out this weekend, but exclusively on the big screen, and only in areas of the country where it is allowed.  Whoever prevails out of these experiments may in fact be the one that ultimately determines the future of movie theaters as we know it.

For the movie Tenet, it’s clear that a theatrical premiere was the only logical choice for it’s debut.  Christopher Nolan has built his reputation as a filmmaker on being the master of grandiose, cinematic spectacles that can only be fully appreciated on a big screen.  Ever since The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan has utilized the large format IMAX process as his favorite cinematic tool.  With every new movie he makes, he has incorporated more and more scenes shot with those very big and very expensive cameras.  Nearly 80% of his last feature in fact, the World War II epic Dunkirk (2017), had been filmed in IMAX.  So, even considering taking his newest film Tenet, which purportedly is his first entirely IMAX movie, and dumping it off on Warner Brothers’ new streamer, HBO Max, would be sacrilege to both Nolan and his fan-base.  So, a theatrical run of this movie needed to happen at some point.  The only question is, why now?  Why put this movie out while the country has yet to clear itself of this pandemic.  I understand wanting to assist the struggling theatrical industry, but with social distancing protocols still in place in theaters across the world, theaters aren’t exactly going to be a full house for quite a while.  Universal, Sony, and Paramount all moved their big tent-poles to next Summer, while Disney opted to push everything they could to November and December.  For some reason, Warner Brothers’ is making a gamble here, and they are betting high on Nolan to help bail them and the theatrical industry out.  The only question is, will Tenet indeed be that movie that will save the theatrical experience?  Can Christopher Nolan deliver a spectacle that lives up to it’s important status, or will it have proved that we were far from ready from returning back to normal?

Tenet, probably more than any other movie in the director’s oeuvre, plays around with Nolan’s fascination with the element of Time.  A reoccurring trope in all of his movies, the flow of time and it’s many different branches of theory, is clearly something that Nolan loves to explore in his stories.  Whether it’s in the nonlinear way he can tell a chronological story, like with Memento (2000) and Dunkirk, or the way he can manipulate time as a plot device, like in Inception (2010) or Interstellar (2014), he’s always looked at the flow of time as an interesting cinematic device.  Tenet places time front and center within it’s narrative, but adds a new flavor to Nolan’s use of the gimmick; inversion.  The movie follows an unnamed, highly-trained mercenary known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who finds himself recruited into a secret underworld squad of spies tasked with stopping a world-ending event that is making use of inverted technology.  He learns that objects are being transported from the future to the past through a process of Inversion; meaning that they are moving backwards in time while everything else in moving forward.  A Russian crime lord named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is the one smuggling all the future objects and has intentions of using them to create a nuclear bomb.  The Protagonist embarks on his mission towards stopping Sator’s plot by infiltrating his organization through a relationship with Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Dibicki).  Along the way, The Protagonist also receives assistance from a resourceful but mysterious British operative named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who helps him uncover the heart of Sator’s organization, as well as the technology he’s using to actually created the Inversion effect on both objects, and people.  With time literally in the balance, can the Protagonist manage to stop Sator from enacting his evil plan, and can he also end up making sense of what which way through time is the right course.

For me personally, just being able to see this movie was an adventure in itself.  I am un-apologetically an ardent fan of Christopher Nolan’s work; especially with not one but two of his movies making my best of the 2010’s list right hereInception and Dunkirk respectively.  I have been eagerly anticipating Tenet ever since it was announced back in 2018, and was hoping that it would continue his track record of success.  When the pandemic began closing theaters, my hope was that things would get back to normal sooner rather than later, so that Tenet could still premiere on time.  With every new push back of the date, it became clear that this was just wishful thinking.  Now, some theaters are beginning to reopen, and Tenet is the movie being touted as the first big blockbuster to usher in this return to business.  Unfortunately, movie theaters are still not ready to reopen in all parts of the country where hot spots still exist, and sadly, I just happen to live in one of those hot spots.  Movie theaters in the Los Angeles metro area are still closed as of this writing, which made me worry that I would be having to wait weeks and maybe even months before I could see this movie while the rest of the country had already had their opportunity.  But, there has been a silver lining, which is that although LA remains a hot spot, it’s neighboring metropolis to the south, San Diego, is in the process of reopening, including it’s many movie theaters.  For some film enthusiasts, there is a limit to how far one will travel in order to see a movie, and for me, a 130 mile drive falls under that ceiling.  I decided that it was worth the long trip and I made my way down to sunny San Diego just so I could finally see Tenet at the same time that most of the rest of the country was.  So, did it live up to my lofty expectations and justify the long road trip that I took.  Well, yes and no.

I will say that my overall reaction to the movie is a positive one.  I would say that I don’t feel like I wasted my time and effort to travel down to  San Diego just to watch this movie.  At the same time, I do acknowledge that as far as movies within Christopher Nolan’s filmography go, I would’ve felt more satisfied with the risks if it had been for Inception, The Dark Knight, or DunkirkTenet is a massive spectacle that certainly needs to be experienced on the big screen to be fully appreciated.  At the same time, it also is probably the flimsiest story that Nolan has ever constructed for any of his movies.  Tenet is very plot heavy, and as a result, it has to rely upon excessive amounts of exposition just to make everything make sense for the viewer.  In the process, it sacrifices other important narrative elements like character development and emotional resonance.  It’s like Nolan spent so much time trying to make all the pieces of his intricate puzzle of a movie fall into place in a way that made sense while writing the screenplay that he forgot to add all the other important things that should belong in the story.  As a result, there is a bit of coldness to the story that may alienate the film from some viewers.  But, that being said, what Nolan lacks in emotional resonance he makes up for in daring visual extravagance.  Sometimes he has fallen in the trap of doing the exact opposite and relying too heavily on emotion to carry the story.  That’s why I liked Tenet over Interstellar for example.  Nolan injected too much emotion into that story to the point where it became sappy and inauthentic, despite delivering some incredible visual complexity at the same time.  Tenet is cold, but it’s also a thrilling adrenaline rush that kept me engaged all the way through.  It does pick up in the second half of the movie, where all the pieces do come into place and things start to make more sense.  But, I can see the slow burn of the first half as a being a make or break point for many viewers, and Tenet will likely be the most polarizing film he’s made to date.

One thing that helped me get through some of the more lackluster parts of the movie was in recognizing what Nolan was actually trying to accomplish with this movie.  Though Nolan is working with some very heavy, philosophical themes and out-of-this-world concepts, he’s also making what is essentially a very standard genre film too.  In particular, he’s making an espionage thriller, bearing the marks of a lot of tropes within the genre.  There is a very not so uncanny resemblance between Tenet and the likes of films from the James Bond franchise; much less a parody as a homage of sorts.  If you’re going to borrow inspiration, borrow from the gold standard I say.  Tenet has all the makings of a Bond film, but through Nolan’s unique vision.  As a result, I was able to go along with the movie in it’s more languid first act, because I anticipated that it was all going to lead to something pretty grand by the end, which it did.  And Nolan certainly makes his movies with an eye for what will look best through the lenses of the IMAX cameras.  Whether it something on a grand scale like a 747 airplane crashing into a storage warehouse, or something more intimate like a hallway fight scene between two characters, one moving through inverted time, he captures it with an incredible cinematic flair that is unparalleled in Hollywood.  And like the Bond movies he’s emulating, Nolan also does some incredible globe-trotting photography for his many locations.  The way that he crafted the inverted time environments are also pretty incredible, especially considering that much of it was done with very little digital touch-up.  Once the characters do enter inverted time, it does take the movie into surreal territory, which changes the whole dynamic of the movie in a positive way from it’s more straightforward set-up.  Working again with with the same cinematographer of Interstellar and Dunkirk (Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan has managed to craft a movie that still feels akin to his previous work, but also unique enough in it’s own right to stand out.

Another great thing about the movie is just how solid the cast is.  Albeit, their characters are written as pretty flimsy compared to those from other Nolan films, but the cast makes up for that with strong, engaging performances.  In particular, John David Washington carries the weight of the movie perfectly on his shoulders.  His character is such a blank slate on the script that Nolan didn’t even bother to give him a name, just merely calling him the Protagonist.  And yet, Washington stands out by giving a wonderfully charismatic performance.  He can be charming, authoritative, and even vulnerable throughout the film, and I get the feeling that Nolan left much of the development of the character up to the interpretation of the actor who plays him, and thankfully Washington brought a lot of talent into the role.  He’s also supported very well by Robert Pattinson in another departure for the heartthrob actor.  Pattinson’s performance feels like a throwback to the roles once played by Peter O’Toole, Robert Harris, or loyal Nolan stand-by Michael Caine (who cameos in Tenet) in the old espionage thrillers of the 1960’s, and he too does stand out as much more likable than he might have been originally written.  Kenneth Branagh gives the movie it’s most over the top performance as a growling, Russian thug, but this too feels at home in a movie like this, and he makes for an effective antagonist to John David Washington’s Protagonist.  There’s also solid work coming from Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Himesh Patel in their supporting roles.  What I also found rewarding was the pulse-pounding musical score for this film, which in itself marks a departure for Christopher Nolan.  For the first time in nearly 20 years, Nolan is working without his frequent composer Hans Zimmer, who actually turned this down to work on Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune (2020) instead.  So, in his place, Nolan turned to Ludwig Goransson; famous for his Oscar-winning score to Black Panther (2018).  And Goransson actually proved to be capable of filling Zimmer’s big shoes, and create a musical symphony that matches Nolan’s bold vision perfectly.

It may not be among my favorite of Christopher Nolan’s films, but a B-grade Nolan movie is still far better than most other movies out there.  Nolan may have become a victim of his own success, in that he has to hit one out of the park every time in order to maintain his reputation in Hollywood.  That’s why I think that many may end up being disappointed by Tenet.  It finds the director at his most uneven, particularly at the script level.  And yet at the same time, you can’t also say that he’s lost his touch when it comes to crafting mind-blowing scale within his movies either.  Though it may lack some narrative punch, Tenet may also be the director’s most ambitious movie to date, which is saying a lot.  He really is pushing the envelope in a way you see from few directors in the business, and I am happy to see that he’s continuing to build his artistic vision around more and more original concepts.  He’s working within a familiar genre, yes, but doing so in a way that you’ve never seen before.  Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever seen a movie that utilizes the different flows of time the same way we see here.  I think that Tenet is going to see a lot of repeat viewing from people wanting to see all the things they missed the first time around.  That could be the key to Tenet finding success on the big screen, but that’ll all depend on the kind of access audiences will have to endure during this ongoing pandemic.  For me, I may not have understood all of it, and may have found some of the movie lacking in certain aspects, but I am glad that I managed to see it at all, and in a movie theater setting no less.  Part of my enjoyment certainly came from being able to sit in a theater seat again, after having missed out on it for 6 months.  There really is no replacement for the theatrical experience, and I hope that it comes roaring back soon.  I would absolutely go see this movie again, if it were closer to home.  Hopefully I can see it in the even better 70mm IMAX format when it comes to LA finally.  When that happens, or if you are already near an open theater, obey the guidelines and wear a mask.  Tenet is flawed, but it is still an enjoyable ride nonetheless, and a great reminder of why we need to keep the theatrical experience going.

Rating: 8.5/10